Big Boff at Frankfurt Hof

Every year, New York’s publishing world issues a collective complaint about the zoo-like nature of the fall Frankfurt Book Fair, the feeding frenzy of foreign-rights directors, agents and publishers who come to this dreary German city to do face-to-face what they do by fax and e-mail throughout the year: buy and sell the rights to publish their books around the world. But they keep on coming. Why do they bother? It can’t be for the hot dogs on sale in every hall. And only a cynical few (or the very, very young) would come all this way for a chance to belly up to the bar with party-boy publisher Morgan Entrekin of Grove/Atlantic in the lobby of the Frankfurter Hof hotel.

No, they’re here-year after year after year-to “build relationships” with their global publishing brethren, to “share ideas” and, oh yeah, to make some money. Unlike BookExpo America, the four-day-long orgy of American publishers courting retailers in the spring, Frankfurt is a hopped-up dollars-for-pages affair. But the fair’s appeal survives for another reason, too: because it has all the makings of the kind of story publishers like to sell. It has history, it has drama, it has characters.

This year’s fair was no exception.

The Buchmesse officially runs from Tuesday to Monday in an enormous German version of the Javits center at the other end of town, but the heart of the fair is the Frankfurter Hof, a five-star Kaiserplatz hotel where all business starts and ends, beginning as early as Monday. You can stay here, too-for $500 a night, unless you call up at the last minute and get an already-paid-for but canceled room at a reasonable rate-but it’s not necessary. This year, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins execs checked into the Hilton, AOL Time Warner folks took over the Hessischer Hof, and a lot of Random House honchos prowled the Arabella Sheraton Grand (where the annual Bertelsmann dinner is held).

Summer Camp Meets Boot Camp

But all of them sooner or later-and usually until an impressively late hour-ended up at “Hof.” This is where rights directors and agents and journalists can get to know the very people who won’t take their calls in New York, from S&S’s David Rosenthal, in a garish tie one night and a leather jacket the next, to AOL Time Warner honcho Larry (“They’re not selling off the book division”) Kirshbaum, to William Morris Agency literary co-head Suzanne Gluck, back for her first Frankfurt in years. (She spent several years in foreign rights at International Creative Management; today, she co-heads William Morris literary.) And yes, Morgan Entrekin usually does show up, with cronies in tow, from Knopf’s Gary Fisketjon to Canongate Books’ Jamie Byng, who some call “the mini-Morgan” for his resemblance to Mr. Entrekin. The two have similar shoulder-length sandy hair and late-night rock ‘n’ roll lifestyles, and both are true believers in and passionate salesmen for their books. Their joint Saturday-night dance party is always the most discussed event of the fair.

But despite the nonstop partying, Frankfurt is not quite summer camp for publishing grown-ups. Well, O.K., agent John Brockman did accept a pre-emptive offer from Penguin Putnam’s Susan Petersen Kennedy for A Life Decoded by Craig Venter, a personal story of decoding the human genome, by cell phone in the Frankfurter Hof lobby on Monday afternoon, but it’s not like he didn’t work for his 15 percent. Actually, boot camp is more like it: The publishers and agents here put in long days. Publishers set up shop in luxurious, carpeted booths whose shelves are stocked with books and whose walls are lined with floor-to-ceiling photographs of their jackets and authors. Agents rent unadorned tables and entertain foreign publishers. Half-hour meetings-which are planned as early as July-are scheduled back-to-back, beginning (if you’ve gotten the Frankfurter Hof thing down) at 10 or later, and going on well into the evening. Everyone gets behind schedule, and occasionally appointments don’t show up, thus providing the only opportunity on most days to grab a sandwich or a trip to the water closet. Then it’s dinnertime (usually with more clients), a couple of cocktail parties, then a nightcap or six. No wonder half the campers end up back in New York with laryngitis and the Frankfurt flu.

What is everybody talking about in these meetings? Why, books, of course-though no one who ever sat in on a pitch meeting would confuse the conversation that goes on during them with literary criticism. “Frankfurt isn’t about writing,” says one agent. “It’s about the deal.”

The Hunt for This Year’s Big Book

Speaking of money, nobody has any, by the way. The Frankfurt 2002 mantra-“My economy is worse than your economy”-made poor-mouthing the most effective strategy for European publishers negotiating with hard-nosed agents and pesky foreign-rights directors. Until recently, Germany was the largest buyer of American books-even ahead of the U.K.- but is now, according to agent John Brockman, “on a par with, say, Belgium.” Citing diving stock prices, changes at the top of Bertelsmann, even recent revelations about the publishing giant’s connections to Nazism, the Europeans all manage to start the bidding low-but when a publisher really loves something, well, he just has to have it. Take Daniel Goleman’s Social Intelligence , his follow-up to his best-selling Emotional Intelligence . Bantam Dell Publishing House (a division of the Bertelsmann-owned Random House) paid $2 million for the North American rights to the book, based on a very slim proposal, right before Frankfurt; on Wednesday, German rights went for $300,000.

Theoretically, American agents don’t submit English-language projects to American editors at Frankfurt-that they can do back in New York-but making a “big buy” for your own list at Frankfurt, or right before, can provide just the right amount of buzz to get the foreigners interested. That’s what happened a couple of years ago when Knopf bought-and then sold the global rights to-a “big book” called Memoirs of a Geisha . Last year’s big book was Grove/Atlantic’s Twelve by Nick McDonell, a.k.a. “that Less Than Zero thing by the high-school kid,” as one agent remembers the title that some say sold as many as 60,000 copies in the States, was snatched up around the world and recently was sold to the movies.

So naturally, a good portion of gossip time at the fair is spent on the subject of “big books,” which publishers keep insisting don’t exist, but which they frantically run around trying to find. (“I think the news this year is that there are fewer big books,” one publisher predictably told me, “and more smaller, literary novels.”) “Big book” fiction candidates this year included Amagansett , a debut mystery- cum -love-story that the William Morris Agency sold pre-fair to Jennifer Hershey at Penguin Putnam for what was said to be about $750,000; a Canadian novel, Deafness , from Grove/Atlantic; and the hands-down favorites, a novel and a short-story collection by twentysomething former agency assistant Hannah Tinti that went to Dial Press. Ms. Tinti’s stories-“Animal Crackers” in particular-have good word of mouth, but it’s their provenance that has wags predicting success: Ms. Tinti is represented by the charismatic Nicole Aragi, who regularly manages to unearth smallish literary debuts that make a big impact-like Nathan Englander’s For the Relief of Unbearable Urges , Manil Suri’s The Death of Vishnu and, most recently, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated -and turn them into mini-blockbusters. Ms. Aragi not only has a good eye: She herself has buzz.

Buzz counts, big time. Look at Jonathan Burnham, President of a Tina Brown–less Miramax Books, for example. Mr. Burnham just received a glowing profile in New York magazine, has the No. 1 nonfiction book in America ( Leadership by Rudy Giuliani), and has ponied up a whopping $625K for Plum Sykes’ Brit chick-lit novel, Bergdorf Blondes . He and his house are not just “hot,” as Tina herself might say, they’re “hot, hot, hot.” Which may explain all the chatter about his buying Fatima’s Good Fortune , a fable about a Tunisian ugly duckling who moves to Paris and becomes a swan. Fans say the Lynn Nesbit–agented debut-by writing duo Joann and Gerry Dryansky-is reminiscent of the sleeper cult film Amélie ; detractors mutter something about Chocolat and magical realism lite.

The Celebrity Count

In addition to the standard New York buzz-magnets-“Is that Nan Talese wandering Hall 8 alone with an ice-cream cone?” “There’s Sonny Mehta! He’s wearing regular pants, not jeans!”-publishers sometimes import talent to Frankfurt, too, as evidenced this year by the appearance in the bar of scraggly-actor-turned-scraggly-author Ethan Hawke, clad in a guayabera shirt even as the temperature hovered around freezing. (Maybe a couple of drinks with a European editor would yield the William Morris client some foreign-rights sales.) Superchef author Anthony Bourdain was there, too, presumably as a guest of one of his European publishers; he may have finally found the one place where his nicotine habit seems mild. Early in the week, Bloomsbury Publishing fêted its Berlin-based star author, Jeffrey Eugenides, at a special dinner. Jonathan Franzen came to town on behalf of his German publisher and even spoke, humbly, to the press. And while nobody seemed to have seen her, rumor had it that Hillary Clinton showed up to promote her $8 million–plus memoir, due from Simon & Schuster next summer.

By Saturday night, you could feel the Frankfurt energy dissipate. A lot of the big wigs, like Ms. Gluck and Warner Books’ Jamie Raab and the agents Sarah Burnes and Bill Clegg, had left, either for home or for a few days of R&R elsewhere. It was the junior people who stayed to do cleanup as late as Monday. At 11:00, the lobby of the Frankfurter Hof-which was so crowded two nights earlier that David Rosenthal called me a “brave woman” for trying to infiltrate it-looked like Michael’s in the evening. You could even get a seat on one of the lobby couches.

This was postmortem time. Visitors greeted each other by asking, “Did you have a good fair?” Then they inevitably began to compare this year’s fair to previous ones. “This was the quietest I’ve ever seen it,” scout-turned-agent Jenny Meyer had said earlier. “Except for last year.”

America the Unpopular

Ah, yes, last year: the fair that almost wasn’t, at least for the dozens of Americans who-paid-up hotel rooms or no-pulled out at the last minute amid terrorism fears. That was a weird time, those of us who were here agree, but it was also kind of nice. There was a sense of global solidarity: Just about every gathering began with Europeans inquiring after New York’s well-being and soliciting memories about “that day.” There wasn’t much talk of Sept. 11 this year, though; in fact, it was as if everybody was following their mothers’ advice and refusing to discuss politics. “Now that we seem to be moving headlong into war,” said Public Affairs publisher Peter Osnos, who was here in 2001, “they seem warier about us.”

The conversation turned to the question of whether, in five years’ time, say, there will even be a fair here at all. The London Book Fair (held in March) seems to be gaining on Frankfurt as an international-publishing meeting place, somebody suggested. Besides, the Buchmesse brass is threatening to find a new site, according to Publishing News , the daily broadsheet published here. It seems that those $500-a-night rooms and minimalist catering stands are becoming a fatal annoyance to everybody.

But most believe the hardy, 50-plus-year-old fair is here to stay. A couple of years ago, an insurgent group tried to mount a global book fair stateside, calling it “Frankfurt in New York”; there was such a hue and cry among American and non-American publishers that the plans were quickly scrapped. Frankfurt may not be Paris or London (or even New York, for that matter), and mail and fax and e-mail will surely continue to push business through-but to publishers worldwide it remains a destination, a home away from home for one long week every fall. “People will always come back to Frankfurt,” one American publisher said, suggesting that it’s not the books or the buzz or the Frankfurter Hof or even the money that draws them here after all. “We like seeing the same people year after year, eating with them and drinking with them and telling them how glad we are to see them.”

In other words, to paraphrase a writer who probably wouldn’t have been caught dead at a book fair, the rumors of Frankfurt’s death are greatly exaggerated.

Sara Nelson, a senior contributing editor at Glamour , is writing a book about reading for G.P. Putnam’s Sons.