Guest Blogger: Ginger Clark on the Frankfurt Book Fair

by | Nov 17, 2008 | Literary Agents | 1 comment

Ginger Clark is an agent at Curtis Brown. Check out her Publishers Marketplace page here.

I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair last month for the second time with Dave Barbor, our Director of Foreign Rights. My first time was in 2007, and I was very nervous and excited beforehand. Nervous because I was not sure what to expect. What would the foreign editors be like? (More later, but in a word—wonderful) Would I get lost on the way from the airport to our hotel? (No!) Would the Germans have weird bathrooms (of course not)?

I was excited because I was finally going to an event that had seemed so glamorous to me, when I was an assistant scheduling my boss’s trip to Frankfurt years ago. I was looking forward to meeting our foreign agents, and to visiting a new country, and attending the famously huge Bertelesmann party.

This year, I was more just mostly excited—because I knew what to expect. Frankfurt is hard work, but it is also invigorating.

Dave and I spend four days of the Fair (Wednesday through Saturday) in the agents’ centre. It’s a large room with around 400 identical tables with white walls and brown carpeting and plastic chairs. There are not enough stalls in the ladies room and so there’s always a line.

But, it’s smoke free now, which I’m told is a real step up over previous fairs. We have a snack bar and six computers where we can check email, and plenty of water coolers regularly spaced around the tables.

We’re there from about 9 AM until 6 pm for four days. We do half hour meetings with foreign editors and also meet with our two dozen subagents from around the world. The meetings are themselves 30 minutes each, so that’s about 18 per day. Dave and I are double booked for the first three days of the fair. That means we both have meetings going on at all times, and so neither of us have any time to grab lunch beyond flagging down a cart with sandwiches and trying to eat them quickly between meetings.

(I will tell you—the food is Germany is a lot better than I expected. They do wonderful things with potatoes, and their Italian restaurants are quiet good. Except the sandwiches at the agents’ centre. Those are deeply unimpressive.)

Saturday afternoon is usually not entirely double booked, which means one of us can have a leisurely trip to the restroom while the other handles a meeting. And we actually were done early this year—our last appointment was at 4:30, so we were out of there at 5 pm!

Prior to these four days of meetings, we also do a half day on Tuesday at the bar at the Frankfurter Hof. Hundreds of agents and editors wander around the bar (which is better described as the bar, a couple of restaurants, and the front terrace of the rather large Frankfurter Hof) trying to find one another so they can discuss books while sitting at a cramped table, or huddled outside on a wall surrounded by all the smokers. (Everyone smokes at Frankfurt. Even people you thought did not smoke, smoke at Frankfurt).

Somehow, that half day at the Hof is just as exhausting as the four days you spend at the agents’ centre. It’s the wandering around in a crowd trying to find people you might never have met before that is draining.

So what do we do during these meetings? We pitch the editors our lists, which consist of the new books coming our from our clients in the near future where we have kept foreign rights. We also discuss ongoing business with editors who have bought from us in the past, and find out what they are looking for in the future. We catch up on their careers, and if we can, gossip a bit.

Then the editors check their watches, realize they have only 5 minutes to make a 15 minute trip to Hall 8, and dash off apologetically.

And the editors!

They are, with very exceptions, energetic, brilliant, enthusiastic, and friendly. Almost all of them speak perfect English. They all care just as passionately as we do about books and readers. And they have a much more demanding Fair than Dave and I do, because not only are they dashing from hall to hall, needing often up to 20 minutes to run between meetings, but—they do most of these meetings in a non-mother tongue.

In our world of multi-national corporations and global trade, that always amazes me. Being fluent in a second (or third, or fourth, or…) language has become so very valuable in business. Many of these people could be making a lot more money working at a bank, or as some kind of interpreter for diplomats or businessmen.

And yet, here they are, working in publishing. Publishing famously does not pay well here in the US, and it is often the same way abroad. These editors DEFINITELY care as much about books as we do.

Coming home from Frankfurt is a relief. But it’s also so reassuring and invigorating. Not only do I work in an industry here that still cares about books, but—it’s still that way, around the world, as well.


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