An Innocent at the Fair by Norman Lebrecht

Norman Lebrecht

An Innocent at the Fair


I should, first, declare an interest or two: I attended the 31st Frankfurt Book fair as a journalist for this publication and others, as a writer whose work was being traded there, and as an incipient publisher who intended to wheel and deal with the big boys.

It was, also, my first Frankfurt. I had been warned in advance about the ambience of horse trading, but it still came as a shock to find the product being gambled on as at Newmarket, or casually disposed of as at the knacker’s yard.

Trade fairs, though, are all about products, and those producers – writers – who attended were generally there as live exhibits to complement their oversized photographs in the publishers’ stands. Morris West, for example, was to be seen briefly at the Rainbird stand, where foreign rights for his forthcoming work on the papacy were being sold. More productively, on some of the German stands, writers as diverse as the Cuban Alejo Carpentier, the Israeli humourist Ephraim Kishon, the Swiss playwright Rolf Hochuth and the exiled Russian Chess master Viktor Korchnoi spent the afternoons – when the Fair was open to the public – pressing the flesh and signing the fly-leaf.

Much fuss was made of Yehudi Menuhin, who was awarded the Fair’s annual Peace Prize (previous laureates include Schweitzer, Buber, Thornton Wilder, Senghor of Senegal, Victor Gollanez and the Club of Rome). However, commerce, and worse, crept into even so exalted a context. Before being awarded the prize, Menuhin toured the Fair halls stopping for photo-calls at each of his many publishers around the world. With a gaggle of journalists and lensmen in tow, he stopped at stand P902 in Hall 5 where Macdonald and Jane’s, who publish his Unfinished Journey and the Yehudi Menuhin Music Guides in the UK, had devoted half their backdrop to an overblown photograph of the laureate, beneath which he could post.

Now M&J have a line general list of fiction, non-fiction, sport and music, but their real claim to fame and fortune is the latter half of their imprint, the Jane’s books of fighting planes and ships. And so we had the undignified spectacle of the assembled cameramen squinting and crouching to ensure that they captured the peace laureate beneath his half of the backdrop: the other half being the unpeaceful business ends of two fighter bombers from the Jane’s catalogue.

Certainly, there must have been writers who attended Frankfurt without riding the publicity bandwagon. One sharp-eyed publisher spotted among the gathering at the Weidenfeld and Nicholson stand the inconspicuous septuagenarian figure of Albert Speer, Hitler’s chosen architect and Minister of Munitions, author of Inside the Third Reich. ‘Go and talk to him,’ he whispered to a Weidenfeld executive. ‘That’s one of your top selling authors.’

The writer who got most publicity did not even come to the Fair. Dr. Henry Kissinger was brought to Frankfurt by the German-based multinational publisher Bertelsmann to launch the German language edition of his memoirs. Security was oppressive, his press conference was by invitation only, attended principally by editors-in-chief, and the first copy of the book was presented in person by the author, over breakfast, to Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

The former Secretary of State might have lost some of his lustre back home, but in Germany he is still a revered figure, local boy makes good, as it were. Bertelsmann have printed his story on – wait for it – Bible paper. 1632 pages of it. At DM56 (£14.50) a copy. Of the 100,000 printed in the first run, 78,000 have been pre-sold by subscription, which is doubtless a better pre-publication sale than the first two testaments enjoyed.

But I digress. The Frankfurt Book Fair is not about writers or even about publicity: the business of the Fair is business, principally rights business.

The new novel by Judith Krantz (who?), Princess Daisy, was the main talking point for the chaps with the big cigars. Bantam (owned, by the way, by Bertelsmann), which had already paid $3.2 million (£ 1.5 million) for the US paperback rights, went on to shell out $450,000 for UK rights on behalf of its subsidiary, Corgi. German rights went for $½ million, Italian for $150,000, Dutch for $75,000 and UK hardcover rights for a sum that the purchaser, Sidgwick and Jackson, was too discreet – or embarrassed – to disclose. Krantz’s last book, Scruples, sold well in the States, but even Bantam acknowledged that they would have to sell at least 4 million copies of Daisy to break even; other estimates were as high as 7 million. It had better be a good read…

The Daisy auction, and the auctions of others in that price-range, were conducted quite publicly, with all parties involved trumpeting their bids to whomever would listen. This publicity, it appears, is all part of the ‘hype’, to increase the book’s saleability.

So much ‘hype’ was going on, so many whispers were being floated about titles that may in fact never see the light of day (‘Someone’s just told me that Avon want to buy 100,000 copies of one of my projects,’ a publisher hisses at me as he careers down the long aisles, ‘but Avon can’t tell me anything about it.’) that it would be foolish for an uninitiated observer to attempt to distinguish, say, William Harwood’s Dunkton Wood – billed as the new Watership Down, with moles instead of rabbits – from some very flimsy trees.

Fiction, then, is the gambler’s end of the market; the more straightforward horse-trading is conducted in the non-fiction sector and this is where the ‘packagers’ come into their own. These ‘co-edition publishers’, as some of the more genteel call themselves, are the sub-contractors of the publishing world: they sell ideas for books to the major publishers, who then put up the capital for a complete ‘package’ (finished books, either at camera-ready stage or as bound volumes in the distributor’s warehouse) to be produced by the originators of the idea. The advantage to the publisher is that he saves the staff, in-house costs and general worries of production; in effect, he obtains his name on the bookspine of someone else’s concept in return for his capital investment. Not a bad deal, as many publishers have realised; packaging (which originated in the UK and is still strongest here) is one of the most notable growth areas in a financially nervous industry.

Packagers have very thin profit margins and, to survive, must sell rights in as many territories as possible. Usually, they do so long before a book enters into production. Potential investors are shown an outline and a ‘dummy’ – what appears from the cover to be a finished copy of the book but, when opened, is found to contain a few sample pages only, or even just blank pages, or, more confusing still to a visitor who has unwittingly mistaken a ‘dummy’ for a book, Latin verse.

The Alice in Wonderland story of packaging is that of Webb and Bower, two former employees of the Newton Abbott publisher David and Charles, who set up in Exeter with very little (they won’t say how little) capital and a friendly bank manager in 1974. After producing half-a-dozen varied titles, they managed to sell to Michael Joseph Ltd an early 20th century document they had come across.

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady now has more than 1½ million copies in print, has been produced in 12 languages (rights for a Russian edition are currently being negotiated), and has yielded at least two spin-off books. A record is due this Christmas and film and TV rights are under discussion.

By last year, W & B had an annual turnover of close to £1m. Their success has been so rapid that they have been able to realise every packager’s dream: to launch their own publishing imprint with their own name on the spines. Their first list has a strong countryside and nostalgia flavour (‘The Flowers of Shakespeare’, ‘Sweethearts and Valentines’ and ‘The Golden Calm – an English Lady’s life in Moghul Delhi’ are three prospective titles which catch the eye) but it is clear that Webb and Bower have made it into the big time. They could, Richard Webb insists, have achieved their original targets without the bonanza of the Diary. Maybe so, but without that aura of success they would certainly not have attracted $13m worth of business in the five brief days of Frankfurt.

It was ironic that Webb and Bower’s bustling stand was opposite that of Collins, whose difficulties – £838,000 losses in the first half of this year – received extensive Press coverage just before the Fair. One leading UK publisher said he couldn’t understand how Collins could be in trouble when their current blockbuster, David Attenborough’s Life on Earth, was selling as fast as it could be printed. The millionth copy (at £7.50 each, work it out) is just off the presses and US rights have been snapped up for $250,000.

The publishing side, in fact, is healthy; it is the printing works at Bishopbriggs and the company’s American subsidiary William Collins Inc which have been losing. Collins want to cut 20 per cent of the jobs at Bishopbriggs and have put the US company up for sale.

So, like any other Fair, Frankfurt has its swings and roundabouts, ups and downs, its slings and arrows of outrageous (preposterous, if you prefer) fortune. Paul Hamlyn of Octopus, who conspicuously and self-publicisingly stayed away, doing business at a nearby hotel, told one interviewer that 90 per cent of all deals struck at Frankfurt fall down within a week of getting home. Well, 10 per cent of some of the deals I saw concluded would do nicely for a living until the next Frankfurt.

I have exhausted my space and told you nothing about the fairground, about Frankfurt. Let it not be thought that the Book Fair is all trade and culture. Much of the day is spent in planning which parties to attend – or crash– after dark. The British contingent, who have an enviable reputation as the finest freeloaders of all, were the ones to follow.

But we were in for a great disappointment. Bertelsmann, the giant German Verlag, throw a legendary feast every year which is crashed by everyone who is anyone and many who aren’t. The board groans, the liquor flows, and some smaller publishers are said to live off eggs and toast only between one Bertelsmann blowout and the next. Not this year, though: strictly by invitation only, enforced by real live heavies at the door. We tried everything, press cards, publishing contracts, broken bottles, but to no avail. I hope this new policy is not an indication of a need to tighten belts at Bertelsmann.

One publisher who had partaken of too much hospitality was reported to have stumbled out of a hotel in the wee hours, fallen into a taxi and handed the driver a slip of paper that he thought was the address of his hotel. He awoke next morning in Amsterdam, with the driver demanding 2,000 marks for the trip. (I cannot vouch for this story, but I liked it too much to keep it to myself.)

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