Photograph by Howard Stanbury

Beer and Loathing

For agents and publishers, the Frankfurt Book Fair is publishing’s biggest event: part conclave, mostly marathon, and all business. It is absolutely no place for an aspiring author, as we discover.

To get inside the exclusive and secure “Literary Agents” room at the Frankfurt Book Fair requires one of three things: a badge, an appointment, or a quickly mumbled excuse in ad-hoc German.

Inside is the chattering, contract-signing, caffeine-laced world of international literary agencies. It is a private club in trade-fair clothing, a vault of business. Like the stacks in a library, the agencies’ stands are arranged in rows, with five or six agents per table. Across from them sit the also-talkative-but-slightly-more-strained representatives of the publishing world: publishers, editors, marketing people. The only author I met in the room was the German psychologist Dr. Ilona Bürgel, there to see her agent about her work-in-progress. At the water cooler—the only free water I found in the entire trade fair—a graphic novel publishing representative from Paris waited patiently for an appointment with an American agent, with whom she then sealed a pre-arranged license for a 7,000-print run in France.

Before entering the agents’ room, one should know what agents do. I didn’t know that. I thought they might be busy, of course. They were impressively busy. To these agents, a manuscript-toting writer—even if well meaning—is seen as a nuisance, not an opportunity.

One of the agents in the room was Heide Lange. Recognizable for her black bob haircut and straight-edge bangs, Lange is a super-agent; she represents Dan Brown. I had no delusions of being represented by this woman, but still I hoped to shake her hand. The chair across from her, though, was never empty; outside her row was a smiling, patient line. And so, after watching Heide Lange from a distance, I walked out the door of the literary agents’ room, but not before taking a free apple.

The agents’ room is one of dozens in the massive, airport-sized complex that houses the Frankfurt Book Fair. It is a brutal building. This is the largest book fair on the planet—the book fair that begot all others—and appropriately it’s based in the country that founded modern printing. If a publisher can afford to attend, the fair can’t be missed. Inside is a literary chop shop, where low-brow pulp shares the stage with world-class writing, where publishers, editors, agents, rights-dealers, et. al, see old friends in a country famous for beer. After a few days, the primary emotion the fair might elicit is an exhausted sigh.

But to a writer more familiar with book reviews and press publications—where terms like “uplifting” or “moving” or “heart-breaking” are the lingua franca—where a novel is discussed in terms of its merits as literature or for its heart-pounding plot—Frankfurt is an unsettling experience. Authors don’t often visit the Frankfurt Book Fair, and if they do it is either for appointed business, or to sit on the “Blue Sofa” as part of a microphoned chat. Uninvited authors simply do not come.


* * *

Since you’re reading this in English, your first stop at the book fair would have been Hall 8. Costco-sized, it’s where the world’s Anglophone publishers set up, and within it are perhaps 1,000 of the 7,000 stands that make up the world’s largest book fair.

I have a manuscript. And though I knew in advance that Frankfurt wasn’t the place to pitch it, I didn’t know why. Because really, why not? It’s the yearly epicenter of the book industry. Agents, publishers, publishing groups, authors, guilds, they were walking, talking, and real. Even though it required time off work, train rides, and a hotel room an hour south in a Frankfurt suburb, in the back of my mind there was the thought that something could come from this.

And yes, on the train ride from Cologne, the best of all possible outcomes did flicker through my head. What if someone at the fair fell in love with my manuscript? What if a publisher was breathless with excitement? What if—don’t think it!—what if they declared an intent to publish?

The Frankfurt Book Fair is a bibliophile’s reverie. There are more than 400,000 books. The stalls overflow with literary fiction, coming-of-age, bildungsroman, children’s books, young adult, romance, chick-lit, mystery, fantasy, crime, science fiction. There are mash-ups of genres, and mash-ups of the mash-ups. There are vampires, monsters, zombies; knockoffs of vampires, monsters, and zombies (see Quirk’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters); and knockoffs of the mash-ups (see Sourcebooks’ Mr. Darcy, Vampyre). There are rows of hot pink and fluorescent purple and bright orange children’s books, and a quarter mile dedicated to spirituality. Somewhere in the non-fiction section surely, absolutely lies the answer to the financial crisis. Also popular are the unofficial biographies of actors who played vampires in the movie adaptations of current best-selling vampire series.

I read a trade-fair article that described a book shredder capable of pulping seven tons of books per hour.Four-hundred thousand books and counting, most of them published in 2009. The entire world’s book industry is represented, including publishers from Sudan, Latvia, Sri Lanka, and—I regret missing its booth—The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. There are books that will make you laugh, cry, find happiness, get angry, get turned on, get turned off, stay up late, or fall asleep. And, for an author with an unpublished manuscript, that’s the problem.

My novel is a comic mystery. To learn how to describe it in precisely those words—those two words—was a process honed at the fair. Two experiences shaped it. The first was blubbering my way through lengthy, convoluted descriptions to publishing people about what I thought I had been writing. Publishers attend the fair to sell and schmooze. They may love their books, but they talk like lawyers. To approach them with your book is to bring a new milkshake recipe into a Dairy Queen.

The second experience was to see a handful of other books that were close to my own. It was horrifying.

It would be rare for a writer to confront his book’s doppelgänger, but the feeling is, in Frankfurt, that you might. Ideas that are similar to yours—ideas that are better than yours—ideas you’ve shared with others—ideas you kept to yourself—they’re bouncing around the room. Some covers, appearing to represent similar ideas to mine, caused my heart to pound. What would happen if I found something like my book inside it? What would that mean? Would it imply the irrelevance of my manuscript?

The rooms are dizzying. They’re carpeted warehouses of paper and ink, filled with perfume, cologne, breath mints, and the smell of leather. Thousands of publishers and agents trade books like baseball cards. It’s a Kurtzian moment, but I wasn’t sure whether to shout “The horror! The horror!” or “The beauty! The beauty!”

Take a few of the Americans: Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster. They don’t have stands, they have compounds. Inside semi-enclosed platforms sit cappuccino-sipping rights dealers engaged in private conversations. Racked above them is nearly every book currently available in bookstores. Outside are the angelically backlit photographs of Hemingway, Lessing, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Morrison, Doctorow, Updike, plus a list of Pulitzers and the occasional Nobel. Smiling, fast-talking receptionists are available to inform you that each of these three publishers deals only with agents, sorry, but thanks anyway, feel free to look at the books.

Stumbling away, I came across two rows of stalls that comprised the “remainder” business, where literary orphans go for a final ride. Over a lunch of a frankfurter and maple-pecan Mövenpick ice cream, I read a trade-fair article that described a book shredder capable of pulping seven tons of books per hour.

And then there’s the train ride away from the fair, with plenty of time to wonder what the fuck it was I thought I might accomplish, and how incredibly cold it was in Frankfurt at that moment, and if I should bother to spend the €36 to go again the next day.


* * *

If a manufacturer of staples walked into a trade fair where 400,000 staples were represented—large staples, little staples, fat staples, skinny staples, staples of brass, iron, and steel, staples that folded in, staples that bent out—surely at some point he would pause to consider the very nature of the staple, and his own purpose in making them.

In other words, when the triviality of your work is presented to you in bracing, objective terms, how can you not feel destabilized?


* * *

I went back to the Frankfurt Book Fair. Like a poker game, the fair (and the people at the fair) take some time to find a groove.

Around me, well-rehearsed pitches and counter-pitches were either working, or they weren’t. Books were being sold or rejected.

Even in the midst of the business-card blizzard, there was hope for the aspiring author.“I think we’ll pick up this one, here.”

“OK, great, that’s great. But we’d really like to sell it, you know, as part of a package deal.”

“Hm. Well, I’m afraid we’re not—we’re not really looking to buy that book.”

“Yeah, OK, OK. It always seems to be the odd man out, doesn’t it.”

The second day witnessed some accidental humor. When I stumbled upon a crush of excited journalists in the German hall, their flashing cameras illuminated Nobel-prize winner Herta Müller as she was being interviewed by a group of Chinese representatives. Nearly pressed against her by the crowd was an elderly Chinese man who was asking a question about one of her novels. What, he wondered, was the significance of a passage where a number of unnamed male characters went into the forest at night-time? It felt very literary, he said, and he would love to know what it meant. Mrs. Müller replied that, as homosexuality was forbidden under the Romanian dictatorship, the men were there to have sex with each other. As this answer was translated from German to Chinese, the nodding Chinese man froze. In the few seconds before he regained a polite and gracious smile, his mouth hung open with shock.

The Chinese representatives were Frankfurt’s guests of honors this year. The fair’s global scale cannot be downplayed; last week saw Frankfurt briefly become the world’s most international, well-read city. And very well-dressed. Everyone was chic, but the women were particularly impressive. This trade fair demands miles of walking—roughly four per day, I’d guess—and yet thousands of high-heeled women clacked through it with apparent ease. How do you do that, women? You astonish me.


* * *

In the e-book sector, businessmen wheeled luggage behind them and confidently promised “solutions” and “two-week e-publishing.” In a sort of counterpoint, Dr. Alicia Wise, a digital consultant from The Publishers Association, gave an encouraging presentation about the fight against digital book piracy. In the future, her efforts will surely be assisted by an inevitable, third-party development; the publishing world awaits iTunes for e-books.

It is well documented that the industry is reeling from the “unexpected” pregnancy of e-books. A consensus was taken at the fair: publishers expect them to dominate the market by 2018.

What does that mean for an author, though? Is an e-book a real book? Are you published then? Can you upload a PDF of your manuscript to the web and call it a book? Does that make you a real author? Is a blogger an author, or just a writer? Is your book published the moment it’s downloaded?

J.K. Rowling will be remembered for many things. Will she also be remembered as the last traditionally published megaseller?


* * *

After stumbling and mumbling my way through a dozen stands in the English hall, I finally discovered the question I’d been meaning to ask all along, and which helped, rather than humiliated: “Your catalogue looks like something my book might fit within. Is there an editor I might be able to send it to?”

Sometimes there is. Even in the midst of the business-card blizzard, there was hope for the aspiring author.

I met a string of friendly people on my last day. An American woman suggested that I email her directly. A British woman spoke those sacred, hallowed words: “We’re looking for manuscripts now.” But perhaps the most meaningful of all was the promise from a nice Irish publishing rep. of his editor’s “sympathetic reading.” I could have asked for nothing more.

Afterwards I simply walked around. In the art-book section sat a publisher with a catalogue of three books, each made by a hand-cranked press. He adored his books, and handled his most beloved with gloves on. Close by stood the talkative and elderly owner of a tiny German publishing house—one who hadn’t had to reckon with the e-book revolution yet, and probably never would.

These were small-to-medium-sized publishers. These were the people who’d packed their bags and and paid out of pocket to haul themselves all the way out to freezing cold Frankfurt. In Hall 8, a representative with a collection of seven books told me how excited her (absent) owner/editor was. He’d just given up his day job at Credit Suisse, and could now focus full-time on on publishing.

Her stand wasn’t as busy as the larger ones—as Heide Lange sold various Lost Symbol rights for millions high above—but she was there smiling, surrounded by her books.


* * *

The 61st Annual Frankfurt Book Fair was a learning experience, but I’m still in the process of knowing exactly what I learned. To see books bought and sold like airplane parts was horrifying and necessary; to know that hundreds of thousands of other writers were hammering away was both horrifying and necessary. It was, at times, humbling, inspiring, repugnant, unsettling, euphoric, depressing—but at a few precious moments, fun.

I had some time to kill before the train arrived and spent it alongside Frankfurt’s river Main. Some guy was playing a dented trumpet in the chilly river air. And when I stopped to wonder why in the hell that guy was out there doing that—why he’s playing the trumpet on a windy iron bridge with gloves on and a coat zipped up and a beanie pulled down tight—why he was aiming a little jazz piece at the heart of a Frankfurt October—then I began to understand.