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Octoberfest Takes on New Meaning

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[Editor’s note: Nick and I both wrote about the Frankfurt Bookfair this month. Though we cover a little bit of similar information, I think you’ll enjoy our different perspectives.]

Each year for the past 13 years we have traveled to Frankfurt, Germany to represent many of our members’ titles in the attempt to license foreign rights. Some books are very successful, while others are of no interest to an international marketplace. And then there are the books in the middle, which may get one or two bites from foreign houses and may actually end up with a better percentage of sales than the ones that get lots of attention and lots of requests for reading copies.

The Frankfurt Bookfair occurs during the first or second week of October. Typically, this is the ugliest month of the year for Frankfurt. It’s cold, it’s grey, it’s rainy. But since we spend our time locked indoors, the rain doesn’t really become a factor, except for when you walk to and from the main train station and the Messe (which is the conference center of nine buildings filled with people in publishing from throughout the world).

Our typical day begins with waking up at 6:30 am. We then have to take the 8:15 morning train to the main station. We’ve been staying at the same house two train stops outside of Frankfurt for 13 years now, and it has become more like coming home to our German house than anything else. Here’s the price factor (for those who may consider going to Frankfurt in the future). Our accommodations, which include breakfast, run $45-$55 per day this way, instead of the hundreds of dollars per day to stay in the town of Frankfurt. We have the second floor of the house (all three bedrooms) and share a bath. Our train pass is an additional $20 for the week, which allows us to travel throughout one zone in downtown Frankfurt on the train or trolleys. Frankfurt’s mass transport is fantastic and is the only way I’d travel.

Appointments start at 9:00 am and are booked every half hour from then until 6:00 pm daily. We meet with publishers from around the world who will enter our stand looking for specific types of titles each year. After discussing those titles with them, we also show them some additional books they may be interested in. Reading copies of the titles are requested. This is the first step to a foreign rights deal. If the company likes your title after their editorial department reads it, they will make you an offer.

Offers vary from country to country, based on their economic stability at that time. The offers can range from several hundred to many thousands of dollars. There are some great deals made at Frankfurt and a lot of hype as well. The big-name authors in the US are normally being bid upon by varying countries and the show daily announces these deals each morning. Our offers, while not as dramatic, usually come to fruition within the year. This is a change from the past. It would sometimes take a few years before an offer was made. Today, however, when I return each year to the fair and meet with many of the people from the previous year, they always come with their catalogs and show me the titles they purchased from PMA members the previous year. I’m glad they point them out to me because I would never recognize them as the PMA members’ books, since the cover designs are adapted to fit a country’s interest.

Most years a book or two will jump off the shelf and become heavily requested by all countries. This did not seem to be the case this year, however, although we all did notice an interest in working at home. We had a book called The Home Team, which talked about couples working together and gave tips on how to do it successfully and separate your work from your home life. From China to Germany, this seemed to attract interest. Also at this year’s fair, we found some nations that could not purchase books this year due to the devaluation of their currency (Malaysia being one). One publisher from that country explained that he had published a successful book prior to the devaluation and had placed many copies in the bookstores. Then the devaluation hit and his cover price no longer equaled what he paid for the printing of the book. Each time he sold a copy through the bookstore, he took a significant “bath” on the sale. He was thinking of recalling all his titles until their dollar improved. This is something we in the US have never experienced, and hopefully never will.

What’s a typical deal? Well, if there is anything that is typical, you can take the amount of the print run and multiply that by the dollar value they are asking for the title. Royalty percentages vary from 7.5-10% on the first print run and can escalate from 10-15% on subsequent print runs. Take the first percentage, multiply that by the numbers of titles to be printed and then divide in half. This can be an indicator of what you might receive as an advance, although this is the minimal you will receive. If your title is hot and/or your author is recognizable, more up-front money can be negotiated.

And remember, check out the tax rules for doing business in the specific country and also have an attorney check out your contract. Laws are completely different throughout the world, and you will typically be operating under the rules of the government into which you sell your title, not the US rules. It pays to have a good basic contract drawn up for you right away so that you do not have regrets later.

Many foreign publishers want to enter the US market for distribution of their titles. Each year we try to explain our distribution methods to them and tell them not to be fooled by the numbers of people we have in our country. When we explain the percentage of literacy and then the percentage of the literate that actually buy books, most European countries think we must be joking. While small in population, the Europeans are the ultimate book consumer. This is evident when you take the train into the Messe each morning. Every person on the train either is reading a book or a newspaper… without exception. And the person reading the newspaper normally has a book tucked into a purse, pocket, or briefcase. We envy their readership; they envy our numbers. Guess the grass is always greener.

Since we have been coming each year to Frankfurt, we have tried to encourage our members with multiple titles to come and represent themselves there. This year we were joined by lots of returning and new PMA publisher members. It was great to see the activity throughout the 18 booths in our complex-from Ken Lee at Michael Wiese Productions, to Bruce Lansky at Meadowbrook Press, to Dorothy Smyk at New Harbinger and on to Bob and Debbie Alberti at Impact Publishers. We were also joined again this year by two publisher/distributors: Mark Suchomel, President of Independent Publishers Group, and Dominique Raccah of LPC. Mike Sagnella of StoryPeople was a first-timer, and he wore his legs out walking from building to building to get a sense of the fair and his titles’ position within the foreign publishing community. Mike’s books are wonderful but difficult to define. Some look at them as children’s books (although they are not); some people look at them as message books (which they are somewhat). Mike got a great lesson in listening and defining his titles for a new market. Another newcomer in the PMA complex was Llewellyn Publishing, an established publisher in the US who chose to join our complex this year. We all became the beneficiaries of the types of publishers they attracted to our area.

And what about the Oktoberfest celebration in Frankfurt? Never participated. You see, when you first go to this show, you find out the following: Oktoberfest is really in September in Germany and they call it Oktoberfest since the first weekend of October announces the end of the Oktoberfest. So, though we travel to Germany each year in October, we’ve never attended this event. But we always have a memorable experience at the Frankfurt Bookfair!










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