Frankfurt Book Fair

Every October, the publishing world goes mad. Everyone who has anything to do with Rights packs their bags and heads to Frankfurt for five days of lunacy. The Book Fair has been the Mecca of publishing deals for many centuries, and I read somewhere that it pre-dates the discovery of the Americas. It’s BIG. You might think, as a writer, this should be the first place to go to try and hawk your unsold novel, meet agents and editors, and generally network with the big guns of the trade; but you’d be very wrong. The last people anyone wants to see at Frankfurt are the writers themselves – unless you’re Günter Grass or someone else with a special invitation. The only reason I ever went – twice – was because I happened to live in Germany, not far from Frankfurt, and it was a convenient place to meet my agents.

That year, 1998, I didn’t go, so we’ll fast forward to 2002. My second novel was out and my third written; my foreign rights agent had it on her list. I also had a meeting planned with my French editor, and an invitation to the big Random House party; Bertelsman, my German publisher, had bought random House and changed its name to that.

(Now, all this might sound like big, important stuff going on in my life but wait till you catch up with the rest of the story before jumping to conclusions. By this time I was on a bough slowly bowing down to earth. But we’ll get to that later, Let’s stay in Frankfurt.)

The Frankfurt Book Fair is also physically huge. If you do ever go, be sure to take some flat, comfortable shoes because you’ll have a lot of walking to do. The complex consists of eleven buildings or Halls, containing multiple floors of trade fair space, each floor big enough to host a convention in itself. If you know what a WorldCon is like, multiply that book-selling space by about twenty, and you’ll start to get a sense of scale. Each country has an area to itself, and within that area each publisher of that country has a stand. This year (2006) there were an estimated 500,000 titles on offer at the fair, and over the five days 300,000 people came through the gates.

For the first three days, the fair is open only to book trade professionals, and it’s already a rabbit-warren of humanity. On Saturday and Sunday, the general public can buy tickets, and the hallways and display areas are shoulder-to-shoulder. I had a permit to enter during the trade days, so I got a glimpse of what goes on then.

The agents hang out mostly in the Agent Centre, and you have to get a special permit to go in there – I suppose they’re afraid of writers with manuscripts under their arms storming the door! What I found in the Agent Centre were lots of little tables with two or three people sitting at each table. That’s where I had my talk with my Foreign Rights agent and my French editor. For the agents themselves, it’s a bit like speed dating. They have tightly scheduled appointments set up with editors, and with that period of time they have to convince the editors to buy, buy, buy. It’s a bit like speed dating; no “doing lunch” goes on here!

I was quite excited about the Random House party. It took place in one of the big hotels, and I looked forward to meeting my German editor and some of the other people from her department, and maybe some other writers as well! However…
What I found was a huge posh room filled with people, all of whom knew each other and had obviously not met for ages because they were all standing in huddles and te;;ing each other very important things, and nobody even glanced at me. I walked all the way around the room and crossed through the middle once or twice, looking for Silvia, my edior, but didn’t see her. What was I to do, stand there with a glass of champagne and expect them all to cone? Not me. I took my glass and found a slightly raised area at one end of the room, where a few empty tables stood. I sat down at one of these tables and watched. Maybe I’d spot Silvia from here.

After a while, another lady came and sat at another table. I don’t know who caught whose eye first, but we ended up at the same table. She was American, in Frankfurt for the first time, and, like me, she didn’t know anybody here and, like me, was feeling lost. We started chatting; she gave me her card. She was from Los Angeles; a producer with Sony Columbia. We spent the whole evening chatting very pleasantly, and I found out that though publisher’s arties are definitely not my thing, you never know who you might meet.

I left the party early. On the way out I met my HarperCollins editor, just arrived form another party. We exchanged a few quick words, and I was off.

As for my Foreign Rights agent: only one of my four foreign publishers bought my third book. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Tomorrow we return to 1999, and the approaching Day of Days.

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