Booking the Blockbusters at Book Fair

Times Staff Writer

The Frankfurt Book Fair again is setting records: This year, the 40th annual show, a total of 7,965 exhibitors from 95 countries are on hand, buying and selling, wheeling and dealing, eating and drinking, yakking and schmoozing.

“They say that everybody comes to Frankfurt because everybody comes to Frankfurt,” said fair official Helmut von der Lahr, which is perhaps as good an explanation as any for the huge turnout of publishers, editors, agents, authors and booksellers.

Tuning In on Grapevine

They crowd the aisles of the cavernous, high-tech exhibit halls, taking orders, greeting colleagues, making instant presentations, and most of all, tuning in to the grapevine: What is the coming hot book?


“Everybody’s looking for the big book,” said Lisa Queen, the books rights director of William Morrow & Co. “They are wary of signing up for the ordinary book. They want the big one.”

The big book, if it exists, is not yet printed: The publishers are looking a year away when a potential sizzling property is still in manuscript--or perhaps only an outline.

Most works under negotiation here have already been published and the deals concern foreign language rights. Outside the fairgrounds, for example, advertising banners over the approach roads plug the paperback works of such diverse authors as Len Deighton and Armand Hammer.

And, so far, at the fair, which opened Wednesday and closes Monday, no single book has captured the book world’s imagination.


“We hear talk of Umberto Eco’s new book, ‘Foucault’s Pendulum,’ ” said Von der Lahr. “It received good reviews last month in Italy. But it remains to be seen whether it will take off like ‘The Name of the Rose.’ That was really a big international book.”

“International” is the key to the Frankfurt Book Fair. American publishers here are seeking good foreign books to print in the United States, and conversely selling American authors to overseas publishers.

‘The Story of Frankfurt’

“We are all trying to build up an international market for our books here,” said Jonathan B. Segal, editor-at-large of Random House. “That’s the story of Frankfurt.

“I try to meet people from foreign houses I admire, who publish books similar to the ones we do. You build up a network of such contacts here, people who think as you do about books, people whose judgment on forthcoming books you can trust.

“The hardest thing to do is go back home without buying a book. But the problem is, you don’t want to sit in your New York office a week later and say: ‘Oh, my God, why did I buy that? I wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t been in Frankfurt.’ ”

Among Random House hopes for a “big” book is Neil Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam,” recently published in the United States.

When Jeremiah Kaplan, president of Simon & Schuster, gets over jet lag after arriving, he likes to wander though the halls perusing displays and chatting with friends from Europe whom he may see only once a year at the book fair.


“I walk the floor looking for trends and a sense of what the international competition is up to,” he said.

The Frankfurt fair, adds Kaplan, is a must for trade executives, “and it is also a great opportunity for younger editors to become internationally minded, to get a feeling for the kind of books that travel well throughout the world.”

As to whether the emphasis on “big” books has overly obsessed U.S. publishers, thereby discouraging publication of worthy books with limited mass appeal, Kaplan said, “Last year, more than 120,000 books appeared in English. I really believe that everything that deserves to be published is published.

“Another thing you note here,” he added, “is the fact that 70% of all books on science are now published in English, no matter what country they are sold in. English has emerged as the Latin of the late 20th Century.”

While major publishers at Frankfurt all push potential blockbusters, thousands of other books are presented, too.

For instance, the small but select British military publishers, Brassey’s, is showcasing retired British Gen. Ken Perkin’s spirited autobiography called “A Fortunate Soldier.”

Meanwhile, its managing director, Maj. Gen. A. J. Trythall, huddles with two Chinese publishers to see whether their book on the People’s Liberation Army might be translated into English and sold in Europe through Brassey’s.

Next door, William Snyder of Maxwell Pergamon Publishing shows visitors what may be the publishing’s forward edge: computerized books, specifically an encyclopedia where a person at his personal computer can easily call up written items from a vast fund of knowledge on compact discs.


The Center Moves On

“The word around here is globalization, " Snyder said. “Americans are increasingly interested in the European market, and Europeans in America. The center of the publishing universe is moving--and we are all trying to discover where it is as it moves.”

One fillip announced this year at Frankfurt involves a project by Katarina Czarnecki of Macmillan in New York to produce an informal “grammar” of the esoteric language of book rights.

“We need common usage on these technicalities so that Americans and Europeans agree on what they mean by the foreign ‘rights’ they are selling,” Von der Lahr said.

The Frankfurt exhibits range from large and lavish displays by the big publishers to tiny cubicles for some of the smaller nations.

The Tehran Publishing Co., for example, offers books in Farsi and English on Iranian culture and the Islamic revolution; Nicaragua presents works on its revolutionary leader Sandino; Libya’s shelves are full of Col. Moammar Kadafi’s Green Book; while Vietnam shows paperbacks on Ho Chi Minh.

For their part, the Germans have turned out in force, representing a quarter of all exhibitors.

Olaf Paeschke, executive vice president of the Bertelsmann Group, explained that “Germany has traditionally been a center of publishing in Europe.” And he pointed out that because, in post-war years, the country has not produced enough German authors to supply the demand, it was a leader in seeking foreign writers for its publishing houses.

Sources and Resources

“We need access to worldwide sources and resources,” he said, “and we recognize worldwide talent.

“As for trends, I think our readers are looking for more quality--quality in authors and even in the books physically.

“On our side of the Atlantic, we like novels, but also books on history and politics, biographies and autobiographies. We don’t mind that there is no particular ‘big’ book in Germany this year. We would rather have Christmas buyers picking many selections rather than concentrating on one popular book.

“Even with television, we believe that if you have the right books, you will have readers. And therefore we are quite optimistic about the outlook for books.”

That view was seconded by fair official Von der Lahr, who declared: “In Europe, the habit of reading books is definitely not declining.”