Last week, my client Kristen Lippert-Martin took a trip to Disney World. I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair with my amazing colleague Melissa, with whom I co-direct Folio’s Foreign Rights Department. Though some might call me crazy, for me, the two trips aren't that different. Frankfurt is my Happiest Place on Earth. Despite the jet lag, the less-than-beautiful city, the exhausting schedule of 160+ meetings, the days that begin with an alarm clock at 6 a.m. and don’t end until you collapse into your hotel bed at 2 or so in the morning, it’s the event I most look forward to all year.
Frankfurt is the one place where everyone in publishing all around the world gets together. There’s this simmer of excitement, a sense of literary history unfolding around you, of books being made, that permeates the fair. There are editors and agents and publishers who have gone to the fair for 30 years or more, who have seen our book world made and remade over and over. I’m always in awe at how lucky I am to be part of something so big—bigger than just U.S. book publishing, even. I kind of feel like Will Smith in Men in Black walking in there every morning. There’s some serious damn-I’ve-got-some-great-books-to-unleash-on-the-world swagger going on.
So what happens at the Frankfurt Book Fair? While pitching books is the most time-consuming and labor-intensive aspect of the fair, we’re really there for the networking. If you’re going to be a major player on the literary scene, especially on the adult publishing side, it’s important to have a presence there. (Bologna is great, but it’s only for children’s books, doesn’t draw as diverse a crowd, and lasts just three days; London is big, but it happens in the spring, before the Big Fall Books have emerged.) Frankfurt is where it’s AT.
To give you a sense of how many agents attend, here’s a picture of the Literary Agents Center (from last year, I forgot to take one this year!).Each agency has a table. You can see where they begin, behind the wall of the cafe: there are hundreds! This year, Folio’s tables were nestled between other American agencies, an agency from India, and one from France.
A typical day for us at the fair begins with a 9 a.m. meeting and ends with a 5:30 or even 6 p.m. meeting (we start scheduling these meetings in June, so a lot of prep work goes into them). During the day, meetings are scheduled every 30 minutes, with editors hailing from all over the world, who are looking for everything from picture books to adult literary fiction. Every 30 minutes, a different editor from a different country comes to my table (pictured here; you can also kind of see Melissa’s table to the left).
Depending on how well I know the editor and where they’re from, a meeting begins with a handshake, cheek-kiss, or hug. The practice for exchanging business cards varies by territory. Then we begin with the requisite small talk: how the fair is going, what the big books are, and sometimes more personal things if we know each other from previous fairs. I ask what’s working well for them and what they’re looking for now (though I’ve already researched that prior to the fair and have taken extensive notes), then select a handful of books I think would fit their needs and (hopefully) pitch them like there’s no tomorrow. It’s better to pitch just a few books than too many. Editors should feel like you’ve tailored your list and pitches specifically for them, their publishing house, and their market. We don’t throw spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks (you could do this, and some territories are too polite to say no, but others will look at you like you’re a crazy American).
Folio represents hundreds of titles across all genres, and at any given time it’s important to be ready to pitch most of them at the drop of a hat (yup, we read them all). A pitch can include the, well, pitch, but also the US publisher, when it publishes, any awards it’s gotten, the print run, copies sold (if it’s already published and the numbers are impressive), what countries it’s sold in and to whom, as well as information about the author. A foreign rights person has to be able to adjust pitches on the fly to suit different markets, too. You’ll pitch a book a bit differently depending on which country an editor is from, because you know what aspect of a book is going to be most important to them. We also need to shift seamlessly from pitching one genre to another, which, all told, can make you feel a little schizophrenic by the end of the day. We practice our pitches quite a bit before a fair.
In short, the Frankfurt Book Fair is sort of like trying to tap-dance while morphing between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for a week straight. In some meetings it is appropriate to shout about the hilarious book we have involving giant, retractable duck penises, and in some, it decidedly is not. In some meetings I did a weird bird-like dance to illustrate a point; in others, I sat stoically for thirty minutes. But that’s the beauty of the fair. There’s nothing like the high you get from a string of really great meetings and successful pitches. It’s exhausting and insane, but a hell of a lot of fun.
In the next Frankfurt blog post: What happens after-hours! Trends! And more! If you have any questions about the fair, please feel free to leave them in the comments.