03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Long Walk to Frankfurt

As reported here in yesterday's Frankfurt Book Fair roundup, Nelson Mandela's diaries are becoming "the book of the fair." The news reminded me of the time I chased the first Mandela autobiography at Frankfurt, exactly twenty years ago.

In October 1989, Mandela was still in prison. It was widely assumed he'd be freed in the new year, but the South African government hadn't made any firm promises.

My father, the head of HarperCollins Canada, came up with the idea of pursuing Mandela early. He thought of it because of an author named Marq de Villiers, who'd been a client at our literary agency.

Marq is a terrific writer who left South Africa in the 1960s because he refused to live with apartheid. He'd written a moving book called White Tribe Dreaming, published by Viking. Marq had once mentioned to my father that he knew Mandela's lawyer.

I was editorial director of HarperCollins Canada the time, so my father's notion became my task. Thanks to Marq, I was soon speaking with Mr. Ismail Ayob in Johannesburg.

Our first conversation was a bit vague, but clear enough for me to understand that Ayob had been contacted in the past by publishers and knew what the rights to a Mandela memoir were worth.

As I was thinking to myself that HarperCollins Canada couldn't swing the deal on its own, Ayob very pleasantly said it for me. He wasn't closing a door, he was just stating what he assumed was a fact.

"Well," I improvised, "now that we've spoken I plan to speak with my colleagues in New York and London so we can come up with a complete offer."

"Let's speak again then," he said.

Jonathan Lloyd, then the managing director of Collins UK's Grafton Books division in London, was thrilled at the chance to bid.

Unfortunately, Harper New York wasn't. Nothing Jonathan and I said could get them past a few hundred thousand dollars. We knew that wasn't enough.

Maybe, I thought, it would make a difference to present our offer in person. The office was going to be quiet anyway because the Frankfurt Book Fair was about to start.

Frankfurt isn't my thing. Some people can buy and sell in that frenzy. Not me. Chasing a book thousands of miles away from the fair seemed the perfect alternative.

A few days later I was meeting with Ayob at the Carleton Hotel in downtown Johannesburg. He was tall and slim and had a slightly reserved manner. His lawyering instincts were evident in his conversational style, which was relaxed but interrogatory. Like a good cross-examiner, he anticipated the answer to each question. He was also very dry.

"Did you have a good flight? Did anyone on the plane offer to have you stay with them?"

"Yes. How did you know?"

"South Africans are hospitable. They'd have been genuinely delighted if you'd agreed. Did they tell you that you shouldn't stay at this hotel?"

"Yes, all of them did."

"They told you to stay at the Sandton Sun? That it's much nicer?"

"That's right. Are you telling me the same thing?"

"The Sandton Sun is a very nice hotel. If you have ever been to a shopping mall in suburban Atlanta it will feel very familiar to you. Did they also tell you that while you are here you have to go on a safari?"

"Yes, they did. Should I?"

"I imagine you've been to a zoo. If you haven't, there's a good one in London you can visit on your return trip. The elephants there look just like the elephants here."

Ayob and I met several times over the next week. We discussed everything from the latest Peter Ackroyd book -- he had read it, I hadn't --to the bugging methods of the South African secret police. It was a privilege to hear about the anti-apartheid effort from someone who'd been at the center of it for decades.

The one thing we didn't discuss was the offer. Ayob knew I was still trying to get a larger contribution from New York.

After about a week, he told me had business in Durban. Optimistically, I rented a car, drove the six hours to the coast, and sat in a hotel room reading Raymond Carver stories while waiting for the phone to ring.

Although New York wouldn't budge, Jonathan and I figured we could probably get a full million from our CEO if we actually had an agreement from Mandela. In other words, we figured we could bid more than we'd been authorized.

At HarperCollins, back then, this was not as risky a strategy as it sounds now. If we were stuck, we could just cut Harper New York out of the deal and sell the rights to one of its competitors.

But we were too late. "I'm glad you're finally where you should be," Ayob said. "But I've been thinking, as long as the Frankfurt Book Fair is on, I should just go there and see everybody at once. I also want to see the new books. I'm flying there tomorrow."

What can you say when someone is representing his client well? We set a time to meet the day of his arrival at the Collins UK booth.

Each day, Ayob made his rounds through the fair, finding books by his favorite authors. In one case, if I remember correctly, he ended up with a photocopied manuscript that normally would have been given to a foreign publisher for a rights sale.

Along the way, he bid up publishers. But not us. New York didn't see the numbers.

Jonathan and I fumed. We tried to scheme, but there was just no way around it. Our idea of cutting out Harper New York wouldn't work anymore, because other New York houses were bidding directly.

The first day, Ayob passed by our stand twice to update us. The second day, just once. After that he and I agreed that I'd just wait to hear who won the book.

I spent the time away from the convention hall. Frankfurt is a nice place if you're not there for the fair.

The memoir, eventually titled A Long Walk to Freedom, went to Little, Brown. I think the reported number was three million dollars. The deal was announced after Mandela's release, which took place about five months after the fair.

Now, twenty years later, a new archive of Nelson Mandela material is the "book of the fair" again.

Ayob isn't representing it. He had a falling out with Mandela a few years ago.

Instead, one of the agencies getting headlines for selling it in a spectacular fashion at Frankfurt is London's Curtis Brown. Because publishing sometimes resembles a game of musical chairs, the CEO of Curtis Brown is none other than Jonathan Lloyd.

I hope HarperCollins is bidding this time. If they are, you can bet Jonathan is making them pay.