Monday, October 16, 2017

Frankfurt dispatch - notes on the Frankfurt Book Fair

The Frankfurt Book Fair originated soon after the invention of the Gutenberg printing press.  I recently browsed through a history of early modern publishing that used the Fair’s records to quantify 16th century international publishing, the early years, circa let’s say 1570, when Venetian publishers brought a total of forty books to the fair, and Dutch publishers brought another thirty, and so on, an international book fair with a hundred books.

Now, well, this is one of three floors of the English-language building, with the enormous Harper-Collins campus sort of visible in the upper right.  Or maybe fortress is the right word, since it was the least welcoming space at the Fair.  The books were present as samples for the salespeople to use.  The fortress was full of little tables, each one the site of some kind of meeting.

The Frankfurt Book Fair exists for the purpose of facilitating meetings, at which the rights to publish books are sold.  Not books, but the rights to books.  Deeply interested in literature but not so much in books, I experienced the Fair as a great mystery, less of a glimpse behind the veil than a sustained look at the veil.  I still don’t really understand what is behind it.

But if I wonder why was this book translated instead of that one, why is this book available in the U.S. but not in England, why does this book exist at all, much of the answer was there in Frankfurt.  A Random House rep met with a Catalonian publisher, and said yes to this book and no to the rest of the pile.  Who, away from that little table, really knows why.  Lots of reasons.  At the Fair, I got to see all of this without understanding it.

Three big floors of English-language publishers, two floors (plus) of German publishers, two floors (plus) of the rest of the world.  And additional areas for scientific publishing, education, religion, travel, maps, greeting cards, and an endlessly interesting area filled with nothing but art book publishers, including the strange subset of publishers of facsimile editions covered in gold and jewels.

Part of why it was so interesting to me was that I did not need so much German among the art books, I admit that.  The Fair would have been a lot more fun if I had German.  This is also why I kept returning to the food and cooking area, where there were samples, wine, and a demonstration kitchen where the default language was English.  Plus, I mentioned samples?

The biggest celebrity I saw just wandering around was Dany Laferrière, the only Academician I have seen in real life.  I saw Péter Nádas being interviewed for a television program, and stumbled across Wim Wenders plugging his new book.  Meine Frau came across Reinhold Messner, who beats the others, I think, as a celebrity.

More pleasurable was meeting Lisa of Lizok’s Bookshelf, who was at the Fair fighting the good fight for Russian translations.  Thanks for the time and conversation, Lisa!


  1. die geneigte LeserinOctober 16, 2017 at 3:54 PM

    You forgot to mention that we saw several celebrity chefs. Also, you neglected to go to any of the Bookblogger events. This may be related to your lack of a "Media Kit" (isn't a book a Media Kit?). Also, there were many people in costume.

  2. Even for one who loves books, and has seen alot of them, you must have been a bit in awe. It was a good decision to attend the book fair.

  3. Meine Frau attended Buchmesse 13 times, buying and selling foreign rights. Messner autographed her nametag sometime in the 90s. Messner is a hoot; "America doesn't appreciate my philosophical books," he said to me a few years ago. I am shamelessly picking up and dropping Messner's name, amn't I?

    Which books get translated is decided, I'm told, pretty much the way any book gets published: someone has to be excited about that particular book and it must seem a profitable venture (which is why, generally, short books get translated more often than long books, because translators charge by the length of the narrative). Illustrated books are expensive to translate because the layout has to be redone almost entirely (common trim sizes vary from country to country), which is expensive because you have to pay designers to do the work. Also, sometimes publishers don't have the rights to license illustrations to other publishers so the acquiring publisher has to purchase those rights atop the other costs. Etc.

    Hey, Buchmesse! How fun! I've never been, so I am deeply envious. Johannes Keppler found a publisher for his first book at Buchmesse, four hundred years or so ago.

  4. Interesting. But what about the Frank O'Connor stories? What are you making of those? I've never read him, but surely I should.

  5. Yes, several celebrity chefs, German, French and Indian. Not celebrities to me, exactly, but what does my ignorance have to do with anything?

    Of course, you are dropping Messner's name, Scott. What else are celebrities for? Why else meet them?

    How interesting to hear about your wife's adventures. There are still so many mysteries concealed in your description - "excited," "seem profitable." Even the publishers know so little. They are so often wrong. They are not so different than us poor schmoe readers - what the heck is in this book, they ask, just like I do.

    Dorian - Frank O'Connor is friendly and funny. Some of the stories turn into surprisingly complex psychological and ethical tangles. some contain rich writing, some are more in a story-telling mode. He has a lot of recurring characters - I hadn't known that. "Surely," you bet, and not just you.

    1. You whet my appetite with those descriptions. I know you're on vacation but would you recommend three or four for me to consider? I'd like to add at least one O'Connor story to my class on the short story. (I know I should just start reading him for myself but now that you're into the 20 C I want to get as much free labourvfrom you as possible!)

  6. Meeting you and your Frau was a big Buchmesse highlight for me, Tom! And I loved the whole thing: I, too, am fascinated by the book business and its mysteries, which feel like they're underpinned -- at least for translated fiction -- by an odd algorithm that's governed partly by numbers but (thank goodness) even more so by a love for books.

    Here's an article about the "LitAg" center at Frankfurt, where there's such a sea of agent tables that hundreds of voices -- talking about books! -- combine into even roar that makes you feel like you have complete privacy even when you're shouting. Just imagine row after long row of these tables...

  7. Ah, the world of agents. Thanks for the link - behind the scenes of behind the scenes. Criminy.

    The best thing about the fairs treatment of books is that the publishers are there with everything they've got - everything new - all of the books, at that moment, full of hope and high spirits, before they are, mostly, quickly remaindered, pulped, and forgotten. But at that moment, they all get their shot.

  8. You've seen Dany Laferriere, lucky you. I'd love to meet him (and Alain Mabanckou)

  9. I went on Sunday and was disappointed that so many of the English language publishers were already packing up. Wish I'd made it over to the culinary area but my companions were ready to go home. I especially loved all the Cosplayers which was a fun surprise.

  10. I skipped Sunday, but the cosplayers were there on Saturday, too, and they seemed to be having fun. Doing what, I was not sure. The Gourmet Gallery was definitely my kind of fun.

    Laferrière was a pure celebrity sighting, no deeper than that. Ma femme said "Hey, that's Dany Laferrière," and it was, and then he was gone.

  11. Okay, Dorian, try:

    1. "My Oedipus Complex," with the recurring autobiographical Larry character as a little kid. I'll bet this one is almost too teachable.
    2. "First Confession," with Larry a little older, and a good look at O'Connor's attitude towards priests - in crazy Ireland, they represent reason!
    3. "Guests of the Nation" - for some reason, O'Connor omitted all of his first book from the collection I had, so I have not read this story. You can read it - read his first book - and tell me about it.

  12. Three of my favourite (and most anthologised) Frank O'Connor stories. I've been doing almost as little reading as blogging this year but I might bring one of my O'Connor collections to bed tonight. Good to see that Amateur Reader continues to forge ahead in my absence - I look forward to poking around amoung the posts.. You have even taken to travelling around, I see..

  13. Post and comments were interesting--if I knew, I had forgotten that Scott's Mighty Reader bought and sold foreign rights. I'll have to read the LitAg article...