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Stranger at the feast: Navigating the Frankfurt Book Fair

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Stranger at the feast: Navigating the Frankfurt Book Fair
Photo: DPA
18:15 CEST+02:00
How do you navigate the planet's largest shindig dedicated to the printed word while avoiding the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Thilo Sarrazin? Berlin-based US author Ralph Martin offers an insider's account of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

The sense of foreboding overcame me as soon as my ICE train rolled into Frankfurt's main station last Thursday in the midst of the city's annual Book Fair.

As a published yet not particularly famous author, I was just there to meet the editor of my upcoming book. I planned to get out of town before Thilo Sarrazin and Jonathan Franzen arrived because the Muslim-baiting former central banker and the hyperbole-inspiring Great American Novelist were clearly going to suck all the oxygen out of the entire convention centre.

I had first heard about the Frankfurt Book Fair some twenty years ago – and had also been hearing my fellow Berliners dump on the city along the banks of the Main River for the better part of the last decade.

My foreboding was grounded in a sense of my own unimportance, as well as worries about how I would fill a whole day in a soulless financial city with the audacity to give itself the silly nickname Mainhattan. The place had always been described to me in apocalyptic terms, but the book fair is a literary juggernaut all its own. Perhaps, I thought dimly as I stood outside the circular metal tower that serves as the Frankfurt convention centre's main entrance, I could lend some excitement to the proceedings. What were publishers without writers?

Past security and down a long metal corridor, I broke out into a plaza several city blocks across, flanked by metallic warehouse-size buildings on each side, each three stories high. Official minibuses lurched around, duking it out with pedestrians as they transported the aged and infirm around the periphery of the plaza. And those thousands of pedestrians were all publishing professionals since the Book Fair had yet to open its doors to the public.

Seeing the surging crowds, I got an awed sense of how many people are involved in the book business around the world. Only a lucky few representatives of each publishing house were in attendance. This meant that the world contained many, many publishers, thousands or tens of thousands, each of which employed many more publishing drones: editors, foreign-rights people, number-crunchers. This led to thoughts of monkeys on typewriters, at which point I decided to find my very own publisher before I lost my mind.

Pax Americana

Finding my esteemed house's stand, one of the larger ones in Pavilion 3.0 (German non-fiction and fiction) took about an hour; meeting and greeting my editor took about 15 minutes. I suddenly found myself with seven hours before my next appointment, my publisher's party. So I thought I'd check out the US section of the fair.

The American wing of the convention centre, in Pavilion 8.0, was hidden away at the back of the whole complex, through a series of enormous porticoes and tunnels. The poor location and difficult access may reflect the diminished interest American publishers take in the fair these days. Gone are the times when the editorial floors of Midtown Manhattan were empty each October.

These days, a few foreign rights representatives and hyperactive agents are the sole salesmen for all American literature. This is strange: the Book Fair is good for the American balance of trade, since we sell lots of books to Europe and Latin America and buy very few titles in return. What was worse, the Americans and British had been crammed together in our low hangar: we, like everyone else, were classified by language, and English was not the world's Master Tongue, but rather just another print format. I felt a distinct sense of lost empire as I went in.

Inside the windowless pavilion (the German one had a wall of glass), amongst the international-conglomerate stands like Random House and Penguin, were a myriad of carnival-barker-style stands, full of self-published self-improvement and conspiracy-theory titles with homemade covers, all minded by dour-faced people staring into space, having already lost hope for a big German or Italian rights sale for ‘How to Press the Reset Button on your Life' or various ‘Truther' and/or ‘Birther' titles. That was when I decided to go to the Frankfurter Hof instead and start ordering drinks.

The realm of helmet-haired ladies

The Hof is the legendary centre of nightlife at the Book Fair. A classic Grande Dame hotel with velvet chairs, wood panelling and deep-pile carpeting, it is the perfect setting for the helmet-haired mid-Atlantic women in power suits who held court at its tables, accompanied by the occasional silver-haired, vaguely distinguished-looking gentleman or harried underling.

Out front is a sybaritic terrace lined with Hof cafés; inside and out, a steady stream of expense-account orders is ferried by dozens of frock-coated waiters: ‘Zwei Cola Light, eine Weissweinschorle, ein Gin Martini.' Cola light? For the helmet-haired ladies, One Night in Frankfurt clearly isn't a Year in Provence. No judgment-clouding glass of wine here.

At that point, I lurched off to my publisher's party with no expectations whatsoever. There, an editor I'd been talking to from another German house asked me if I wanted to go to the “cool” Frankfurt party, and in a few minutes I found myself in my favourite European fantasy of all: sitting in the back of a Mercedes taxi, zipping around the city in search of a luxurious suburban villa where I had been promised whatever constitutes the “alternative” scene in German publishing.

We found a sort of grown-up version of a collegiate house-party, dozens of people smoking cigarettes outside on a cement terrace while inside a few long-haired youths spoke to the host, the black-sheep son of a famous German publishing dynasty who had recently started his own book firm in the hope of showing up his family with a few best-sellers. I had several conversations with eager editors who approached me when they heard my American accent, hoping I represented some deep-pocketed conglomerate or, perhaps, had some under-the-radar soon-to-be-bestselling title to sell them.

When I told them I was just an author, they mumbled excuses and melted away. Blurry as my senses were becoming, I realised that this party, like everything at Frankfurt, wasn't for authors. The Book Fair is, rather, for publishers selling things to other publishers. Authors are simply labour to their management, and labourers are never very popular at the bosses' party.

When I awoke, I quickly cleared out of town; I had, it turned out, no business in Frankfurt. And Frankfurt, I had now confirmed, is all business.

For more Ralph Martin, check out his website here.

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