THE BLOG

Dispatch from the Frankfurt Book Fair

10/16/2012 05:45 pm ET | Updated Dec 16, 2012

Yesterday started off raining. My feet were wet, my hair wet, my whole shirt and skirt drenched by the time I arrived at the book fair. I walked in the rain, got lost because my map was wet. My feet wet. I was no longer chanting, "There is no pneumonia." Coming to Frankfurt, staying at a hotel that is an hour walk from the book fair and not having a coat or an umbrella isn't nearly as much fun as you would think. I felt like a soggy doll. I didn't have an umbrella, and I was getting wetter and wetter until I met a guy saying his prayers to Allah in the street. He was outside a store that sold umbrellas. He went in, opened it and sold me one for 2.50 EU, and he kept praying during the transaction and afterward. I have to say that if God was talking to him saying, "Sell that wet white lady an umbrella," I have respect for his God.

Johnny Temple, the publisher of Akashic Books, was quoted as saying that coming to the Frankfurt Book Fair makes you feel small and insignificant. Right. You feel like a bug. My only question is what kind of insect? An ant? No. Ants are always hanging around with other ants. This is more like being some sort of lonely insect that's on a leaf, and there are so many leaves and so many insects that it's hard to see the big picture.

Frankfurt is a large industrial city, like Cincinnati or Cleveland, and at this time of year, it's cold. At least by SoCal standards. The book fair is huge and overwhelming. It takes about 20 minutes to walk from one end of it to another. And walk you do. Because if you're a small independent publisher, you have meetings back and forth from hall to hall. Hall six has this underground area called LitAg where the agents hang out. I use the term "hang out," very loosely to describe them sitting at their long tables mercilessly have meeting after meeting, in what must be some pretty grueling days.

What Frankfurt is: many men in suits, and a few women too, walking around taking meetings, drinking coffee, later drinking whiskey, the whole huge rush and tumble of the book business in a Europe that still believes in a life of the mind. So from that point of view, it's comforting, this idea that somewhere, someone is reading something besides the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books and Fifty Shades. It is a pleasure to see the swarm of people working in a business that has to do with language, meaning and story.

Jeffrey Lependorf of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) arranged with Riky Stock of the German Book Office for a booth where eight American publishers could hold meetings. My organization, Red Hen Press, was here last year, and at this point we come annually to Frankfurt and London and sometimes to Guadalajara.

I was interested to see if this booth would make the whole Frankfurt experience less chilly. The eight presses were Akashic, McPherson and Company, Fence, Siglio, Bellevue Literary Press, Ugly Duckling Presse, Open Letter Books and Red Hen. The first day at the book fair, I didn't manage to have any meetings at the booth because it was always too crowded. But, it did provide a central place for meeting people. The goal at Frankfurt, at least for us, is to sell translation rights, which involves meeting with sub-rights agents and with publishers and buzzing from one meeting to another. It was nice to have a home base.

There were a few Red Hen books that seemed to spark the most interest. One was a novel called Parnucklian for Chocolate by B.H. James. It's a debut novel about a kid who's raised to believe he's part alien and therefore must only eat chocolate. And that's the normal part. Before he becomes sexually involved with his stepsister.

An Israeli publisher questioned my decision to have a press in Los Angeles. "Isn't it dangerous there?" he asked. "You must have courage to live in such a city."

"Yeah," I thought, "me and 10 million others. We're like Rambo. They call me the panther. And seriously, you live in Israel and call Los Angeles dangerous?"

The big American literary agencies have networks of relationships in Frankfurt, like the ones we do at the annual AWP Conference (that's the Association of Writers and Writing Programs). They are having the experience that we have at AWP -- a packed schedule of dinners, parties, a whole celebration of meeting colleagues and friends that melds business and pleasure. For the small publisher, it's mostly business. But, here's what I liked most about Frankfurt -- the long walk to the book fair and back. The walk is mostly by the river. There are riverboats cleaning up for the day, and the riverboat captains smoking a pipe, and there are cyclists going along the river path, and the sun is rising and I am freezing cold, but still feeling very much alive and interested in being in a different city, in a business where people care about books, reading, thinking.