Frankfurt Book Fair

‘When one is tired of Frankfurt, one must be tired of publishing’ – or so we are told!

I was lucky to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair several times when I was working in-house. I loved it: the bustle, the meeting and greeting of the like-minded, the catching up. I particularly enjoyed being in such an international context: all those Nordic types wearing interesting eyewear, glamorous women whose dress sense suggested they could only be French or Italian (that splash of green silk! those baubles! those heels!), all those lovely Americans. I remember a Dutch publisher whose stand had little bowls of salty liquorice for visitors to chew on (better than the Twiglets I remember from our stand – or do I have false memory syndrome?!). As a public arena within the industry, Frankfurt somehow felt (sorry) less stuffy and class-bound (and dowdy) than British publishing.

Editors are less likely to attend nowadays. So much business is done by email or over the phone, and so many foreign editors and rights people attend the London Book Fair, so people keep in touch in other ways or places.

But Frankfurt remains important for rights sales, and rights directors from publishers are there in abundance. A lot of agents still go as well. What they are doing there reminds me of the importance of foreign rights sales, particularly as royalty advances dwindle in the English-speaking world, and while certain markets continue to open, e.g., in Eastern Europe and Asia. And then too digital publishing continues to spread. Offers for Polish or Korean translation rights, or for German digital rights might seem modest, but they can soon add up, and trickle in long after a book has first been published in its original language. Given that such deals are often unexpected, the revenue can be a real bonus.

Commerce between UK and US publishers remains important, as does business with Australian and Canadian publishers, which operate autonomously more and more. An author who is published properly in a foreign territory is probably going to be better served than one whose books are distributed there by their domestic publisher, not just financially, but in terms of establishing the author’s name with an international readership.

And there might be room for self-publishers to shift some rights too. I believe there are some small outfits helping writers in this task, but by its nature it’s going to be a lot of piecemeal work for no certain return, so I imagine this sort of thing might take a while to establish itself.

Practices in other territories can vary, e.g., in much of Europe deals are made for a licence period of, e.g., ten years, rather than the full term of copyright (usually 50 or 70 years after the author’s death), which strikes me as much more sensibly flexible for authors in a changing economy. And of course, anyone who sells rights, whether it’s an agent, subagent, or publisher, will take a percentage cut (an eventuality that should be clarified in your contract – this can be about 20% for a subagent, and as much as 50% when the publisher sells).

And let’s not forget other forms of subsidiary rights beyond translation and foreign territories. Serial and book club rights are not what they used to be, but audio, TV, radio, film, and performance rights can still be important, and of course today digital rights are extremely significant. And I wonder what the ‘future technologies’ specified in some contracts might shape up to be? A couple of decades ago, we were rather excited by CD-ROMs as the future of the book … I guess that ‘future technologies’  is one of those safeguarding terms that catch all future eventualities regardless. Hmmm – resist signing away what does not exist yet, I say. I imagine good agents would hold on to such rights on behalf of their clients.

As writers think about publishing in general, they should be aware of what rights can mean for them. You might be able to attend some of the public events at events such as the London Book Fair or BookExpo America; I assure you that this is not the time to try to sell your own manuscript, as agents and editors in attendance will have their schedules booked up months in advance. But you can often attend seminars, and it can be instructive simply to wander the aisles to soak up the ways in which publishers present themselves within the trade. Meanwhile, a few useful articles with different perspectives are posted below, and in the future I might add posts that explain further aspects in more detail.

Mostly though: I remember Frankfurt as a lot of fun!

Rights And Copyright – explained by Science Fiction And Fantasy Writers Of America, including an important clarification about the difference between rights and copyright

Foreign Rights: How Authors Tap A Rich Vein Of Royalties – from Daily Finance

Publishing Basics, Part 4: Translation Rights – a useful personal explanation from the blog of author Mark Terry

Ten Things You Need To Know About Selling Rights – from Publishing Perspectives (advice for rights professionals)


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