What book trends and what will be the “big book” of the fair are key questions that one always asks at the beginning of any Frankfurt Book Fair. On October 11 and 12, the Frankfurt Book Fair launched its virtual conference program, dubbed the Frankfurt Conference, which sought to give a preview of the hottest topics for discussion.
The general topic of discussion was industry trends and, in particular, best practices for selling a variety of translation around the world. “In general the market for translated fiction is buoyant,” Francois von Hurter, co-founder of Bitter Lemon Press, a U.K. publishing house focused on translated crime novels, said. “The old saw about only 3% of the books in the U.K. and U.S. are from translation is no longer accurate and that changed in the last few years, influenced, obviously, by sales of people like Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgård.”
Hurter added that the market seems to be more open and more receptive than in the past and that publishers should feel confident offering rights to titles for translation. “Sure, there's still a bit of a bias if people saying if it's a translation, it’s a bit esoteric or elitist – and we have to overcome that. But in general, I think we’re well on our way.”
He cited continued interest, especially in the U.K., for translated crime fiction, and in particular, books in series. He added that when it comes to successful series, readers don’t remember the name of an author, but rather, the name of hero or protagonist. “The silly example are the James Bond books,” he said, citing the example of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander or Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano as two other examples. “It’s the character’s name that you want to build up as the brand, not the author or publisher.”
The English-language markets prefer books that are approximately 300 pages long, as any longer and the cost of translation becomes onerous, and any shorter, the book may be viewed as being less substantial. Hurter also balked at the idea of publishers providing full translation on spec since it takes more time to fix a text than to start from scratch it the translation is not up to par. “So I think the old means of providing a translation sample and a very good synopsis is probably better than commissioning a translation by someone who may not do such a good job,” he said.
As for trendy topics, Hurter said that misery memoirs continue to be popular as are books confronting domestic abuse, violence against women and child trafficking. He sees a return to more urban oriented crime fiction, away from novels set in the countryside. As for what’s getting tired, he sees interest in Scandinavian crime fiction fading while books that circle back to World War II for a big twist or plot reveal are too ubiquitous. The hottest rights market to buy books from, in Hurter’s view, is Japan, which he says is producing “literature that is absolutely astounding.”
For would be authors, he had several pieces of advice. The best books these days are those that teach you about “interesting people and interesting societies.” When it comes to crime fiction, for example, what is important is that the book explains to you about local politics, corruption and police work. And books about serial killers are out: “Absolute evil is less interesting than more ambiguous evil,” Hurter said.