The Frankfurt Book Fair ran from October 8 to 12, wrapping up on Sunday, and while professional attendance appears to have dipped (exact figures were not available at press time), there was a noticeable increase in the enthusiasm of attendees. Brisk dealing was reported by agents working at the rights center, and speakers on the professional program projected confidence that the publishing industry has turned a corner and expressed optimism about the future.
HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray, who spoke on the fair’s opening day, discussed a new era of experimentation, which has already yielded positive results for the publisher.
“What we’ve seen in the digital realm is that every time you have a new partner—a new digital partner and a new digital offer—you’re creating new merchandising opportunities,” he said. “So, while maybe there are fewer tables at the front of bookstore chains for marketing and promotion, when you introduce a brand new e-tailer, or a different e-model or distribution partner, you are picking up new ways to market your books. In this day and age, [new] companies come up seemingly overnight with billion-dollar valuations, and the next thing you know they’re trying to get into the publishing business. So you have to be at the forefront. You have to try things.”
Rights dealing, of course, remains the lifeblood of the fair, and this year was no exception. With a record number of agents registered, business was brisk, buoyed by a number of seven-figure advances. In the first of two such deals made just before the official start of the fair, Kate Medina at Random House acquired The Girls, by 25-year-old author Emma Cline, from agent Bill Clegg, as part of a three-book deal. The novel is said to be inspired by the Manson cult in the 1960s. In the second big pre-fair deal, David Ebershoff, also at Random House, took North American rights from agent Susan Golomb to Cameroon novelist Imbolo Mbue’s The Longings of Jende Jonga. Golomb said the immigrant tale has “some of the most delightful and refreshing characters seen in recent fiction.”
In addition to blockbuster U.S. deals, a short Spanish novel generated buzz at the fair, and some hefty advances. Milena Busquets’s También Esto Pasará (This Too Shall Pass) was preempted by Molly Stern and Alexis Washam at Hogarth for a sum rumored to be in the substantial six-figure range. The U.S. sale came after a flurry of pre-fair acquisitions of the title by publishers around the world. Busquets lives in Barcelona and works as a journalist and translator, and the novel was represented in Frankfurt by Spain-based Pontas Literary & Film.
This year’s event marked the end of an era for the Frankfurt Book Fair, which will undergo a major overhaul in 2015, as English-language publishers move from their longtime home in Hall 8, on the outskirts of the fairgrounds, to the middle of the action, in Hall 6.
“It’s quite a big step for us,” said Juergen Boos, director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, adding that changes in the industry made the switch necessary. He explained that for much of the fair’s history, English-language publishers were largely sellers at the fair, meaning that attendees from other countries went to Hall 8 to see them. “Now, in a global world, this is not the relationship any more,” Boos noted. The new layout reflects the fact that the publishing business is increasingly international; the aim is to ensure that no visitor has to walk for more than five minutes to get to a meeting, whether with American or British publishers, Asians, Latin Americans, or Europeans.
Boos said he has no fears about making the shift, but one regret: “I wish we had done it sooner.” He noted that the reaction to the move has been very positive. “If we hadn’t been too scared to change, we would have done this two years ago and it would have been perfect. Now we have to speed up a little bit.”
Meanwhile, there was plenty of change already on display at the 2014 fair, which debuted an overhauled ConTec, the pre-fair digital-themed show, and the Frankfurt Business Club, which offered extra benefits for attendees. While some kinks need to be worked out, Boos said he was happy with the club, and again cited a changing industry as the reason for the move.
“There are a lot of people coming from technology companies, and from hardware makers, who realize that they have to have content,” Boos explained, adding, “These people want to explore the possibilities here, and maybe they don’t need a stand, but they need to be found. The business club offers this.”
Perhaps the biggest trend at Frankfurt this year, is that more publishers, and the fair itself, are clearly no longer afraid to, as Murray said, try things. “We know that digital is going to stay, print is going to stay, Amazon is going to stay," Boos says. "But it is not the end of the world. I am not scared to change.”