Last year, students in the master’s program in Publishing: Digital and Print Media, at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, were volunteers at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair—and shared their thoughts with Publishers Weekly. This year, the destination for three different student volunteers was the Frankfurt Book Fair, thanks to generous support from the Oscar Dystel Research Fellowship Fund and the literary agent Jane Dystel. Student volunteers Julia Blyumkin, a freelance writer and designer; Keri-Lee Horan, digital production editor at Commonweal magazine, and Monica Odom, literary assistant, Liza Dawson Associates, discovered that three themes emerged: the value of the personal connection; a certain serendipity that was mentioned time and again; and, finally, a call from conference speakers to return to the basic fundamentals of a good story. Their individual impressions follow.
Up Close and Personal
My job was to help out at the rights, or agents center (known as the “Lit Ag”), where more than 500 literary agents sat at tables lined up in rows, organized by letter and number. With so many agents holding nonstop meetings with publishers, the Lit Ag must be a well-oiled machine, and indeed it was. To me, the amazing thing about the Lit Ag was that in the midst of this digital revolution in publishing, agents were still meeting in person, photocopying paper contracts, and even using snail mail at times for correspondence. We tend to think technological innovation and the shift to digital have made e-mail, Skype, and video conferencing the go-to tools of the deal, but clearly there is something to be said about the value of these agent speed-meetings. When it comes to the critical moments of a deal being made, there is no substitute for the personal connections made in a face-to-face meeting in the Lit Ag. It was empowering for me as a young person in the agenting business to see not only that agents still matter but so do their well-honed, traditional methods of doing business.
—Monica Odom, Agents Center
As I sat in the office of Publishing Perspectives, the online journal of international publishing news and opinion for which I was reporting and writing at the fair, I listened to reporters and editors discuss their strategy for covering the world’s largest gathering of booksellers. Again and again, I heard the word “serendipity.” The serendipitous story. That’s what we were all after.
Before I headed out on my first assignment, Ed Nawotka, Publishing Perspectives’ editor-in-chief, had one piece of advice: “If you were to recap your day to a friend, what would you say? That’s your story. Write about that.” He then sent me off to wander the six halls in search of that serendipity. As the fair progressed, this word cropped up in panel discussions and on the floor. But it was more than a word. For me, and I suspect for many of those who traveled to Frankfurt to sell their rights, find the next big book, or learn about the latest industry developments, it was all about the fortuitous encounters in that charged, almost magnetic atmosphere. Chatting with a new friend, one who had been coming to Frankfurt for years, I was asked: “Where would you like to end up?” I named my ideal position, only to hear: “I have a lot of friends there. Let me know when you get back to New York and I’ll introduce you.” A serendipitous story? Perhaps not. More of a serendipitous life.
—KeriLee Horan, Publishing Perspectives
“Technologies come and go, but the story is always at the heart.” I could not have said it better than Martin Baynton, the world-renowned writer, illustrator, and creator of The WotWots, the New Zealand television series and associated games. He spoke at the innovative “StoryDrive,” a two-day conference at the fair devoted to storytelling through a variety of mediums. His words were echoed by Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, who said, “Story is natural. It’s biological. Stories are like opposable thumbs.” It then struck me that amid all the talk of combating piracy, understanding the challenges of supply chain management, refining our mobile strategy, and revealing the wonders of a reality augmented, one fundamental ideology buzzed louder than the rest: a great story is only the beginning, but without it, we will be forever lost. It is by the exchange of ideas, concerns, and achievements that we as publishers are able to return to the basics, to tell the greatest story, no matter the medium. Little stands between content providers and the tremendous opportunities that lie ahead, and I could not be more excited to dive in, head first.