Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Frankfurt Book Fair 2012: Veni, vidi, whoa.


*For a crash course in how the sale of foreign rights works, please scroll to the bottom.

“You’re going to want to take a vow of silence for a week after,” a seasoned Frankfurt Book Fair veteran informed me before I set out for my first FBF. “Seriously, you’ll be so sick of the sound of your own voice. It’s INSANE.”

And she was right; FBF 2012 was an unprecedented whirlwind, maelstrom, and any other hyperbolic depiction of relentless craziness, essentially indistinguishable from speed-dating. In each half-hour time slot, you must:

  • Attempt pleasant, culturally inoffensive small talk (there are some very, very particular rules about how one hands over business cards. Learn them in advance or rue the day).
  • Discuss the foreign territory’s market and the current publishing terrain in the U.S.
  • Learn about the publisher’s specific tastes and editorial direction.
  • Endeavor to maintain a straight face in the event that said tastes and direction happen to consist of comedic gold.
  • Discover common ground, i.e. your particular titles for which the publisher might be interested in acquiring translation rights.
  • Pitch these titles very, very quickly but also with enough detail to tantalize.
  • Engage in the mandatory talk about 50 Shades of Grey and mother of God, WHY.

On the Tuesday preceding the official opening of the fair, tradition dictates that agents and publishers meet at the Frankfurterhof Hotel for “unofficial” chats that are in effect no different from the meetings that take place the next day in the halls. However, without designated meeting spots, any rendezvous at the Hof (I am now down with Frankfurt lingo, what what) devolves into a meandering, hilarious search for the person with whom you’re meant to be meeting—especially if it’s a publisher, scout, or subagent whom you’ve never meet before and couldn’t possibly hope to run into within the constantly circulating mass of humanity.



Fortunately, I had the foresight to request phone numbers beforehand, and in the few instances in which these were unavailable, stalkerish Google Image searches proved indispensable. Thank goodness for technology—another theme of the fair, which is growing increasingly digitized. For example, my agency chose to go entirely digital this year, dispensing with printouts of our rights list in favor of a fancy, graphics-heavy version for the iPad. Nobody wants to lug around reams of paper anymore. That’s so 2011.


So, what else is hot? You guessed it—mommy porn. Everybody wants a piece of it (pun not intended), and new erotica imprints are mushrooming all over the world. In the words of my boss, 50 Shades is the biggest foreign title of the last twenty-five years. In Poland, for instance, where first print runs of translated books are usually 5,000—and which is a conservative Catholic country—the publishers holding the rights to 50 Shades kicked off with a staggering print run of 200,000.

Moreover, in almost every market, the situation mirrors that of the United States in that major bestsellers by well-known authors sell for huge advances, while all the rest go for very modest sums. However, major books that don’t seem like they will “travel” well, usually because the author is relatively unknown outside of America, still sell for large advances if the American offer is significant enough. A good example is that of Lena Dunham’s upcoming book, which sold for major advances everywhere even though Girls is only watchable on YouTube in English outside the United States. I happen to love Girls, but this one baffles me, and my personal jury is still out as to how this book will actually perform, saleswise.

On a different note, foreign markets prefer nonfiction that is information based or prescriptive to be written by local experts with domestic platforms, rather than importing our titles. The exceptions tend to be areas in which the United States is considered the leading global expert, such as business and science. This trend has experienced a noticeable upswing this year, even though the percentage of translated books on foreign lists has shrunk overall.

In terms of ebooks, in most other countries the ereader revolution lags three to four years behind the United States. However, mass bookstore closings and consolidation have begun in earnest almost everywhere except in booming markets like China, India, and Brazil. (Greece, Spain, and the Netherlands are most notably hurting, for obvious reasons. Austerity measures, anyone? Russian publishing has also taken a hit due to the popularity of book piracy via torrents and a tricky situation involving the two major houses, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.) This is particularly troubling when ebooks aren’t there to pick up the slack, and publishers are losing the natural “showspace” of bookstores as venues for marketing and publicity of their books.

Interestingly, China has become an even bigger player, even in categories that were once verboten, such as religion and New Age-y spirituality. While China was once a no-man’s-land in which it was well-nigh impossible to ensure that publishers were accurately reporting sales and paying out royalties, subagents now demand that Chinese houses pay royalties, otherwise refusing to renegotiate licenses when they expire. Chinese publishers are also narrowing their focus and becoming more committed to shaping their own brands and fostering author loyalties, which is good news for us.

I also found it fascinating that while young adult fiction is in tremendous demand almost everywhere—high fantasy does very well, contemporary realistic less so, and steampunk…le what is this genre?—Japanese publishers are extremely leery of any titles containing violence and sexuality, and are generally very conservative in their acquisitions in this area. Instead, subagents pitch more risqué YA titles to adult publishers, who then rebrand them as “light novels” for adults.

Other nuggets of Frankfurt joy

Other trends vary from territory to territory, and I’d rather not make anyone’s eyes glaze over by delving too much into the particulars. Some notes of amusing (and morbid) interest: Indonesians really like to read inspirational memoirs by people missing one or more limbs. The more limbs unaccounted for, the better. On the other hand, some of the Chinese publishers we spoke to wouldn’t even consider novels with an ending that might be conceivably construed as unhappy. “But…it’s very redeeming…and the heroine has learned that—” “No. Not happy ending. Chinese readers want ONLY HAPPY ENDING.”

Also, the notorious “Frankfurt cold”: No one escapes unscathed. Everyone I met was either in the grips of some disease, gradually developing one, or commencing recovery. The entirety of the fair—which, by the way, is absolutely massive; it took 20 minutes to walk from the LitAg center to the hall housing North American publishers—is a seething petri dish, steeped in constant hand-shaking and air kisses.


And just to wrap things up, here’s something the old hands like to deny about the FBF—it’s FUN. Yes, you meet with twenty people a day, and another millionbillion at other events. Yes, by day four you have begun to experience a certain giddy, slightly sinister insanity brought on by the six to seven coffees a day and lack of downtime. (Quote depicting impending Frankfurt cray-cray: “What if you pitch the next publishers, and I get under the table and bite their ankles?”) But it’s also the best sort of melting pot; one in which everyone, without exception, ADORES books. You talk about books all day, then you have dinner and drinks and talk about books (and scandalous gossip) into the wee hours of the night. And then you get to do it again! So what if you may or may not have to down a Red Bull at breakfast to stave off a transformation into an android capable of nothing but spouting memorized pitches? It’s. Worth. It.


How it all works:

Subagents: Subagents are agencies based in foreign countries and who represent American agents and publishers in order to facilitate the sales of foreign rights by being familiar with the particulars of the market and the legitimacy of publishers who are making offers on American titles. They submit our titles to foreign publishers, broker the deals, and keep the publisher honest—in return for a commission that’s taken off the top of the advance. In order to do so, they work very closely with the American agencies and publishers with whom they have exclusive relationships. For instance, any time the translation rights for one of our books are sold in a particular market, say Poland, I send out a mass e-mail notifying our exclusive subagents in other countries, so they can use this information as a further incentive when pitching our books to their local publishers. The sales of film/TV rights, good reviews, and high domestic sales figures are also very important.

Scouts: Scouts are based in the United States, but are paid by foreign publishers to be on the constant lookout for new and exciting titles that have translation potential. They do not work on commission.

Agents: We’re…well, literary agents. Along with representing our authors domestically, some agencies also urge their authors to retain the foreign rights to their books rather than selling them to the American house that acquires domestic rights to the title (in which case only North American or World English rights will have originally been sold to the American publisher). The advantage is that our lists are smaller than those of publishing houses, so we have more time to aggressively market our books in foreign territories.

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