The Frankfurt Book Fair

Gemma Shelley, from the Random House International Marketing department swings by Windmill to give us the low down on what goes on at the book fair.

Frankfurt Book Fair is one of the largest fairs in the world, attracting around 300,000 visitors from across the globe in just one week. From publishers and agents to customers and journalists, this is the place where people who are passionate about books meet and greet.

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In fact, contrary to popular opinion, the fair isn’t about acquiring the next Fifty Shades (most acquisitions actually happen before the fair) or generating record-breaking orders to sell books, because this all happens throughout the year anyway as part of the day job. In the words of our International Director, Simon Littlewood, the importance and role of Frankfurt is primarily about building and maintaining relationships:

‘Seeing each other face-to-face and breaking bread together are the parts of our business relationships for which digital communications can never be a substitute.’

Indeed, over the week I spent a lot of time chatting to our editors and colleagues in the rights and sales teams. This is the common goal that unites each department.

This year, in my spare time, I’ve written daily notes to provide you, dear reader, with a behind-the-scenes diary about what really goes on in Frankfurt.

Day One – Monday 7th October (Flying Out)

The buzz of books is in the air already. Every flight to Frankfurt is fully booked and I found myself in between two editors from an independent publisher. Naturally the conversation turned to books and to the fair itself.

Will it be busy this year? What will everyone be talking about? Who will host the best party? And of course, because I work for Random House, I was asked about the merger with Penguin. This will certainly be one of the hot topics this year.

The excitement of the impending fair continued to build as I checked into the hotel and bumped into colleagues from Asia and Europe in the foyer. All Random House employees stay at the Maritim which is situated right next to the fair venue and literally has a tunnel that connects to every hall, so you never have to leave the building.

Packing, unpacking, flying out, checking in, and the prospect of wining and dining all week is undoubtedly reminiscent of taking a holiday. But in actual fact it’s the start of a 7 day, 70 hour week!

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Day Two – Tuesday 8th October (Setting Up)

It’s amazing how boxes take over your life when it comes to organising events! I arrived on the stand at 9am to discover, boxes, boxes and more boxes littering the floor.

It wasn’t a surprise though. We normally take up to 1,000 books to the fair across the US and UK divisions, along with catalogues, order forms and promotional flyers for both the rights and sales teams. The stand itself is HUGE and is divided between the US and the UK. The US have their own events team who book the stand space and construct it, whilst I am responsible for designing and stocking our side.

It took approximately four hours for the three of us (me and two colleagues) to unpack everything and make the stand look habitable. During this time I also checked the design of the stand. Each year we produce 42 posters of book covers that fit inside giant lightboxes (the overall effect is that we have 42 glowing book covers across the stand).

At Random House UK we publish over 300 books a month across all imprints so choosing only 42 books to feature in the lightboxes to represent a 6 month period (from October 2013 – March 2014) is a real challenge.

As soon as we finished the arduous, but strangely satisfying, job of unpacking everything we went straight into the materials briefing meeting. This is a meeting that I run to go through all the marketing materials with our Area Sales Managers. It’s so they know what selling tools they have to hand when they meet with their customers. Then it was back to the hotel for a 2 hour liaison meeting with the US team.

Quite often we compete with Random House US to sell in the same book to the same market (which does seem strange, but it’s not uncommon practice in large publishing houses). That said, we have a healthy relationship with them and we share market information and match publication dates to ensure a fair level playing field. Ultimately it benefits the consumer too.

In the spirit of Frankfurt and ‘breaking bread together,’ we then all went out for dinner and drinks in the evening.

Day Three – Wednesday 9th October (The Fair Opens)

Back-to-back meetings by appointment only sums up the day.

Back in the olden days a new customer could rock up and ask to meet a sales rep for an account to be set up and a discount negotiated. One of our Area Sales Managers, Andrew Wyman, who has been attending Frankfurt since 1997 explained that the fair in general is ‘more professional and less debauched’ than it used to be when people would smoke and drink at the stand during ‘unbooked’ meetings.

But now be warned: if you smoke you will be fined and if you don’t have an appointment you simply won’t be seen.

This is true of most large trade publishers and what surprises me most is the number of budding authors and printers who approach the stand hoping to be seen. I can’t help but think that they haven’t done their homework. Even in the advent of self-publishing most trade publishers won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. As for printers, well, the production staff rarely hold meetings at the fair. Our stand is a case in point. Approximately 90% of the people on it are from our international rights and sales teams, with remaining 10% are editorial employees.

On day three the stand was absolutely heaving with customers. And when I wasn’t running around helping the US team on the front desk then I managed to attend some meetings with Asian booksellers.

Most of the appointments finished at around 6pm, then everyone frantically made their way to the first Penguin Random House party at the Bokenheimer Depot. The Depot is a disused old railway station and looks like a really large war bunker. But it’s beautifully decorated in crimson red with bookshelves everywhere and seats that are made up of stacked books.

Markus Dohle, our new Penguin Random House MD made a rousing speech at the start of the evening welcoming both the Penguins and Randoms and wishing us all a good night.

With free drinks, food, an incredible venue and a DJ that actually spun some good tunes, the Penguin Random House party became the party that everyone wanted to attend.

The other place where publishing people hang out is the infamous Frankfurter Hof. As part of my, er, ‘reporting’, I made it to both venues that night. At the Hof I bumped into Jonny Geller, the Joint CEO of Curtis Brown and the agent who was named by the Evening Standard as one of the most influential people in publishing last year.  We had a quick chat about the new James Bond that published last month and he seemed happy with our international marketing activity so I left feeling rather pleased that I’d done at least one productive thing that evening.

Publishing is a small world made up of nice people (generally speaking) who love books and that’s what makes the job and the partying, such fun!

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Day Four – Thursday 10th October (The Nobel Prize Winner is Announced,  Bridget is Published and Hugh Howey Visits the Stand)

At Frankfurt there are always one or two books that steal the show. Last year everyone was talking about Fifty Shades (in fact I made it on the front cover of the daily show guide by accident with a copy of it in hand, much to my shame and embarrassment!). This year everyone was talking about the new Bridget Jones and the fact that Darcy is dead. We took 30 copies of the book to the stand (10 for the shelves and 20 extras to stock the shelves) and by the end of the day we only had 10 left. Frankfurt is notorious for thieving and Bridget was clearly the loot of the day!

The second hot topic was that Alice Munro had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. As soon as it was announced at 1pm our stand was flooded with journalists, photographers and cameramen. The Nobel Prize is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, award for our international territories (in the UK there is more emphasis on the Man Booker prize, for instance). The US team had their order form ready within a second so they could start selling. How did they know? I asked myself as I worked manically with the team to produce our own order form for the UK. This also included lowering the price of Munro’s latest title by a pound to match the US price (see, it is good for the consumer when we compete!)

The highlight of the day though, had to be when Hugh Howey (author of the bestselling Wool trilogy) visited our stand to sign copies of his latest title Dust. I had requested some signed copies for our team in New Zealand who will use them as prizes for a retailer competition and instead of sending his agent, he visited in person. He’s one of the nicest and most charming authors I’ve ever met and he had all the ladies at the front desk swooning!

Day Five – Friday 11th October (Another Day, Another Meeting)

It’s still busy with back to back meetings on the fifth day. But as it started to quieten down in the afternoon I manage to steal a few minutes to talk to our International Rights Manager Caroline Sloan.

Caroline has been with Random House since 2008 and explains that for her the fair isn’t just about ‘selling, selling, selling’ because most rights are sold before and after the fair. For her, the primary objective is about building and maintaining relationships with publishers, finding out what they’re interested in, offering titles that match their interest and getting them interested in the new titles.

We also touched upon the differences between international sales and international rights as most people get the two confused. In short, in international sales we sell physical and electronic English-language editions to different markets, whereas in International Rights, they sell the language rights to another publisher who will then print and sell a foreign language edition in their country.

When asked her opinion on what the hot topics are of the fair, she quickly replied, ‘the Penguin Random House merger.’

Indeed, lots of customers and journalists were asking questions throughout the fair but there really was no juicy gossip. In the Frankfurt Daily show guide our CEO Markus Dohle made the front cover and said he hopes to make the Penguin Random House merger ‘the most boring merger in history.’

And it’s true, it IS boring (in a good way) – nothing significant has changed and it’s business as usual. Is this the calm before the storm? Who knows, but from the day the merger was announced the message has always been that they value making ‘quality’ decisions over hasty ones. So far, so good.

Day Six – Saturday 12th October (The Book Thieves)

Day six is the first day that members of the public can enter the fair. This year the fancy dress theme was manga/graphic novels. So out of, say, 50, normally-dressed people you might eventually spot a Pikachu or other Pokemon character in the crowd. It certainly adds another interesting dimension to the fair.

99% of the people who visit are perfectly normal and lovely book-lovers. But of course it’s the strange encounters that stand out most, like this one:

Strange woman: ‘Do you sell Dora?’

Colleague: ‘I’m not sure I know that title, could you let me know who the author is?’

Strange woman: ‘I don’t know the author, you should know.’

Colleague: ‘Is the title definitely just called ‘Dora’?

Strange woman (repeating herself now): ‘You should know. Show me the book’

Colleague: ‘I’m afraid I haven’t heard of that one. Have you tried searching for it on Amazon or Google or in your local bookstore?’

Strange woman (getting angrier and angrier and shouting now): ‘What’s the point of you? What are you doing here?’

Finally she walks off. This sort of behaviour isn’t unusual at a book fair.

Another aspect we have to contend with is theft. On the Saturday there are still trade meetings taking place and because so many copies go missing each year we have to lock away all the books until the following day and replace the shelves with catalogues so we won’t be fined by the organisers for having empty shelves.

It is a great shame that we have to do this because we’d love people to browse our titles.

There is talk about the organisers potentially hiring security guards for our stand next year which I completely advocate because then we could leave our books on display.

Day Seven – Sunday 13th October (The Book Shop and Closing Down)

On the last day of the fair, we turn our stand into a makeshift bookstore where we sell all the titles at half price. By 11am there was a long queue by the entrance of our stand that snakes all the way round the corner and down the hall. Suffice it to say, that members of the public are dying to buy books and it’s one of the most pleasing things for anyone who works in publishing to see.

Some of the bestsellers of the day included Solo by William Boyd, The Great War by Joe Sacco, Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding, Doctor Who (oddly, every year the Doctor Who titles sell like hot cakes!), Inferno by Dan Brown, Wool by Hugh Howey, Night Film by Marisha Pessl and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

The remaining books were sold to the American Book Centre who collected our stock at the end of the day and we gave away some titles to schools and charities too (at London Book Fair all our books go to charity).

And finally…

We started with boxes and we ended with boxes. Following the book sale we packed up all the materials on the stand, creating hills and mountains of boxes to send home.

By the end of the fair I was shattered; my feet hurt, my voice was husky and my eyes stung because I hadn’t seen daylight for days. But it’s truly worth it and I enjoyed every minute.

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Windmill is the online home of literary publishers Windmill Books, William Heinemann and Hutchinson. Part of Penguin Random House UK.