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Frankfurt by Day

America loves to think of itself as the center of the literary world. Every year we expect the Nobel Prize to go to Philip Roth or Joyce Carol Oates, despite all the evidence to the contrary. We don’t need to import and translate literature, we guffaw. They should be translating us! And when the Nobel permanent secretary chastises us for being insular and irrelevant, our columnists declare that we should separate ourselves from the international community even more. Reject us, will you? We gave you Eat Pray Love, which continues to be a worldwide sensation, you ungrateful bastards.

OK, so maybe it’s not quite so blunt, but the Frankfurt Book Fair, where publishers from around the world come together to do business, does highlight just how little we engage with the whole of literature. America’s publishers are all corralled into Hall 8 of the fair. It sometimes takes a solid 20 minutes to get to the American publishers from the building’s entrance, as you’re swimming against 40,000 or so other attendees down hallways, up and down escalators, and around in circles. Finally up, down, hurrah, here I am, in a room so crowded I have no idea how I’ll find anyone I know.

I shouldn’t worry — within 10 yards I run into Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash and Lance Fensterman from Reed Exhibitions (the organization that runs BookExpo America and Comic Con), and they ask how I’m finding my first year in Frankfurt. When I say that it’s a bit overwhelming, Richard tells me, “Every year in Frankfurt is exactly the same. You stay at the same hotel, take the same train in, eat at the same restaurants, drink at the same bars. In Frankfurt, it’s comforting.”

Lance, wearing a bright green tie that it’s much too early in the morning for, agrees. “That’s what you should do today — establish a routine.”

I’m hoping today does not establish my annual Frankfurt Book Fair routine, as it started at 8:30 when I realized with horror that I had managed to sleep 13 hours after losing the ability to maintain consciousness painfully early the night before. Then there was the rushing around, the trying to figure out where I had packed my press pass, the train station kiosk that ate my 10 Euro note, and the sputtering out of responses in Russian when someone spoke to me in German.

There’s a lot of concern for the Frankfurt first timers, and it’s easy to see why. The fair is monstrously huge, and everyone else has developed well-managed habits to deal with the chaos. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s a little like swimming upstream without your salmon instincts. The Bookseller, the daily English language rag they shove in your hands as you come in or out of Hall 8, has a list of tips for people at their first fair: try to get some sleep, drink lots of water, do not forget to eat some fruit, and start preparing for next year as soon as you get home.

I leave the American section and wander in and out of various halls. In Hall 5 I am surrounded by gorgeous books I have never heard of, in Danish and Thai and Spanish. The hoarder in me wants to fill a bag, despite the problem of language. The author names are a mystery and the writing could be abominable, but I covet them. I remember the statistic that only three percent of the books published in America have been translated from languages other than English, and realize I will never see or hear of these writers ever again.

Over in Hall 3, at the Comic-Zentrum, I am early for a presentation on the International Comics Market. There is another panel in progress, one with men with shiny shaved heads, architectural glasses, and proper suits. At first I have no idea what they’re talking about, but then I start to pick up on a few words. “German German German Mickey Maus German German German Goofy.”

Looking around, I realize with some surprise that I recognize a lot of the work here. It’s not the same feeling of despair that I got from the international literature hall. Look, there’s Gipi and Joann Sfar, both of whom are published in the States by First Second. And David B., published by Pantheon. Rutu Modan, published by Drawn & Quarterly. Others published by Fantagraphics. If there’s any segment of the Frankfurt Book Fair that transcends borders and upends the three percent rule, it’s here at the comic book pavilion. I see stacks of Tove Janssen’s books in a few different corners. The language of the Moomin is universal.

I am beginning to feel relaxed, enjoying the more positive, less “I think I can see the horsemen of the apocalypse” atmosphere. I listened to CNN International as I tried to find my other shoe this morning, which was reporting mostly on crashing financial markets. I have been surprised not to hear much doomsday talk here at the fair, at least much less than one gets at the London Book Fair or at BookExpo America. Perhaps the collapse of everything is too big for anyone to process, but no one is openly weeping in the aisles. Americans are still buying despite the constant stream of articles in newspapers and magazines about the poor state of our publishing situation. (Later, at lunch, I’ll eavesdrop on two Brits and two Germans discussing how everything is moving from a small number of books printed in large print runs to one or two blockbusters published alongside a large number of books with small print runs. Everything seems to be turning the same way in every country.

“Nobody reads anymore!” the man on the stage exclaims. Oh damn it, I had come so close to having a full day go by without hearing this annoying refrain. Of course it comes out of the mouth of an American: Chuck Rozanski, the owner of Mile High Comics. He says this despite the fact that it rather contradicts his previous statement about sales being up 11 percent this month.

Didier Pasamonik, the expert on French and Belgium comics, takes a slightly more reasonable approach. He thanks the other panelist, Chigusa Ogina, who is credited with introducing manga to the international publishing community, for saving French comics. “Because of manga, young people came back into bookstores,” he says.

This opens the conversation to the collapse of the manga market, which will probably be more devastating than anyone realizes. For a while now, manga was the anchor of comic bookstores and the graphic novel sections of Borders and Barnes & Noble. But now with no new blockbusters, a saturated market, and falling interest, things are looking a little bleak. Efforts to capitalize on the manga audience and draw them into American comics have been unsuccessful, as in the case of DC Comics’ recently scuttled Minx imprint. The statistics on manga sales have been huge — 40 percent of all comics sold in France, for example, and in Japan, 25 percent of all books sold, period. Everyone looks nervous about the aftermath of the falling sales figures, and no one is willing to speculate. For now, the industry seems to be responding in the same way it responds to the shrinking market for all books: produce more titles.

At the end of the forum, some strained but kind words are spoken about the fair’s guest of honor, Turkey. Until recently, Turkey’s main contribution to literature, jokes Didier, has been in the form of counterfeits. “Tintin has had more adventures in Turkey than anywhere else in the world.”

It’s a common response to Turkey’s guest of honor status. Orhan Pamuk has been here publicly chastising Turkey for its horrific treatment of its writers. The number of Turkish writers working in exile seems to be growing. There is an entire panel on the topic of the condition of Turkey’s translators, who can be arrested for translating any work that offends the Turkish government’s delicate sensibilities. Meanwhile, you can visit the Turkish official booth, where none of these problems exist. They are passing out books about Turkish literature that state:

Always receptive to nurturing values, aesthetic tastes, and literary penchants from diverse civilizations, Turkish culture succeeded in evolving a sui generis personality. It clung onto its own established traits; yet, it was flexible enough to welcome innovations — or even revolutionary change.

The only controversy it covers is the declining interest in poetry in contemporary Turkey. It is as if Ireland started claiming it had a good relationship with James Joyce and Samuel Beckett and Edna O’Brien, and all of the other writers who fled its shores.

At 6 p.m., the hall begins to empty, but no one is going that far.
Frankfurt by Night

After the fair hall closes, and a quick nap if you’re lucky, you go to the Frankfurter Hof. It’s the unofficial sales hall, where deals are made over conversation and a beer earlier in the evening, and then after midnight, over bottles of champagne as you step on each other’s feet and shout to be heard over the hundreds of other people doing the same thing.

I arrive at a little before 8 p.m. to meet a friend. “Look,” he tells me, “it’s a sea of white people.”

We have a beer before going in search of the restaurant, where we are meeting a group of 20 other publishers, publicists, editors, rights directors, and agents, all dedicated, whip-smart, passionate, and mostly underpaid. One of the first things anyone asks is, “Where are you staying?” The answers are stunning, and everyone has a story worse than the one before. People report spending $500 a night for a hotel room in the city proper, even rooms with no windows, just plastic sheeting over the gaps in the walls. Others tell of having to share rooms with their boss, or of hellish commutes from the suburbs, and someone reports staying in Bonn one year and taking the train in every day. “I’m sleeping in a college dorm,” a friend tells me, sadly. “On a cot.”

I am expected to play along, but I can’t really think of anything bad about my hotel in a nearby suburb. I mention that it has a kitchen and is very quiet. Supposedly it’s fully booked, but I have not yet seen or heard another human being in the hotel. There’s even a vending machine, stocked with Twix bars and Jägermeister. “A kitchen… but surely you’re not cooking,” someone states. Well, actually, within a few hours of getting into Offenbach I accidentally wandered into a farmer’s market, and loaded up on cheese and sausage and produce. It’s like I accidentally won the Frankfurt Book Fair lotto.

It seems unfair that I found a good place my first year, but it’s really only because Richard Nash took pity on me and told me to try Offenbach and invited me out. I’m realizing tonight that “I’m with Richard Nash” is excellent currency in the international publishing scene. When you mention his name, people break into smile and say things like, “That guy. I love him.” I can only nod and say, “Me too.”

A few of us at the table are here for the first time, and people spin out stories of being overwhelmed and terrified their first year. It can be brutal, trying to navigate a strange city and conduct business on three or four hours of sleep a night. Some spent a significant amount of time their first year hiding in bathroom stalls, crying or just trying to have a moment away from other people. They always smile and say, “It was better the next year.”

The conversation turns to business. Most people came this year not knowing what to expect — would the dollar screw everything up? Would the financial crash make everyone stingy with their money? The woman next to me at dinner reports that her boss was terrified that he wouldn’t sell enough to cover their bar tab at the Frankfurter Hof. But things are picking up, and the champagne is flowing again.

Back to Frankfurter Hof? It’s not quite midnight, which is deemed too early to return. The crowd will not have thinned, and it’s too cold and wet for the crowd to spread out to the patio. We lose one dinner guest to the train back to Offenbach. She asks me to join her, but I decide to stick it out. After she leaves, I ask Richard, “The trains to Offenbach run all night, yes?”

“No. But the good news is they start up again at 4.”

So off to a faux Irish pub that is slightly redeemed by the fact that they have Murphy’s on tap. We’re now talking about the state of the publishing industry, but with a surprisingly optimistic tone. Yes, yes, the big publishers will probably disintegrate, but what’s coming will be incredibly interesting. We talk about e-books, the Kindle, digital publishing. We talk about the opportunity for publishers to create real identities, and not just be monolithic faceless corporations. Then there’s the book as fetish object, which will become more and more common. Limited edition, fancy pants hardbacks, beautifully designed and costing an arm and a leg. But since you will also be able to download a version for $3, both the casual reader and the hardcore fan will be served.

Things are not there yet, and maybe it’s just the beer making everybody feel good about the world, but it’s not the crisis it’s made out to be, at least not for the small publishers whose financial health is so far still determined by the quality of the product. The downside to this current state of flux, of course, is that for now if you hate your job, you are stuck. And if you lose your job, well, God help you. More than once the name of an editor who was recently laid off from a West Coast publisher floats around. He’s just moved to New York and is looking for work, bless his heart.

I have a friend to meet, so it’s back to the Frankfurter Hof, where he’s been doing business all night. When I arrive at 1 a.m., there seems to be a whole other kind of selling going on here.

“There’s a saying in Frankfurt,” he tells me when I find him in the crowd. “If you don’t get laid by day two, it’s not a good fair.”

Someone puts a beer in my hand, and I settle in for some people watching. I watch a woman sulk slightly as her first choice leaves the hotel with another woman, and she hugs him good-bye just a little too long. Another man approaches, and she seems to be doing an internal algebra of potential satisfaction divided by morning regret times quantity of beer drunk. His hand moves up her arm, and she finally works out the result and heads off alone. At 3 am there are only a few women left, and I am trying to disappear into my chair as much as possible.

“What about you?” my publishing friend asks, gesturing towards the crowd of men.

“I’m celibate.”

“Since when?”

“Um, it’s a recent thing.” I ask someone else, “Isn’t it a bad idea to have awkward drunk sex with someone you’re guaranteed to see at professional gatherings at least three or four times a year?”

“Yes, it’s a little like going to a small liberal arts college.”

“Right, but one you attend for the rest of your life,” I point out. I have enough people I already need to avoid in New York. I look for Richard, who has been cornered by a publisher still trying to do business, oblivious to the changing tone of the room, and say goodnight.

It’s 3:30, and the trains start up again in half an hour, but I am not going to make it. I fall into a cab and realize I have no idea what my hotel’s address is. It’s stored somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain, and the passage is blocked by pilsner and Murphy’s and mushroom sauce. I mumble out the closest subway stop and figure I can walk the rest of the way, hopefully without giving up and lying down under a shrub until dawn.


I wake up three hours after crawling into bed and lie there, trying to will the tea to make itself. I didn’t realize that the night of 13 hours of sleep was the last sleep I would actually get. I don’t hear the kettle filling itself with water, so I grudgingly get up and start to get ready. I’m not sure which day this is, or how many days are left. OK, shoes, press pass, bottle of water, very important. If they were really concerned with the newbies, though, they’d be passing out B-vitamins at the entrance to the hall, instead of that foul smelling tea they keep trying to shove in my hands.

At the fair, I zone out while trying to listen to Jason Lutes, author of the comic book trilogy Berlin, explain how incredibly difficult it is to make a living when you’re doing all of the writing and the artwork yourself. There are just so many people, and the air is getting a little close. I excuse myself and find a bathroom stall to hide out in.

OK, let’s will ourselves away for a little bit. Close your eyes, forehead pressed against the door, and think of Kansas. Big, flat horizons, the tallest structure a windmill, cows chewing slowly, and who the hell makes caramel vodka anyway, and why in the world would you let Brazilian publishers order you shots, wait, back to Kansas, sunflower season, oh, this isn’t working. And don’t cry, because runny mascara is one thing, but runny mascara you’re still wearing from the night before is beyond pathetic.

I stumble out of the stall and go to the sink to wash my hands. A blonde woman, looking very pulled together compared to my frazzled appearance looks at me. “First year?” she asks. I nod and renew my effort not to burst into tears. She sighs. “Yeah, it gets better.” • 24 October 2008