Friday, October 19, 2012

The secret world of rights at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Come October, when others are contemplating pumpkins, scarecrows, and costumes, the publishing rights world is packing its bags with business clothes, practical but fab shoes, and materials to let the world know about its amazing books.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is the largest and longest-running book fair in the world. It began soon after Guttenberg invented the printing press as a printer's convention. Now it spans numerous halls and floors that can take days to see. Publishers from every country come to set up a stand and display their wares or recently published books in the hopes of selling them for translation into other countries. Editors from around the world get their exercise running from meeting to meeting to find their next imported gems to translate and make into a success in their language as well.

As agents, we have our special section at the fair – Hall 6.0 – otherwise known as the Literary Agents and Scouts Center. For me, my home for three days was table 12-O, a nondescript white table with four chairs and an electrical cord hanging down from the rafters. On the table, I laid out my lists of our wonderful fiction, nonfiction, and kids' books, business cards, and various notes to help me navigate the next 75 meetings. Yes, I did say 75 meetings!!!!! These meetings actually start two days before the fair in hotel lounges and coffee shops and continue each day after hours, during dinner and over drinks (I have learned the joys of Apfelwein!).

Every 30 minutes, a different editor finds my table and sits down to hear me talk about our books. I listen to their likes and dislikes, ferret out what is working in their country, and then steer them towards the books that would be the perfect fit. Invariably they leave with lists of titles to read, consider, and hopefully purchase for translation.

It is true that, at times, I feel like a wind-up doll, unwound until the butt hits the seat opposite me. I then animate and become a storyteller, trying to convey to my audience the specific elements that make a particular book wonderful and special in its own way. Luckily I am blessed to be in an agency where our agents have excellent and varied taste. I get to read and discuss kick-ass action, beautiful prose, and illuminating facts.

I also get a snapshot of how the world is doing, admittedly through the prism of books. Spain is in dire straights with one publisher telling me business is down 40% from last year. In Greece, our co-agent loves to come to Frankfurt just to escape the sad faces he is constantly seeing in his own country. Russia has recently lost their major bookstore chain and their biggest publisher is being investigated by the tax authorities, BUT this has opened up opportunities for the smaller publishers to expand their lists. Poland is obsessed with stories centered around the two World Wars. Historicals don't sell for love or money in Holland, but they are just what many of the Eastern European countries are looking for. Everyone has recently found, or is frantically looking for, their erotica novel, even though no one has any idea if it will perform.

In kids' books, realistic fiction is on the rise, picture books are more challenging to acquire with the recession hitting hard on the high cost of books, Korean manga is big worldwide, and many people want to find a funny middle grade. In genre publishing, romance is huge, science fiction is dead, crime is locked up by Scandinavian authors, and horror depends on the publisher. As long as publishers don't have an expert in their country to draw upon, prescriptive nonfiction has a chance – especially about sex and relationships. Great narrative or very serious nonfiction will make the right editor's eyes shine. And, as always, amazing reviews and/or sales can trump everything!

At the end of the week, the left-over papers and many notes get packed away, and we all grab our flights with sore throats and bleary eyes - satisfied that we have spread the word about our wonderful authors. Next stop: to the cobbler to resole our fab shoes in readiness to do it all again next year!

Favorite quote of the fair from an Italian editor about erotica novels – “We do it, we don't read it.”

The essentials: JVNLA rights lists, fab shoes,
a map of Frankfurt, and a backpack to carry it all!

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