Farley’s Frankfurt Confidential
The Frankfurt Book Fair starts next week and I’m nearly finalized with preparations. An author recently asked me to explain what the Book Fair was like and I realized it wasn’t so easy to encapsulate. At its most basic, it’s an international rights bazaar in which agents and editors from all over the world sit in intensive 30 minute meetings over several days and decide which books they want to license for their territory. As an agent, I’m there to sell, and my primary goal is to market the books we’ve sold in the US for which we have retained translation rights into as many territories as possible. If we haven’t kept translation rights then that means it’s the publishers job to market them internationally, and there’s an entire air hanger-sized hall full of them (and that’s just English language publishers) furiously reviewing rights lists with potential licensees.
In fact there are about eight air-hanger sized halls at the fair, each housing publishers of certain languages, with the Italians on the first floor, say, and Spanish language publishers on the next floor up. They’re not that close together these halls, and they’re housed together in a complex called the Messe. Thousands of people are always streaming to and from them, walking or crammed into buses, going up and down escalators, and crowding the hallways inside to talk, gawk and meet. Publishers set themselves up in elaborate or simple booths, the way any trade show would be, and they prominently feature the amazing variety of book covers to the books and authors their companies are so well known for. To wander around these halls is to realize the unfathomable number of books and bookstores, writers and readers there are around the world. It’s at once a dizzying and comforting thought to reckon with.
Agents meet in what’s called the rights center, on a floor in one of the halls with little more than desks and chairs to meet over, and that’s really all we need. I have fifty meetings scheduled, over a three and a half days, and I’ll carefully review the catalog of our books with our foreign subagents and publishers from countries around the world. Sometimes I think fifty meetings seems like a lot, though I know many people do a lot more. Still, it’s an exhaustingly repetitive process, pitching and pitching the same books over and over again. And it’s a process that yields far more no’s than yeses. But it’s a process that’s leavened by irregular encounters with friendly and familiar faces, bursts of unexpected enthusiasm from a sleeper title on your list, and the most exciting and downright old-fashioned phenomena I can imagine: an offer for a book relayed to you in person. The good always outweighs the bad.
Over the course of the fair, and all those meetings, it’s easy to forget how easy it is to forget the things you talk about with your appointments so I have to keep careful and legible notes or I’ll be kicking myself when I follow up. The only notes I keep are requests to see material, as opposed to rejections, and when I get back to my desk I begin to send out manuscripts or books to the people who’ve requested them. In recent years it’s almost become preferable to get material by email, so that makes it a lot simpler (and cheaper) to provide materials. It’s not often the case that I’ll hear if a foreign publisher has rejected a project. But should they want to bid for the rights our subagent will relay an offer. This can take weeks and months after the fair and offers range in all sizes. But even small offers add up and make the hard work worth it.
In spite of the hard work involved, I realize that we’re very lucky to have this fair, and to have a market that’s so interested in American authors. While there are notable exceptions, it’s very rare to see books (and especially nonfiction) come the other way, and be translated into English and published by US publishers. Demand from different countries ebbs and flows, with some being more acquisitive of our titles than others depending on the year, international relations, pop culture trends, or who knows what. But I always have confidence that I’ll come away from these meetings with strong and widespread interest in our books and the probability that I’ll get to relay the exciting news to a client that we’ve been able to secure them a foreign deal.
But don’t take my word for it. If you want to really know what’s it like to go to the book fair I recommend an article some months ago by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in Harper’s magazine. He hits the nail on the head.
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