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Frontlist | Virtual Frankfurt book fair. What did this mean for literary agents?

Frontlist | Virtual Frankfurt book fair. What did this mean for literary agents?
on Nov 23, 2020
Frontlist | Virtual Frankfurt book fair. What did this mean for literary agents?
From virtual meetings to juggling timezones, the fair where book deals are made became even more hectic.
  • Books from the Jacaranda list. Check.
  • Snacks for table. Check.
  • Devices. Check.
  • Our Dhokra reading ladies for the table. Check.
  • Diving into meetings literally off the plane. Check.
  • No voice after a day. Check.
  • Assorted beverages. Check.
  • Apples in bowls. Check.
As literary agents, attending the Frankfurt Book Fair every year is an integral part of our routine, giving structure to our year, and providing the opportunity to meet publishers from all over the world. But, more important, it is one of the only times of the year that the two of us are able to meet up in person, or even to be on the same continent. With one of us based in Bangalore and the other in the UK, it is great to be able to sit down together and work side by side. We run our agency out of Singapore and live in Bangalore and London, respectively. Our writers are from everywhere, though we focus mainly on Asia, East Africa and the UK. Try doing a Sydney and Seattle call on the same day to get a sense of the madness of our agent lives. Over the years, we’ve developed several rituals and traditions around the week of the Fair – the first night dinner at our favourite Italian restaurant in Frankfurt, drinks with friends at the Frankfurter Hof, big buffet breakfasts at our hotel, the morning walk through autumnal leaves to the Buchmesse, the celebratory gossipy brunch at our table with our favourite US publisher and the many regular meetings with old friends. Then there is the noise of the Agent’s Centre, the IRC, reverberating with the hum of books being pitched. We’ve often wished we could record that sound. We wish we had, especially now. There are the usual rushed lunches in-between meetings, and those many spontaneous unplanned meetings, bumping into people on escalators and in lifts, being caught in a crush of people, having drinks in passages, looking frantically at chaotic and full schedules to find a time for a quick meeting. And then there are the little things: the all-pervading smell of French fries, the endless cups of coffee and the outrageous number of sweets we manage to consume. At the end of the five days, we leave exhausted, our luggage stuffed with handfuls of new business cards and piles of complimentary books. These are all the things that make Frankfurt special. It’s a buzz and a rush and we wouldn’t change a thing.

The pandemic and Frankfurt

Then everything changed. We were getting ready for the London Book Fair and the world changed in a heartbeat. Borders sealed. Systems shut. Distribution stopped. Printers shut. Bookstores closed. Offices shut. Lockdowns everywhere. There was a collective anxiety. It was so hard for people to move to a work from home situation and deal with families at home. This year has been challenging in every way for the entire industry. In the initial months of the pandemic, there was an obvious hiatus. We were unsure initially how to react. When Frankfurt announced the Digital Fair, we had no idea how it was going to work. Should we push sales? Or should we simply submit lists, books and ideas? Would it work at all? That said, the opportunity to participate in the digital Fair was a wonderful experience for us. Different but still energising. Unfamiliar but worth a shot. For one thing, we were forced to put together our digital catalogues in record time. This year we created four catalogues: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Memoir and Translated Fiction. Digital Frankfurt allowed us to upload all of these remotely and for them to be connected directly to our website, which worked really well. The Digital Fair team made the whole process very smooth – although we both tend to find any form of digital technology challenging! We also had to think more deeply about the books that we wanted to showcase. This year we opted for a shorter, more focused catalogue. Having the Fair deadline also encouraged us to work faster on our new titles to make sure that they were ready to be included in our online catalogue. We were able to pitch our books, but missed that crazy energy about the kind of books that are selling. That buzz about new trends. That passer-by who came and picked up a book because the cover was exciting. That conversation about who’s made the big deal at the fair. All our meetings felt more like individual pitches rather than being a part of a tribe. People cleared diaries and made time to talk to us. Deals are closed over many email exchanges and conversations. A digital fair is welcome, but not a substitute for the actual fair. Despite everything, we did still have that book fair feeling. There were some other positives as well. The digital fair gave us the opportunity to catch up with old friends. As we didn’t organise our meetings back-to-back, we were able to allow more time for each meeting. The typical Frankfurt Book Fair meeting is a precious 25 minutes, which usually also includes catching up personally (this is such a personal business!) as well as pitching books. These short meetings are always rushed and it’s almost impossible to pitch more than a couple of books to an editor. After that we can see eyes glazing over.

Learning to pitch books digitally

This year we had fewer, but longer meetings, which was a bonus. It gave us plenty of time to cover the personal and business. But the meetings took place across timezones, early morning for one person, midday for another and late at night for a third. It was mad. And then there was daylight saving time to add even more drama to this already insane situation. With such complicated schedules there were bound to be a few problems. It’s difficult to coordinate a packed schedule across several time zones and inevitably there was an occasional mix up. We logged into one meeting only to see an editor painting her nails blue as we signed on. It did start our meeting with much laughter! We took part in a late afternoon social networking meeting where we were all gathered in one “room” and were then “taken away” to breakout meetings. We were made to listen to music in between. Bizarre? Not really. It was quite magical. We had five meetings with strangers that afternoon/evening and it was fantastic. Meeting new editors at book fairs can be quite intimidating, but somehow, this one worked really well. We met strangers who knew nothing about us except that we were agents from Asia. We were led by their curiosity and questions to talk about books that seemed relevant to them. Another day, one of our calls seemed to be going really well and we extended the time to continue the conversation. An hour did not seem good enough. By the time we’d signed back on, we’d run out of steam. Pitching is exhausting. But we converted that second meeting into a social one. Coffee and wine and conversation became the thing to do. We talked books and music and food. Told stories and found things to laugh about. Perfect.

What a virtual day at the Fair was like

This year we were able to make some different memories – for example, the agent who got us to be quiet as she snuck into her boys’ room so that we could see them. We had meetings with editors who picked up their laptops and swung them around to show us their view, their garden, their makeshift workplaces, their children running around and their pets. We did the same. There were the occasional interruptions such as a child coming in to ask a question or us yelling at our partners to be quiet! We were also invited to participate in some online conferences. Manila. Frankfurt. Jakarta. We were on panels, talking about where we are, in our respective businesses at this time. The anxiety was all-pervading. The problems we face are the same no matter where we work from. The conversations were really good though. So much sharing and optimism. So many ideas. So much empathy…a “for you as well?” And taking comfort from this unity of distress. We received mails from several people who attended these sessions. In many ways it was easier to do talks on Zoom and not be aware of audiences. The conversations felt quite intimate. I think we learned that although online meetings – like all forms of social interaction online – can be surprisingly tiring, if spaced out they can be enjoyable and productive. We found these conversations uplifting – the social interaction and the chance to share experiences and news reminded us that we still belong to a community, however distanced physically. Instead of the usual bowls of sweets and piles of name cards on our desks, we had different props this year – eye drops, tubes of hand cream and lipsticks to be hurriedly applied before the next zoom call. We had rose water to splash on and assorted earrings. We had flowers and vitamin D spray to ward off germs.
We had plenty of water, and of course, tea, coffee, wine (depending on time of day). In addition to the assorted devices, notebooks and dozens of pens that mysteriously run out of ink, we had our piles of books to rest our devices on and others that are new and exciting on our own lists. By the end of the week we had become experts on setting up our own backdrops and lighting. So, without moving from our desks, we were able to meet publishers and co-agents from across the world – from the US and Canada, to Australia and across Europe. Instead of a five-day event, we set up meetings across several weeks, spreading them out instead of cramming them in. And it worked so well. We probably had more meetings with people we already know than with new contacts – those tended to come via the more formal fair events. But nevertheless, these were very welcome, helpful and productive. Whilst not a substitute, it’s good to know that even if the physical fair doesn’t take place we can still have a really meaningful and productive digital event. We can’t wait to be back at the Buchmesse. To do face to face meetings and make delicious small talk before diving into our catalogues with immense excitement and enthusiasm. There are endless possibilities and so much optimism.
  • Books to bring home. X
  • Snacks for table. Check.
  • Devices. Check.
  • Our Dhokra reading ladies for the table. X
  • Days that are immeasurably long. Check.
  • No voice after a day. Check.
  • Random food. Check.
  • Eye drops. Check.
  • Assorted beverages. Check.
  • Exhaustion. Check.
Jayapriya Vasudevan and Helen Mangham run the Jacaranda Literary Agency.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.
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