What’s the fuss about Frankfurt?

There are a few code words for “leave me alone, I’m busy” in the world of children’s publishing, and indeed publishing in general. “Frankfurt” is one, and “Bologna” is another. But what’s the fuss all about, and how can you tell who’s truly frantic and who’s faking it?

For anyone not working in publishing, book fairs sound like civilized affairs, upmarket car boot sales with bunting, stalls full of books and possibly some homemade cake. Sadly that’s not quite the case.

Instead picture an enormous, soulless exhibition centre, often without any natural light.  Agents are allocated tables in the Rights Centre. Publishers usually have a bundle of plywood with which they must build their own stand. It sounds a bit Blue Peter but by the time the fair opens they have usually produced impressive sturdy-looking structures from which to display their wares. A few carefully-selected titles are highlighted with covers facing outwards; enormous posters of lead titles adorn the sides; harassed people scurry around within, conducting meetings, or hovering nearby. Indeed, “harrassed” tends to be a theme at book fairs. Appointment are scheduled in half-hour time slots, but everyone seems to be permanently running late. Moving from station to station can involve covering large distances while negotiating crowds, and, of course, bumping into familiar faces can also cause delays.  Now picture a publishing scrum.

So what exactly is going on? Whether it’s the rights team at a publisher’s stand or agents selling translation rights, we’re all pitching books to editors from international publishers. Meetings are usually in pairs or small groups, and one person will be talking about the books they are selling while the other person will be listening (or politely pretending to listen).  On the English language side UK and US agents and editors meet and mingle and discuss new projects.

Editors hear hundreds of pitches each day over a course of several days and select the titles they are interested in reading.  Sometimes publishers may offer to buy translation  rights for their territory at the fair for titles they have already read or feed back on titles they are still considering.   It’s an opportunity to find out what’s happening in different markets and to catch up with the translation publishers who publish existing clients.  We also meet with co-agents who work on the ground in different territories and with scouts who will direct their clients in different territories towards the English language titles they believe will appeal to them.

Why all the preparation beforehand?
Planning for a fair is not dissimilar to preparing for a military operation, (I would imagine).   For anyone working in translation rights in the weeks leading up to the fair they will be collecting all this information and putting their rights guide together and probably tearing out their hair, perhaps on occasion someone else’s.  For children’s books at Curtis Brown we use twice yearly fairs (Frankfurt and Bologna/ London Book Fair), to focus on titles publishing within the next 6 months or so although we will also talk about new deals and titles which will be delivered soon.

Our preparation involves scrounging covers, blurbs, biographical info about the author, and publication details together with reading the manuscripts themselves. However organised we try to be, without fail there will be information that gets delivered at the 11th hour.  We might look a little wild eyed at that point.

Schedules are drawn up well in advance so anyone turning up for an impromptu meeting will be disappointed. The Rights Centre is strictly policed, but now and again agents are accosted by authors looking for representation which is rather unwelcome.  The book fairs are just not an environment for making these approaches; however perverse it might sound, it’s not where we’re interested in meeting authors. Our focus at book fairs needs to be on the authors we’re already representing.
It’s all about stamina and endurance and that’s even before the evening activities begin. Schedules run from 9am to 6pm with meetings back to back.  Some people might factor in one or two breaks but it’s considered pretty lightweight to have gaps in your schedule. If a meeting ends early it’s a moment to rejoice – well, if rejoicing didn’t take up precious seconds – and then it’s a choice between a comfort break, coffee break, or wolfing down a cereal bar before returning to the table for the next meeting.
As ever, the interest is always on what’s new or ‘hot’.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve asked a foreign publisher what they are looking for and they have said ‘something big’.  In order to create a frenzy around new titles, some agents will hold back projects and submit a book to UK publishers just before the fair in the hope that it will be acquired just in time to create a buzz and make it the hottest property around.  This can make life tricky for scouts as they monitor all the potential big books, many of which won’t be offered for in time for the fair and which may well get buried under other material in publishers’ reading piles. With so many manuscripts submitted before a fair a book can be competing for attention with far more titles than at any other time of year.

Bologna is the focus for children’s books, so not everyone in children’s publishing goes to Frankfurt — it tends to be those in more senior roles or those selling rights.  October, however, with its no-nonsense, post-holiday, pre-Christmas vibe is a busy time for everyone, just as March is a moment with a post-Christmas, pre-summer feel.  There is a real sense of excitement and promise surrounding the fairs, and a thrill of being part of a lively, vibrant industry permeates throughout publishing. Whether you’re attending or not, if you’re in publishing you’re in Frankfurt in October, it’s not really a book fair but a state of mind.


4 thoughts on “What’s the fuss about Frankfurt?

  1. I’ve had CB place foreign rights to a number of my books in the past (always fantastic deals) but I’ve never, til now, really understood the nitty-gritty of these book fairs. Thanks, Stephanie, for the clear and engaging explanation and unravelling of what (to me at least) has been something of a small mystery 🙂

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