This week marks my 25th year attending the Frankfurt Book Fair. It’s hard to believe it’s been a quarter century since I first set foot in the Festhalle Messe. I can still remember walking through the doors of Hall 4 on that very first day and being met by a cacophony of different languages. The place was in complete disarray as hundreds of publishers unloaded pallets and tore apart stand supply boxes amid puffs of forklift exhaust. I was a foreign rights novice then, nervous and jet-lagged, and, as I surveyed the state of the floors, I instantly fretted about the fact that all I’d packed for the 40 hours of walking and standing that lay before me were two-inch heels.
My publisher, New Harbinger Publications in Oakland, Calif., is a popular psychology press that, back in 1992, was just starting to make inroads with our international audience. I’d come to Frankfurt because we’d seen an influx of interest from foreign publishers and agents when the Publishers Marketing Association (now the Independent Book Publishers Association) began displaying our books at the fair in the late ’80s.
Back then, IBPA was led by my dear friend and mentor Jan Nathan. Since her passing, her son Terry leads IBPA and continues to share the love for all things publishing instilled in him by his mother. Now, when I need help and advice at Frankfurt, there’s Terry with his can-do attitude.
I spent my first few years at Frankfurt in a beginner’s scramble for business. I was averaging less than 10 appointments per day with agents and publishers but knew I could do better. So I decided to look up the psychology terms in Danish, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Polish, and Spanish that fill our books. I scribbled down translations for anger, anxiety, self-esteem, and parenting, and set out in search of publishers displaying books with those words.
It took some marathon walking, but my simple method worked, leading me to many of the agents and publishers I still work with today, like Montse Yanez from Spain; Ruth Weibel, Suzanne DeRoche, and Hannah Fosh at Germany’s Liepman; Lily Chen, Wendy King, and Luc Kwanten at China’s Big Apple; Stefania Fietta from Italy; Ayako Sasamoto and Eriko Takeuchi at Japan UNI; and Amina Marix Evans from the Netherlands.
These days, I meet with upwards of 20 agents and publishers per day. The personal relationships I’ve built with them over the years have not only been lucrative for my company but have made my work at Frankfurt that much more meaningful. Going over our new spring list often waits as first we catch up on each other’s lives: How was your daughter’s wedding? Where did you go on your yearly vacation? How does it feel to finally be a grandparent?
My longevity at the fair has taught me a few things. One is that American self-help trends often don’t take root in other countries for years, so staying fresh on our backlist is crucial. Another is that a great cover can bridge many a language gap.
In the beginning, it was difficult to sell translation rights for our workbooks, which are big sellers in the U.S., and helped to establish us as a trustworthy leader in self-help. The lack of foreign interest in workbooks startled me, until European publishers shared their concerns that no one in their countries would want to take a pen and desecrate a book by writing inside it. Over time, publishers shook off that reluctance, and now our workbooks are regularly translated into Danish, Dutch, German, Italian, Polish, and Spanish. In the last few years, I’ve also seen real growth in the foreign markets for teen and spirituality books (and we’ve been able to expand our list in these areas with recent acquisitions of imprints like Instant Help and Reveal).
I’ve worked for New Harbinger for 35 years and am so grateful to our cofounders, Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning, for entrusting me with foreign rights. Pat—who retired in the early 2000s—and Matt have always encouraged my yearly treks to Frankfurt and been unwavering sources of support. My job has allowed me to meet so many wonderful book-loving professionals from around the world at this indispensable fair. Since I’ve been coming to Frankfurt, more than 2,300 New Harbinger titles have been translated into 41 different languages. I still might not be able to say self-help in all of them, but I’m getting there.
Dorothy Hall Smyk is the foreign rights director at New Harbinger Publications.