I am leaning against a pillar in a hall somewhere in the bowels of the Frankfurt Book Fair. It is a gigantic and hungry beast. I’ve spent the better part of three days here, and I’m ready to leave.
Before coming, I’d read horror stories about unpublished authors trying their luck here – that it’s a dispiriting experience and no-one wants to talk to you.
Well, that’s fairly true in some ways and not in others.
It all really depends on what you want and how you go about it. Me? I wanted to get to know the Australian (and general international) publishing landscape and make some contacts. I didn’t expect to get an agent or publishing deal.
Some publishers were very reluctant to spend any time talking to me at all. Understandable – this is a trade fair, where they have to flog their horses and hurl business cards at potential rights acquirers and distributors until they just can’t take any it any more and run, screaming and smeared in wode, from the hall.
I sympathised. After all, I did too.
Thank god for the free drinks that take place from 5-7pm at various stalls, usually hosted by a particular country’s publishing association. The Australian Publishers Association one was excellent. VB was the beer of choice (they had Fosters last year, someone muttered darkly to me). The white wine was perfectly drinkable. Attendance at these events is compulsory, you see: most useful contacts are made under cover of alcohol. I drank with the Irish publishers – their drinks the following evening had Guinness on tap – and chatted to a literary agent, who cautioned me against breaking into the Agents’ Pavilion. Last bloke who did that got screamed at.
The simple fact of the matter is that as an author at the fair, you don’t really offer publishers anything. They rely on literary agents, or finding popular self-published books, or just good old-fashioned nepotism. Who are you to a) assume your book is any good and b) think that it’ll be a good fit for their publishing house?
That second option is actually the one thing you can do simply and effectively at the fair. A quick search of the stalls will show you immediately which ones are appropriate for your erotic novel about an anaesthetist’s steamy relationship with a vet – I know, I know, just think of the possibilities – and which are not.
The big ones, the ones that glow with fame and smell like money, the Harper Collins and Penguin and Hachette and Macmillan – those you can just forget. There are rarely commissioning editors around anyway. No point pitching your book eagerly to the head of sales, or international rights. (Although don’t rule it out – a couple passed me business cards of appropriate people to contact). It’s the middle-sized and smaller publishing houses where you can talk to real people who sometimes want to talk to you, and will give you their time and explain how the whole mad circus really works. Occasionally you even meet real authors, who are inevitably supportive and lovely and just as confused as everybody else.
It’s worth remembering one simple rule, my literary agent drinking friend told me. No-one knows fucking anything.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that you can’t get published until you have an agent and it’s very hard to get an agent if you’re unpublished. Get your head around that one.
Kindness seems to be a very underrated quality at such an event. I imagine it’s easy to adopt a cynical and world-weary contempt when you reach the point that the paper dreams you’re spruiking are just commodities, no more special or exotic than jeans or spare car parts. In the middle of the horse-trading is not a pleasant place for an author to be. But it’s a real eye opener.
A common theme from all publishers was the importance of energy and (retch) self-marketing, of authors thrusting themselves into the world. Part of me – wait, hang on a minute, no, all of me – recoils from this idea wholeheartedly and wants to sit in a dark room, writing and occasionally rocking back and forth. My only contact with the outside world will be a hole in the wall, through which discreet messages will tell me about my success or failure in far flung reaches of the world. ‘Your sales are through the roof in Mongolia,’ an assistant will whisper, and I will nod sombrely to myself and pass another perfectly written manuscript through to her, pausing only to murmur ‘Prioritise the Swedish and Bangladeshi translations,’ and she will know what to do. She will know.
I think a lot of authors like this idea of author-as-hermit (-crab). Then there are the other hundred thousand of them, those who leak hot air from every orifice, and tweet and book their faces. It can be very tricky to tell them apart. Unfortunately I don’t want to be one of the second and I’m too handsome to be one of the first.