“Frankfurt is not a book fair, it’s a rights fair,” as one foreign editor noted. And rights were selling briskly, if more cheaply at the 2009 edition of the global gathering. Tougher to nail down from the event was the European stance toward digital publishing. While there was an undeniable significant “e” presence—from Jane Friedman’s unveiling of her e-book venture Open Road to the abundance of panels on the digital market to the display of e-Readers in the China forum—there was also a subtle backlash, with some harsh reactions to the perceived threat of piracy and a rash of anti-Google sentiment. The recession had only a minor impact on attendance, with the number of trade visitors off 2.7%, but rights center registration up 2.6%.

The complexity of the industry’s stance on technology is perhaps best exemplified by a comment about a panel from the first European TOC Conference. At the event, Pan Macmillan’s Sara Lloyd headlined a keynote subtitled: “What Does the Future Look Like for Publishers?” In it, she called for industry leaders to be more innovative in their approach to digital content and to, among other things, “ensure the content we produce can travel unimpeded.” However, speaking about a later panel during the conference, Brian O’Leary’s “The Impact of Free (and Piracy) on Books Sales” in which he showed indications that the threat of piracy in book publishing might be overstated, Lloyd told The Bookseller that the “content was misleadingly skewed and no attempt was made to suggest how different the patterns might be for a mass market.”

In his panel, O’Leary, a consultant, presented early findings from time spent tracking the prevalence of piracy on a handful of titles (provided by Random House and O’Reilly Media) on three PRP sites. The potential takeaway--that incidences of piracy might lead to an uptick in sales--did not fall on welcome ears in Europe, as Lloyd highlights. But Lloyd’s issue—that O’Leary’s data set is small and fractured—is a point O’Leary himself brought up. He emphasized that he’s looking to expand the study and track a wider swath of titles from a wider array of publishers. The goal, he insisted, is to gather more data to see what these early results might really mean. Houses in the U.S. and abroad, however, have been strikingly hesitant to get on board. That publishers refuse to support even the collection of data on this subject seem to point to more hesitation about digital—and a future where the “unimpeded” travel of content is embraced—more than anything else.

Also puzzling was the fact that the International Kindle didn’t generate more discussion during the fair. What affect could a device which allows readers all over Europe to download an English language edition of any book in the Kindle store have on foreign print rights? Digital rights? The open market business? Few seemed to have much to say on the topic.

And the (Big) Books

Beyond the big picture discussions on the future of the industry was, of course, the focus on the here and now, and the business technically at hand—selling books.

Although some pointed to Viking’s The Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness the leading contender for ‘big book of the fair’ (Penguin paid a rumored $1 million for it, and made sales in a number of foreign territories before day three closed), there were various titles which sparked conversation in the rights center.

Nelson Mandela’s memoir Conversations With Myself, which FSG’s Jonathan Galassi bought U.S. rights to (from the UK), was one. Another, which also went to FSG, was the Swedish novel Eric Chinski bought, Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Destitutes of Lodz, about the eponymous Polish ghetto during WWII. The Michael Jackson-Gotham Chopra graphic novel Fated, which Random House bought from Trident, and the debut novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore—written as the memoir of the first talking chimp—which Brian DeFiore is handling, also both sparked talk.