Pub biz staying home

American execs forgo fair; terrorist attacks lessen prospects

The world’s top publishing trade show, the Frankfurt Book Fair, will open as scheduled a week from today Oct. 9, but it will be unlike any Frankfurt fair on record.

An abiding desire to be at home in a stormy and frightening political climate was enough to stop dozens of American publishing execs, rights directors, scouts and agents from flying to a German city that was formerly home to the sort of U.S. military presence that could make it a terrorist target.

The international rights market — the engine that drives the event — is usually booming this time of year. But book submissions, which ground to a halt Sept. 11, have only recently begun to regain momentum, with much of the focus now on books about international affairs, terrorism, spirituality and heroic rescues.

Add heightened flying jitters and inconvenience, and many publishing insiders have concluded that the fair’s business prospects aren’t compelling enough to lure them overseas.

“I’d spent the past three to four months setting up back-to-back meetings over five days,” said agent Rafe Sagalyn, who canceled his trip to the fair. “My family asked me to stay close, a wish that I didn’t have a hard time heeding.”

Playing it safe

Also not going are such players as Bantam Dell Publishing Group prexy Irwyn Applebaum; agent Lynn Nesbit; Warner Books publisher Jaimie Raab; Picador publisher Frances Cody; editor Nan Talese; top rights agents at Putnam and Random house; the Ecco Press; agents Betsy Lerner and Jennifer Lyons; and the Australian imprints of Macmillan and HarperCollins. Lit agency IMG is sending fewer people, as are numerous shops and rights departments.

Execs at Random House and Putnam said employees were not required to attend. Even so, those who chose to stay home said it was an extremely difficult, and personal, decision.

“We just thought it was incautious for both of us to be out of the country at the same time because of our daughter,” said Lerner, whose husband is a publishing exec.

West Coast agent Sandy Dikstrja has opted not to go, and has canceled a party she was to co-host with Bertelsmann for author Amy Tan. Also axed is the Little, Brown U.K. party that traditionally kicks off the fair, and the splashy affair usually thrown by German publisher Heyne.

Despite these cancellations, overall fair attendance isn’t down much. The directors are expecting 6,671 exhibitors from 105 countries to fill its many hangar-size halls, with more than 400,000 books on display — roughly the same numbers as last year.

Americans who are going see it as a chance to bask in the support of international colleagues. In a business that’s always depended on word-of-mouth enthusiasm for new books, personal contacts across borders have rarely seemed more important.

“It is about the books,” said one scout. “But it’s also about the handshake, the hug and the latenight drink.”

Into orbit

In recent years, Frankfurt has been a launching pad for some of the most hotly sought-after books of the year, including major film acquisitions like “The Horse Whisperer,” “If Only It Were True” and “Artemis Fowl.”

While the American rights trade has slowed massively since the attacks, publishers and agents are certain that as yet hard-to-predict titles will materialize and electrify the market, as they have in years past.

“We’re all dealing with the unknown right now,” said CAA’s Robert Bookman, who will attend. “But it always comes down to whether some great piece of material emerges that will excite people. This has been a traumatizing year, but if there’s a piece of great material, people won’t bypass the opportunity to acquire it.”

Bookman added, “Everyone from the president to Mayor Giuliani on down has said we have to put our lives back together. Frankfurt is the single most important book fair of the year, and everyone is going to be there except arguably some people from America.”

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