The first time I came to the Frankfurt Book Fair, four years ago, I walked into Hall 1 and checked my coat. I thought: ‘free coat check–awesome!’ As it turned out, it was very much not awesome. The Frankfurt Book Fair is, on a pure square footage scale, massive. There are over 9 halls (counting other event spaces), each the approximate size of the Javits Center, and it can take you anywhere from five to 20 minutes to get from point A to point B. So, at the end of the first day of my first fair, I cursed the trade show gods as I dragged myself on one of the 20-minute-variety trips to pick up my coat.
While I now know never to check my coat here, the sheer size of Frankfurt is still the thing that makes this event so exciting, and difficult, to cover.
At my first Frankfurt something happened which, now that I’m a bit of a seasoned veteran (read not total newbie), I can tell you is rare. There was a big book. A single big book. In 2006, during the first day of the fair, word started spreading that someone had paid a lot of money for a really long book, written in French, about a Nazi. The ensuing fair was a really fun game of telephone. With each day of the fair, that initial kernel of info led to a fuller picture. The book was bought by Jonathan Burnham. He paid something like $1 million. The author is an American-living-abroad named Jonathan Littell. The book will be called, in English, The Kindly Ones. It’s written as the memoir of a fictional SS officer and features kinky sex and dark violence.
That Frankfurt was, hands down, the easiest one I’ve covered. The Littell acquisition wound up being the story of the fair and, each day, I woke up knowing I was setting out to get a fuller picture of the book everyone was talking about.
As I now know, “the big Frankfurt book” is something of a publishing industry Halley’s Comet. Despite journalists’ attempts to find the big book—they provide a nice easy, single, story to follow over the course of a few days when hundreds of people are buying and selling and discussing thousands of titles—they don’t come around too often. Ultimately there often isn’t one single title or subject people are talking about here—whether it’s a hot book or the current plague bringing down the industry.