Here are some things “everybody” knows about Frankfurt. (1) The hotels are hideously expensive (especially during Book Fair week), the food is bad and the weather is worse. (2) Since so much of the work is done in the evening over cocktails, or late dinners, you don't schedule appointments before 10 a.m., if you can help it, noon, if you're with a famously independent press. (3) There's always got to be a “big book,” something “everybody” is talking about, except that there hasn't been one in years and “everybody” knows it.
But this year “everybody” was only sometimes right. At the Frankfurt Buchmesse last week, the hotels were expensive, that's for sure—is it my imagination or are more American book folk staying at more reasonably priced small hotels a 20-minute train ride away?—but the weather was grand. The agent center was quiet but not silent before lunchtime, when you could actually sometimes buy sushi or salads at the stands. Most important, there was not a big book, unless you counted Ed Victor's relentless flogging of the Keith Richards bio, for which Little, Brown earlier this fall paid $7 million for just world English rights.
But what distinguished this book fair was that the 2007 version actually lived up to its PR as an “international” fair. Not only was Catalonia the honored “nation”—a controversial choice that underlined an age-old European turf battle of which many Americans have been ignorant—and not only were American scouts and publishers crowing about the acquisitiveness of non—English language publishers, there was also a slew of medium-size books on international themes that inspired huge passion. Three books about Pakistan or Pakistanis were being shopped by William Morris's Bill Clegg; a fourth, Half Baked, was enthusiastically shopped by Barney Karpfinger. Add to that Ellen Levine's sale of Age of Orphans, a trilogy about a Kurdish family, and War Child, about a boy soldier in Kenya (who is now a huge music star there), which went to St. Martin's in the U.S. and to Little, Brown in the U.K. Some agents suggested these titles owe their popularity to megahits like The Kite Runner and A Long Way Gone; some opined that the Iraq war has made us more globally minded, more interested in a world spirit (Weltgeist, my phrase book tells me).
Of course, there were also some homegrown American hits, like Josh Bazell's Beat the Reaper, for which Little, Brown's Reagan Arthur paid more than $1 million in a two-book deal before the fair; the novel about a serial killer will also be published in the U.K. and the Netherlands. And then there's The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer about a CIA assassin, coming from St. Martin's, and sold in Germany and Spain; agent Stephanie Cabot at press time had offers from Italy and Holland—and Warner Bros. has picked up the film rights for George Clooney.
Do these violent themes have to do with The Sopranos, as more than one scout suggested, or war, again? Who knows? The one thing that's for sure is that this year, at Frankfurt, as sure as you could (sometimes) get sushi instead of stale cheese sandwiches at the lunch stands, you could find some interesting, unusual buys in books.
At least they're not the same old schnitzel.
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