Frankfurt Ups and Downs
Herbert R. Lottman -- 11/6/00
This year's fair had more exhibitors, more electronics on show--and fewer hot books

At first glance this year's Frankfurt Book Fair (October 18-23), seemed as busy as could be, with more exhibitors and professional visitors than ever before; it's just that the pickings were poor. Few publishers or agents claimed to have one of the books of the year, or the book of the fair, and even fewer buyers were heard to say that they had found such a thing. Apparently the Anglo-American book world, the source of most international bestsellers, hadn't delivered the goods as well as usual. Either a firm's list-leaders hadn't finished their books, or the best of the bestsellers came earlier in the year and had been placed in all major markets. One European subagent was happy to report that she had sold all of her "Frankfurt books"--those sent to her by U.S. and U.K. agents and publishers--in the weeks immediately preceding the fair. Obviously such a performance was bound to dampen the suspense.

Officially, all figures were up, with 2,602 exhibitors from Germany alone (to last year's 2,458), and 4,285 foreign houses (4,194); all told they filled exhibition halls spread over two million square feet. As always, Britain and the U.S. fielded the largest contingents by far (900 for the former, 842 for the latter).

Once again the urgent need to press the flesh drew the elite of the rights market into town two days or even three before the official fair opening, and by Monday afternoon the lobbies of the Frankfurter Hof and Hessicher Hof hotels were jammed, with clusters of chairs preempted from morning on by agents and scouts for back-to-back meetings.

The hotel business actually continued throughout the fair, an implied criticism of the inconvenient location of the official Literary Agents Center. For if the new fair management had tended to a number of cosmetic changes in the run-up to this year's fair, it failed to respond to widespread dissatisfaction with the siting of the agents' corner. Scouts and agents did book tables (so as to get entrance tickets and catalogue listings), but then many of them stayed far away, so that half the 250-odd tables remained unoccupied much of the time.

Germany: Struggling Back
The galloping expansion of the city of Frankfurt--with a spectacular Eurocity development soon to surround the fairgrounds--contrasted with a battered German book trade only now getting back on its feet. After two flat years German book sales rose by just perceptible 2% in the first eight months of this year, and major groups were still feeling the pinch. This was not merely a matter for Germans; they are perhaps the world's biggest bidders for English-language books, so everybody had to care.

Thus the prestigious Holtzbrinck group, owner of three of Germany's leading literary/commercial trade houses, was completing a no-nonsense restructuring of operations, with many firings, much list-paring, to the tune of a bad press and the subverting of house authors by resentful former staff. Monika Sch ller, owner and president of S. Fischer Verlag and sister of group chairman Dieter von Holtzbrinck, admitted as much before a microphone at the traditional Fischer office reception that precedes the opening of the fair. "The house has been in some trouble since the last time we met," she announced, and then proceeded to describe a more purposeful publishing operation, with better targeting both in hardcover and in the famous Fischer paperback series; a young publishing whiz recruited from Bertelsmann's Siedler Verlag had been brought in to supervise it all (Frank Trümper, a Jerusalem fair editorial fellow three years back). Most of the revamping had been done, Sch ller added, before the arrival of a team from McKinsey--which competed the job. And in an aside to PW, chairman Dieter von Holtzbrinck expressed appreciation of the contribution of his U.S. and U.K. companies to the group's bottom line.

Hard times were not reflected in the fair's partying, with the giant Bertelsmann receptions at least as lavish as before. One Bertelsmanner, Arnulf Conrardi of Berlin Verlag, thought that the bad times of the past couple of years had blown over. If he had any regrets, they concerned the shortage of the quality fiction Berlin Verlag had always found in Anglo-American publishing, "so now we have to look at other languages." He had nothing derogatory to say about Anglo-American nonfiction.

The Vanishing Big Book
Peter Wilfert, publisher at one of Germany's best-known translating imprints, whose favorite language is American, also found it a good year for nonfiction. As for the fiction, the best had been sold before he could get to it, or it was over-hyped and not very good. And book trade stagnancy called for caution in any case. It was, decided Sergio Machado of Brazil's commercial fiction leader Editorial Récord, the fair of the lookalike. "We've been offered Harry Potter lookalikes, lookalikes for the Christian Jacq Egyptian sagas; everything is now available in lookalike."

New York scout Chris McInerney, who reports on American publishing goodies for bestseller imprints such as Germany's Lübbe, Spain's Ediciones B, Het Spectrum of the Netherlands, Japan's Sony and Argentina's Vergara, had alerted her principals to both fiction and nonfiction likely to be featured at Frankfurt. Just before the fair she also e-mailed a "hot list," and a checklist of the status of well-known commercial authors. She admits that her most enthusiastic comments were reserved for nonfiction, and notably for the memoir by G.E. chairman Jack Welch, for which Warner shelled out $7 million. Her German, Dutch and Argentinian houses all made offers. Het Spectrum also went for The Future D sn't Need Us by Bill Joy, while Lübbe bid for the Putnam novel War Story, acquired Devil's Cure by Ken Oppel (Hyperion) and was closing on a multiple-book contract for James Patterson.

Scout Mary Anne Thompson, whose clients include Germany's Dr mer-Weltbild, France's Belfond, Britain's Macmillan/ Pan/Picador, Brazil's Rocco and Spain's Grijalbo-Mondadori, found it a difficult fair to work, what with the vast amount of material made available only after the fair's opening--when a scout needs advance material. "We're all busier than ever," she said, "because the scouts are getting better and better in their coverage, and there are so many more books."

From the buyer's point of view, a buyer like Jorge Naveiro of Atlántida in Buenos Aires, there were few surprises at this fair; everything interesting had been available at the Chicago BEA. Or else he was being told, "We're waiting for a manuscript. We'll have it at the London fair next spring."

Renaud Bombard, who shops around for French bestseller imprint Presses de la Cité, was another who expressed disappointment with this year's commercial fiction crop. The best book around, he thought--even though it belonged to a competing Paris house--was a trilogy called Inca, spanning the years of Spanish conquest, with both Inca and Spanish characters, and a mixed romance or two. PW tracked the project to new Paris agent-packager Susanna Lea, who was promoting it worldwide. (One of the names behind the pen name Antoine B. Daniel is her husband, editor and novelist Antoine Audouard.) In France the Inca series will be done by Christian Jacq's publisher, Bernard Fixot at XO Editions, with the first book (The Puma's Shadow) due this spring. Lea expects to sew up 15 languages including English by the time this report sees print.

But for subagent Susanna Zevi of Milan, it wasn't the year for selling at the fair, even though she had some good ones from her clients Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Henry Holt and ICM. "Everybody is going to wait until after the fair to decide." She had taken on a surprise entry in The Messiah Before Jesus, a Schocken book in Hebrew translated by the University of California Press; an authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the author describes fragments which tell of a self-claimed messiah who lived and died (at the hands of the Romans) before Jesus--and who was resurrected on the third day.

The Virtual Side
This year's electronics show on the vast ground floor of Hall 4 displayed the projects and products of some 300 enterprises, while another 2,500-plus participants in the traditional book halls showed their own ventures in electronic publishing alongside old-fashioned print products. Whatever the original intentions of its organizers, Frankfurt's electronics pavilion had proved a disappointment in its early years, chiefly providing a showcase for finished products ready for the German market.

That has changed. PW's visitor found a number of new ventures emerging from the start-up stage, such as Xlibris, which offers a platform for new writers in hardback, trade paperback, and electronic formats--all without charge to the writer. A significant difference between Xlibris and a vanity press, founder and CEO John Feldcamp explains, is that his company d s the job for free, even for well-designed hardcovers with jackets; only an author with particular requirements will be billed for the extra work (and the maximum out of pocket is $1200). Feldcamp's company is backed by Random House's investment subsidiary Random House Ventures.

Another, smaller venture on the same floor is Litraweb, which publishes good but forgotten titles online and--exceptionally, and when Litraweb's arrangement with the original copyright holder permits--for printing out. Prices for electronic delivery--says the company's president Robert Fletcher--are lower than what a printed copy would cost. Litraweb stores works in French, Spanish and German, targeting students, travelers, and readers living outside their own countries hungering for books in their own tongues.

Upstairs in Hall 4.2, a floor devoted to scientific publishers, PW finds Elsevier Science, where John Regazzi, CEO of Elsevier Inc. (responsible for North American operations), and managing director of Elsevier Science's global electronic publishing division specializing in life sciences and physical sciences, explains that electronic delivery is actually the firm's core business now, with most customers demanding the "electronics only" option, or "electronics in the print package."

His is an institutional market, typically libraries, industrial or academic facilities--this last the most important. It's only the third year in this new field for ElsevierScience, yet its eight electronic publishing businesses are already generating 50% of the group's revenues, with 55% projected before the end of this year.

In English-language Hall 8, down among the publishing giants, PW meets Thomson Learning's president and CEO Bob Christie. The Thomson Corporation now consists of operating units in education, legal and regulatory, financial, reference, scientific information, and health care. Of the group's four operating units, paradoxically, Christie's is the one deriving the lowest proportion of its revenues from electronics because books are still what customers want. But the books are packaged with electronics and in the end 70% of the unit's revenues come from products combining print and electronics.

Elsewhere on the fairgrounds, in the French section of international hall 9, the stand of paperback imprint Havas Poche included a beta version of ePocket.fr, billed as the first European site for downloading digitized content for all platforms, including the PC screen and, eventually, hand-held devices such as the Palm Pilot. The system will be activated during this month [November], the first titles to be French literary works drawn from the Havas paperback backlist. Contents will be protected--to safeguard the copyrights of authors and the publisher; print-outs are unavailable. Books will bear a price tag identical to that of the paper versions.

Perhaps the people who devised the first Frankfurt e-book awards were rushing things? Some of the guests who suppressed their skepticism and attended the bountiful banquet attached to the ceremony seemed to think so, for they didn't see how the spread (one person, one lobster) could be paid for by e-book profits; apparently the bill was being forwarded to another Bill (Gates). A few participants seemed to think the event counter-productive, as if it only served to underline the distance that separated them from the time when profits from electronic publishing would buy a meal.

The start-ups offering online rights listing and negotiations were ubiquitous, although there was little indication elsewhere on the floor or indeed in the Agents Center that anything had changed in the way rights were being bought and sold; the bigger the agent, the more valuable the property, the less likely it was that the property would be the subject of an online listing.

Frankfurt Virtual, an initiative of the book fair now in an alliance with Britain's Whitaker, began less as a business venture than a public service, starting out as a printed catalogue distributed free, later converting to "Rights on Rom" available to all fair exhibitors. The point, then, was to help those who couldn't help themselves in the international marketplace. The new service will be available only to exhibitors, who will be able to enter titles (and to revise information), even to build their own Web site called an "e-stand."

Frankfurt Virtual, explains its manager Marifé Boix García, will build on its existing rights catalogue. The listings include a description of contents, a rundown of rights available, rights already sold. The publisher's individual "e-stand," separately accessed, indicates what material can be read onscreen or downloaded. The next feature, Boix explains, which should be available by the middle of next year, will be a negotiating function (see "Whither Online Rights Trading?," Oct. 30), giving the vendor absolute control of whom to talk to and what to show. The chief difference between Frankfurt's business model and existing rights services, she says, is the former's stress on people to people. Yet in the end Frankfurt's will also become a for-profit enterprise, in competition with the others.

Drama and Comedy
For some fairg rs the guest appearance of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin was a poignant moment in an otherwise humdrum book fair scene; for others it seemed comic relief. Yeltsin arrived with a fleet of 14 limousines, as a press spokesman described the scene, to promote German publication of his latest book, Midnight Diaries (Public Affairs), which deals with the final decade of his political life. London agent Andrew Nurnberg, who has represented Yeltsin from day one, set up a dinner with the author's publishers from all over. Germany's Propyläen, an imprint of the Econ Ullstein List group, got Yeltsin and reporters together briefly on its Hall 6 stand, where he posed for the cameras holding up the German edition of his book, murmured some impressions of this first-ever visit to the fair, even promised to return with his old comrade, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Reporters began shouting out questions in German, English, even Russian, but by then he was gone.

To add to the pathos, note the guest appearances of 98-year-old Leni Riefenstahl, promoting her photographic collection. "Germany lost the war," she was quoted. "I was the best scapegoat because I made the best film of the era" (Triumph of the Will, often referred to as the best propaganda film ever produced).

Another newsworthy visitor was the virtually unknown Nobel winner Gao Xingjian, whose prime publisher was pocket-sized Editions de l'Aube way down in southern France (and not even a fair exhibitor). The news at the fair was that HarperCollins, an early fan via its Australian outpost, bought two of his novels.

As always, one of the fair's most dramatic moments was a breakfast, the annual gathering of Jerusalem Book Fair editorial fellows (many of whom have since risen to become editors-in-chief or publishing directors); the context, as it unhappily often is, was the morning news of growing Arab-Israeli tensions. The gloom was tackled head on by Jerusalem fair director Zev Birger, who recalled that he had once written an article for book trade journal Logos on "crisis management" of book fairs. The gathering couldn't have had a better guest list, with Bertelsmann book chief Peter Olson at the head table, and Holtzbrinck's Monika Sch ller as host of the breakfast.

PW's reporter stood by as shock waves struck a late-night party as word spread of the sale of one of France's best-known family-owned publishers (and the fifth largest), Flammarion, to Italy's tentacular book and press group Rizzoli (News, Oct. 23).

The fair closed before another deal was closed, involving the sale of one of Latin America's last remaining independents, the del Carril family's Emecé of Buenos Aires. It was about to merge into one of mainland's Spain's megagroups, depending on the outcome of a final round of bidding. The two contenders were Planeta--itself still a family dynasty--and Plaza y Janés, part of the Bertelsmann empire (also still a family affair, come to think of it). In anticipation of the changeover, Emecé Editores España--publisher of the Harry Potter books in Spain--had been bought out by one of the del Carril brothers (Pedro) and his wife Sigrid Kraus; they'll call their family affair Ediciones Salamandra.

Speaking of dynasties, one of Europe's best-known, Albin Michel, run by a third-generation member of the founding family, Francis Esmenard, marked its 100th anniversary with what must have been the fair's most elegant dinner party, at the city's ornately reconstructed Old Opera House. In a welcoming address Esmenard noted that the family imprint is actually a group, with a monthly book club and an education publishing division tacked on to the famous trade imprint. He paid tribute to the importance of translations to the house, singling out his pioneer foreign acquisition editors--all Americans--Peter Israel, Ivan Nabokov and Nina Salter. (Their successor is a French Americanist, Tony Cartano.)

Another anniversary this year involved a strictly American imprint, New York's Springer Publishing, the occasion for a small and warm party at the Hessischer Hof. Bernhard Springer, son of Julius Springer (one of the owners of the German scientific house of that name) had emigrated to the U.S. during the Nazi era, being a German Jew; he founded the New York company in 1950. After his death in 1970 his widow Ursula, a college professor in comparative education, decided to carry on, expanding into new health care areas such as nursing and aging (in which field they are world leaders).

Inside the Fairgrounds and Beyond
Once again the fair's focal theme provided an opportunity for the guest country--Poland this time--to show what it can do in the arts as well as literature, filling the city with exhibitions and music, filling the large ground floor of Hall 3 with publishers' working booths as well as cultural exhibits and panel rooms. One no-nonsense panel chaired by Polish Book Chamber president Andrzej Chrzanowski brought in several leading international publishers--such as Pearson Education's Luynette Owen and Hatier International's Patrick Dubs--to discuss their own work in the Polish market. No one sought to hide the problems that the changing political scene has brought to the book economy.

One publisher that seems to have found a way to make the best of both worlds is Noir sur Blanc, offspring of a Swiss-Polish couple, Vera and Jan Michalski, with strong publishing programs both in Warsaw and Paris (in the former, they do Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster, Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller). Their French list, which includes a considerable amount of Polish literature, was recently enhanced by the acquisition of medium-sized, all-but-forgotten Buchet Chastel--which happens to publish Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell. (To build up the French list, they recently took on an experienced publisher, Henry Marcellin, and American-in-Paris editor Cynthia Liebow.)

As always, the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM), whose hundred-odd member companies most certainly represent the high end of the book world, brought together nearly 300 heads of houses and top executives for its annual general assembly. They heard comforting words from their outgoing chairman Robert Campbell of Blackwell Science (U.K.): despite the non-stop mergers, membership figures held steady. Campbell yielded the gavel to STM's newly elected chairman Robert D. Bovenschulte, director of publications of the American Chemical Society, which d s books, journals and electronic products.

STM's chief concern in recent years has been copyright erosion; outgoing chairman Campbell argued in his final report that the way to get governments to accept their plea for stronger copyright control over new publishing systems is to publish better and faster. One significant innovation, described from the podium by J l Baron of Healthgate Data, is CrossRef, a linking of 1100 journals sponsored by Blackwell Science, Elsevier Science, Harcourt, Springer-Verlag, and John Wiley; activated at the beginning of June, it is already being used by 30 publishers, who so far have deposited 1.6 million articles in the system.

And so it was. Meanwhile the worriers were already thinking about next year's fair, which runs from October 10 to 14 (real worriers will have noted that the final day is a Sunday, fair management having eliminated the closing Monday). And thanks to the construction of a new and much enlarged Hall 3, the German book trade will shift to Halls 3 and 4, abandoning 5 and 6 to the foreign contingent, while the English-language crowd will probably remain in Hall 8--because most publishers like it that way.

Now, if only they would get the Literary Agents Center right this time.