Frankfurt Diary, 2010

1. The public and the fair. 2. Silent protest for a Chinese dissident.

I am in Frankfurt, at the world’s biggest book fair, just doing my day job as an international literary scout. The purpose of this annual (paid) pilgrimage is to find the best new writers in various languages for my client publishers in a number of countries, and to forget that I myself am an author. I have a table in the Agents and Scouts Centre, but I also make my way to publishers’ stands in the vast, buzzing, noisy and pleasantly overcrowded airport-like microcosm of the world of books that is Frankfurt Book Fair. I have arrived equipped with a diary containing about fifty appointments, all of which serve the purpose of finding out what readers everywhere want, and how publishers can give it to them. But there are many distractions along the way.

Everywhere you turn are very seductively dressed people you last saw in April at London Book Fair, doing much the same thing they did there but on a smaller, less legendary scale. You therefore need to hug and airkiss passionately, to properly express your longing for renewed professional and occasionally physical contact, and to engage in long, leisurely discussions about life and books. In the words of London literary agent extraordinaire, Patrick Walsh (45), ‘proper conversations, especially with European publishers, are the best thing about Frankfurt.’ He is a bit of an authority on the subject, given his twenty years of experience. Plus his table in the Agents Centre is right next to mine. We don’t eavesdrop, but I can confirm that his agency (Conville & Walsh) has had a very successful Fair. So have many others.

Something good is happening in the world of books. Despite the bad economy, and the nervous state of flux regarding digital publishing, there is a positive vibe in the air here at Frankfurt. Especially small and independent presses are enjoying a renaissance, and doing well even as they take courageous risks. American publisher Richard Nash, formerly of Soft Skull and now heading a new venture called Cursor, has noticed a surprising trend: ‘Due to so many layoffs in the publishing industry, there is a lot of free-floating talent. These people get creative and do well in new publishing formations. We will be seeing many more independent houses being successful where large houses have failed or were afraid to take risks.’ A foreign rights director at a major German house confessed, in amazement, that she has never sold so many fiction titles to independent publishers in the UK and US. Britain is no longer suspicious of foreign authors; in fact, Patrick Walsh made a point of counting the number of translated books in the top twenty titles at London’s City Airport bookstore on the day he flew to Frankfurt: ’11 out of 20 were Scandinavian fiction in translation.’ The culture has really changed, he believes.

Zurich-based publisher Diogenes owns the rights to a number of international authors, and succeeds in selling them worldwide. Along with names like Patrick Susskind and Patricia Highsmith, they represent one of the best young American novelists, Joey Goebel, whose books have found a home in 15 languages. Their display proudly illustrates how far their authors’ books have travelled, all over the world.

1. Diogenes international sales. 2. Franzen’s enraptured Frankfurt audience.

A German publisher who would rather remain nameless confessed to me that twenty years ago, as a young editor, he returned from a scouting trip to New York and informed his boss that there were only two young American writers he was interested in: one was Richard Ford, and the other an unknown novelist called Jonathan Franzen. Both were dismissed by his older colleague as ‘too American,’ with the words: ‘These would never succeed here. You’ll soon learn how this business works.’

The ‘too American’ Jonathan Franzen could be seen regaling an enraptured Frankfurt audience with a live interview he gave in excellent German. I walked past just as he was explaining that he writes ‘für meinen Vater.’ Later, he read from the German translation of his latest novel. Somehow, this seemed almost normal in the context of this multinational Fair, where languages intermingle as naturally as they should.

1. Franzen while regaling. 2. Sun setting over the fair.

I am about to leave the slowly emptying Frankfurt Book Fair, my mission here accomplished. I did find excellent new books in German, Russian, Hebrew, French, Swedish and even in English, and hopefully they will soon see the light of day in as many translations as possible. But I would like to end this report on a frivolous note, by paying tribute to the coolest and best dressed security guard I have ever seen. Tall, broad, and suitably equipped with an ear piece and something hard under his jacket, he also sported distressed designer jeans, elegant black brogues, only slightly bulging white shirt, and a tiny plaited chin beard. His sharp blue eyes were firmly focused on the hidden dangers among the book-loving crowds, but I suspect he was probably plotting his first novel.

–Elena Lappin is a writer and literary scout living in London. Her memoir, What Language Do You Dream In?, will be published by FSG and Virago in 2011.

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