The Big Daddy of all the Book Fairs: Frankfurter Buchmesse

As a spanking new press with one publication–Burning Silk, my first novel in the Textile Trilogy–and another in the pipeline, going to Europe to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair would have been a case of the intent of our grasp exceeding our reach.

The Set-Up
But since I was already going to be in Europe as a presenter at an academic colloquium on The Woodstock Years, 1965-75 at Le Havre University, and had exchanged my home in Berkeley for ten days in a canal house in Amsterdam to work on and research my second book, Linen Shroud, we decided to attend the Frankfurter Buch Messe, where the greatest cost was the hotel room (178 euros/night for a hostel.)

Reportedly 20K book professionals participate in what is styled as the world’s biggest book fair. Does this include the 10K members of the press? It certainly doesn’t include the public whose number reportedly swell into six figures.

Gratefully, Not Everyone Speaks English Yet…

And if they do, they often prefer to converse in their own language. My former neighbor and friend in Berkeley Inke Schwab, who had returned to her native Germany four years earlier, responded to my offer of a shared adventure. Inke, being trilingual, proved to be an immense asset in negotiating the complexities of the fair, a challenge not only linguistic but also deeply cultural.

Proximity to the Past
On Monday and Tuesday, we drove up into the hills 100 kilometers beyond Frankfurt into the Vogelsberg–as dotted with windmills as a Miyazaki fantasy film–where my relations through my immigrant great grandmother still live in our ancestral village. In Rebgeshain, perhaps three hundred households, people are most likely to marry someone from the village or from the next village. (This observation gives rise to the aphorism: Die besten stecken findet man in der hahesten hecken [sic] which translates loosely: If you’re looking for a walking stick, find it in your own hedge.) This accounts for the remarkable fact, as my German friends tell me, that my first letter addressed to this family ten years ago, bore on the envelope only a century old photo of the original house, the family name Ruppel and the village name. It had arrived safely to tell of my impending visit.

In the intervening decade, our family genealogist Bill Sackinger from Alaska, fluent in German, had visited annually to cement relations and comb through church records. This would be my second visit, announced long distance by a German friend who referred to me as the “instigator.” I carried a secret weapon this time: Inke Schwab.

Too Big?
We had been advised, through those in the know, that FBM has grown beyond professional enjoyment. Many of those who we had been referred to–fellow publishing professionals in Europe–no longer attend FBM because it has grown too large and impersonal. Buch Messe functions through appointments made months in advance. Inke and I decided that we would attend Wednesday and Thursday, the most intimate days in the opinion of those in the know, to check it out and figure out how it works.

The scale of the Buch Messe coference center is roughly analogous to the square footage of the terminals of SF airport or Boston Logan (eliminating roads and runways, drawing the buildings into a more compact oval.)

We spent all of Wednesday puzzling out the complex layout–eight buildings, each with three-four floors–as well as the functions and locations of both events and exhibitors. We attended an excellent seminar on buying and selling foreign rights (30 euros each.) We trekked the vast hallways, locating specific presses in the French, German and English speaking worlds.

The English Language Publishing World
Independent Book Publishers Association (ibpa) were there representing our novel Burning Silk as well as perhaps 75-100 other books in every genre. The distributor Ingram had a large airy booth. We stopped by Verso, the British radical publisher of Tariq Ali, the New Left Review, as well as scholarly leftist texts.

Do we mention names when the science of name dropping is raised to such a high art at an event like this one? Our marketing staff back home in Berkeley urge me to fight against my reticence: MFA friend George Michelsen Foy had his nonfiction Zero Decibels ( published by Scribner/Simon & Schuster. Surely I would be able to report back to him that his book had been prominently displayed among the others on the chair rail lining the large booth? Seeing his book nowhere in evidence, I combed through the catalog of Spring and Fall releases 2010: not a mention. I picked up a blue low budget publication titled: Subsidiary Rights Guide. Nada. Perhaps George’s fine exploration, subtitled The Quest for Absolute Silence, as slim and rich as a Malcolm Gladwell best seller, needed to prove its worthiness to be published in another language by selling more copies in its first English edition? With time, I prayed, and moved on.

In addition to a sales track, which decisive factors in this winnowing process determined which books would be featured for foreign rights? Surely a book that had just been released this summer would not have a sales record to speak of by October, would it?

Wouldn’t the interests of a given foreign market’s readership come into play? Mizzi van der Pluijm of Amsterdam’s Contact and a leading player on this stage according to the New York Times had written an article analyzing reader preferences by country. I was surprised to find that not only do the Dutch not read memoir, they scorn it. Back in the land of “j’adore” and “je deteste,” Barbara Chase- Riboud of Sally Hemings and Venus Hottentot fame told me that the French adore historical fiction. Chase-Riboud assured me that Burning Silk would find a French publisher.

France, Germany, Holland
We quickly understood that the impressive booths of say, a Gallimard, with intimate tables and chairs for appointments, were largely selling foreign rights for books they publish. We dropped off a copy of Burning Silk and the bound bilingual translation of the first chapter in French for Gallimard’s director of foreign rights, a contact given me by a scout I had met a decade earlier in Montolieu, France’s book village where I had lead a collaboration of writers, artists, and printers to produce a limited edition book Entre Deux Rivieres. We were told that all the buyers were out on the floor, only sellers were in the booth. (Okay, I’ve reached the limit of my namedropping ability; I cannot cross the threshold of naming either the Gallimard director nor the scout in the Languedoc, handlers be damned.)

We picked up a glossy Fiction France that featured excerpts from a number of contemporary French novelists including Agnes Desarthe’s Dans La Nuit Brune ( and Jean Mattern’s De Lait et De Miel. (

By the end of the first day, it dawned on both of us that the key to selling foreign rights lay in having an agent to cover each country.

Getting our Books through Customs
Our books, shipped both from the US and from Amsterdam weeks earlier, had not arrived. A letter to our hotel on Wednesday informed us that our bilingual translation of the first chapter of Burning Silk, neatly bound with the book’s cover art, was being held at customs. First thing Thursday morning, we retrieved them. Without Inke’s taking the lead while applying the curb to my tongue, I would have had to pick a fight with these most insufferable of the bureaucrat caste. However, upon the multiple pounding of the official stamp on the last triplicate, we headed for the entry gate of the Buch Messe, our badge firmly established in the carryon suitcase we towed.

Agents Sequestered
Agents, listed in the invaluable directory (25 euros,) were housed in their own floor with a check-in desk admitting only those with previous appointments.

Using our directory, we identified six agents under “literary historical fiction” to cover our targeted countries, and wrote them emails introducing ourselves.

Attaching a note on sitio tiempo press’ executive letterhead to each bilingual translation, and inserting the book’s postcard and silk bookmark emblazoned with the title, we left bundles for each agent at the appointment desk, for followup post-Buch Messe.

Personal Contacts
A section called the Center for Politics, Literature, and Translation attracted us with its juicy events: presentation of the Paul Celan prize, a Cuban hour with a PEN presence, where Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the legendary Green’s leader, did NOT show up, while Amir Valles, Rugelio Saunders and Jorge Arzola did speak on the panel. Multilingual earphone provided access to the discourse in one’s own language.

These events, often at the end of the day, usually concluded with drinks and hors d’s. Here Inke and I met a publisher from Haiti, Willems Edouard of Editions Presses Nationals in Petionville. Kettly Mars, a Haitian novelist whose Saisons Sauvages was just released from Mercure to good reviews, is working on her fourth book. (’-saisons-sauvages/.)

When Willems told me he had published Russell Banks, I offered my card and paid attention. (

His catalog features an impressive collection of intellectuals and writers, from the republication of Jacques Romains’ oeuvres to poets, short story writers (Jean-Euphele Milce,) and novelists including Cleante Valcin’s La Blanche Negresse and Cruelle Destinee, which advised the reader that this was a novel about an unfortunate prostitute.

If the protagonist is named Destiny in this novel of the l930’s, I thought, then I have finally found an older woman named Destiny. A short survey of the plots of each of these republished novels led me to believe that Barbara Chase Riboud would be interested in Valcin’s treating subjects similar to hers. The press on Kettly Mars’ Saisons Sauvages about the Duvalier regime in Haiti deals with master/slave relations as well. (

Many prizes are awarded for literature at the beginning of the fair, to take advantage of the attendant press. At the German Women in Publishing party, I met Ingeborg Hohl of LiBeraturpreis, which awards a prize for women writers from Third World countries. The winner of the German Book Prize this year went to Melinda Nadj Abonji for Falcons Without Falconers, a story of a Hungarian minority in Serbia. The novel, which begins with a child’s point of view, continues in the adult woman’s pov in an “apparently carefree Balkan comedy.” One can’t help but think of the beginning of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated with a similarly picaresque beginning; both books conclude in the shadow of wars with genocide as theme. Undoubtedly we missed a lot, but it seemed strange that only one American author, Brett Easton Ellis, was included in major events and programming.

Jet Lag cum Geo-psychocultural Whiplash
I made sure that I flew from Frankfurt to Philadelphia, with a several day stop over in our home in the rural Penn-York Valley. True, I had major events scheduled for two of the three days there, but by the time I arrived back in Northen California, it took me a couple days to get over the worst effects of the jet lag.

I am developing a theory that the symptoms that possessed me–dizziness, fatigue–were really cultural whiplash masquerading as the need to meditate, perchance to dream. From Rebgeshain to Frankfurt, from Amsterdam’s Dutch Resistance Museum, to Paris and rural Brittany, featuring the prized belon oysters and Neolithic tumulus, I was in the thrall of a challenge to my digestive system–psychic and cultural digestion–spending productive hours flat on my back sorting through impressions, not only filing them but connecting them with their corollary a-ha’s.