The world of book publishers is divided between those who hate book fairs/conventions in general and those, like me, that look forward to them fervently, especially the Frankfurt Book Fair each October. There are many start-up publishers for whom the expense of these fairs is enormous in comparison to the rest of their marketing budget, so it’s worth considering the likely benefits very carefully before you make your decision. It is my hope that this article will help.
The first year I was in publishing, I went to Frankfurt for a couple of days. For a British academic publisher who exported 70% of our books, Frankfurt was a necessity, and I was there to learn the ropes.
The first thing you learn is that you either stay way out of town in some rustic German setting near the Main River (or near an autobahn if you’re less well prepared) at a reasonable price, and make a considerable commute; or get one of the prized rooms in the middle of the less than prepossessing city center of Frankfurt and walk in. These prized rooms, which come with appropriate price tags (and may require a small consideration before you leave to get them again next year), can make your local Motel 6 look like a luxury suite. But you’re not there to enjoy the room, you’re there to work, 8.00 am to midnight for six straight days, and I prefer to walk it.
Walking, in fact, is something you become very good at once you get into the Messe (the convention center) which is essentially the size of a small town. There are nine halls, some of them one floor and others, three. You quickly learn to give yourself 20 minutes to get from an appointment in Hall 4 to one in Hall 9-there’s even a shuttle. Unfortunately smoking in the Messe sometimes seems not only permitted but mandatory. And on Saturday and Sunday, the German public are allowed in en masse-and they come by the thousand.
You can, of course, get your own booth, at a price, or simply work with PMA or a few other associations that have joint space. The advantage of a joint booth is that someone can take care of your space and your books if you want to go exploring, or just have lunch. But I prefer the existence of a nomad, walking the halls between appointments all day, assuming that someone somewhere will let me sit down once in a while, something like the Flying Dutchman with no home port to call my own. This probably sounds like a nightmare, and in some ways it is, but the joys of Frankfurt are numerous.
For instance, it is astonishing to see almost every country of the world displaying their books, represented somewhere in the nine halls. There’s a sense of community, of thousands around the world engaged in our profession, something that I never fail to find invigorating and extraordinary.
Some time around Day Four you also begin to feel that you can never have an original idea, mostly after you’ve just come across a booth proudly displaying the very line you were thinking of working on the following year. But that’s part of the point too-checking out ideas, designs, covers, series, the best ideas from all of those other publishers.
Of course, at the end of the day come the parties. One of the joys for me is seeing old colleagues from the UK and Australia and comparing notes. The Australian party, which had always been the most fun, seems to be no more after the entire 120,000 strong attendance appeared to descend on the stand one year, but there are plenty of others. And you have to stay alert-my best lead of the fair came at 11 o’clock on Saturday night in the arts cellar of a Frankfurt beerhall. And you have to follow up-after 40-50 appointments in six days it’s crucial to take good notes and send people the books you want to send them.
Frankfurt is a rights fair, and it’s a publisher’s fair. There are not too many booksellers, and none of the BEA razzmatazz and furry animals wandering around. It’s a place to sell foreign rights, buy them, meet fellow publishers, wear out a pair of shoes, feel part of the global community, and have more bratwurst than the last time you were in Wisconsin.
First-timers may find Frankfurt intimidating, and probably disappointing. The size of the bookfair is immense, and it’s not that easy to get appointments when you’re new. You need to make your appointments 6-8 weeks in advance, at least. The problem is that you can’t expect to just stop by a likely-looking booth and meet with someone. Many rights managers have full appointment books, 8:30 am to 6:00 pm, every half-hour, for five days. But what you can do is get the catalog, get the business card, and make sure you’re scheduled in early the next year. You also need to make sure your product is right for world sale. Americans are very much in a minority at the fair, and other countries aren’t necessarily interested in a parochial book, no matter how good it is.
BEA is a good training ground for Frankfurt, and the regionals before that. The differences in scale and attendance are enormous, but they give you a good feeling for the floor plan and business procedures of this type of event. And if you don’t get a kick out of BEA, you probably wouldn’t enjoy Frankfurt either. But for many of us with publishing flowing through our arteries, there’s nothing like it!