There are many hallmarks of the Frankfurt Book Fair. The early-evening drinks at the Hessischer Hof, the late-night drinks at the Frankfurter Hof, the painful early morning meetings in the rights center. And, inevitably, there are the big books—the ones that fetch huge advances and sell in a flurry of foreign rights deals, becoming the toasts of the show. Some years there’s only one, but most years there are several. In 2020, though, many are wondering if there will be any. Because, for all the ways business was able to continue unabated at this year’s virtual Frankfurt Book Fair, which wrapped up October 17, creating buzz around big books has been quite tricky. It raises the question, can there be a big fair book if no one is attending the fair?
While books are selling, and for significant sums, some industry insiders—scouts, foreign rights associates, and literary agents—think their foreign rights business could be negatively affected by the absence of an in-person fair. One agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she felt the deals she made in the run-up to the most recent London Book Fair (which, like Frankfurt, was fully virtual) didn’t get the same attention from foreign publishers as they normally would. Speaking about a book she sold just before London, she said, “I closed a huge seven-figure fiction deal and didn’t get as much incoming interest from foreign publishers as I should have, with that perfect prefair timing.” Now she’s waiting to see if the same will hold for this fair. “I think I’ll know more about Frankfurt in the next week or two, once people are requesting the big stuff I just sold.”
Felicity Blunt, an agent at Curtis Brown UK, sold, arguably, the big book of the fair—a debut novel titled Lessons in Chemistry by an American copywriter named Bonnie Garmus. Doubleday’s Lee Boudreaux acquired North American rights for a rumored $2 million, and the book had, as of press time, sold in 22 other foreign deals. Acknowledging that it’s not quite business as usual, Blunt said she felt it was still possible to generate buzz around a book. “Publishers feel increasingly focused on what they want to buy and how they will reach the market,” she said. “The books they believe can cut through are the ones they will confidently put big sums down for.”
For Blunt, the reaction to Lessons in Chemistry is proof of her theory. She said she has “never seen such a consistently excited reaction to any debut writer on the international stage.”
Nearly all insiders said the nature of doing business at this year’s Frankfurt—with buyers and sellers stretching their virtual meetings over a string of weeks instead of squeezing them into the standard three-day window of the show—made for a new experience. For some, it was disorienting.
“It’s hard for everyone, both agents and publishers, to catch people’s attention in a big way,” said one agent, who asked not to be named. “Until publishers have heard from a number of agents via email and Zoom, how can they compare and get a sense of what is ‘big’?” she asked. “There’s an isolation going on that I think is leveling the playing field, which means that small books might be getting equal attention, and that could be very good.”
Another agent said that because people aren’t all together in one place for a short period of time, “there isn’t this idea that you buy something in a few days at the fair. That means it’s going to be harder work to get the same number of foreign deals.”
For scouts, who are monitoring the right sales, this year’s virtual event didn’t leave them wanting for material. “We’re seeing a good amount of noise from our usual suspects—the bigger agencies—and certain titles are getting the attention, and money, that would qualify in normal years as buzzworthy,” said one foreign scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity. But the serendipity of hearing about something at the show—those “hidden gems,” as he put it—is gone. “Deals are getting done, but it’s a hell of a lot less fun.”
Another scout said she didn’t see a slowdown in business, noting that “there were a ton of sales and auctions, both for publishing and for film and TV, in the run-up to the fair in September and really throughout the summer.” For her, Frankfurt 2020 “feels similar to me as it did in years past.” The exception? “I’m sitting in my house and not running around the Buchmesse.”
One agent actually shifted the timing of a submission, skeptical about the ability to generate buzz without the in-person event. “I had a monster of a deal in late August that I purposely didn’t hold for the fair,” she said. “I just didn’t feel confident that the fair would have the same concentrated momentum that it usually does.”
Rebecca Gardner, v-p and rights director at the Gernert Company, said, “The ‘big book’ phenomenon at book fairs has been fading for years, so I don’t think this year represents a seismic shift.” Nonetheless, she acknowledged that a virtual event presents different hurdles. “I’m sure it’s true that there is an element of word-of-mouth that can lead to business at, or soon after, Frankfurt that either isn’t taking place this time or is happening on a much slower email-by-email, text-by-text, Zoom-by-Zoom basis.”
For most insiders, though, the problem with this year’s virtual Frankfurt wasn’t a missed foreign sale or two. It was the loss of something more intangible—the rush of hearing about an exciting new book in a place so many associate with career-defining moments. As one agent put it, “The naked truth? 2020 is just a bad year for everything. So that would include a big Frankfurt book.”