Attendees tend to use the adjective “overwhelming.” Montreal publisher Linda Leith describes it as “a city of books, almost inconceivable even to those of us who have attended other major international book fairs.”
The Frankfurt Book Fair (which also goes by its German initials, FBM) is the world’s largest trade fair for books, “the biggest and probably most important industry event of the year in the publishing world,” says Bookhug Press co-publisher Hazel Millar. Although it may not feature prominently in the minds of the Canadian reading public, it’s the buying and selling of literary rights at Frankfurt that puts international books on Canadian shelves and introduces Canadian authors to readers in Seoul and Berlin.
As Canadian publishers, literary agents, publishing associations and printers head to Frankfurt next week, I looked at how smaller presses approach the fair and are preparing for Canada FBM2020, when Canada will be the guest of honour and, as Millar puts it, “all the world will be looking at our books.”
The first decision for many small presses will be whether to participate at all. “It’s a huge investment to go to Frankfurt,” says Millar – not just the travel expense or the cost of having a stand at FBM, but the decision to expand the business.
Bookhug, which turns 15 this year, has developed its catalogue since its early days as a poetry-only press. “We felt it wouldn’t be time to go until we had a substantive enough list of fiction and non-fiction offerings to entice other publishers,” Millar says. This will be her third year darting around the fair from meeting to meeting. She figures Canada’s spotlight year will be the one to finally invest in a stand – Bookhug already has one reserved for 2020.
Millar is also chair of the Literary Press Group, an association of 60 Canadian publishers. Many LPG member publishers attend Frankfurt; many don’t. For the latter group, LPG compiled a rights catalogue of 40 titles that will be represented by rights agent Catherine Mitchell. The catalogue includes Accordéon, a finalist for the 2017 Amazon First Novel Award, published by Arbeiter Ring of Winnipeg; Dimitri Nasrallah’s allegorical novel of the Arab Spring, The Bleeds, which has already sold world French rights; and Martina Scholtens’ memoir, Your Heart Is the Size of Your Fist, about her decade working at an urban medical clinic for refugees, published by Victoria’s Brindle & Glass.
Bookhug’s most successful rights seller is Erin Wunker’s Notes from a Feminist Killjoy, which has sold into some unexpected territories. “We’re very proud of the fact that it sold into Turkey and Korea,” Millar says, noting how the collection of essays about intersectional feminism filled a gap in the acquiring publishers’ lists.
Much of the work in selling rights is about finding and filling such gaps, but there’s also an element of serendipity. “One of the fun things about Frankfurt is its unpredictability,” says Brian Lam, publisher of Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press. “We sold an alternative crafting book called Yarn Bombing to a large German publisher after the rights director saw it on our stands as she was walking by.
“In 2013, we were approached by an agent in Europe who had seen our books at Frankfurt and told us, 'I have a book that’s in your DNA.’” The book was a lesbian-themed graphic novel from France, which Lam acquired before the film adaptation won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Arsenal Pulp’s English edition of Blue Is the Warmest Color has now sold almost 100,000 copies and “really put our graphic novels on the map,” says Lam. “That wouldn’t have happened if the agent hadn’t taken notice of our LGBTQ titles at Frankfurt.”
It’s up to Canada what to make of 2020. The Frankfurt Book Fair has highlighted a guest of honour since 1976. Gillian Fizet, who heads Canada FBM 2020, has met with many recent honoured countries. “One of the first things we quickly realized is that there really is no template for being guest of honour,” she says. Some countries, such as France (2017), already have a long-standing relationship with the German publishing industry. Whereas New Zealand, which focused at the 2012 fair on penetrating the German market, “and went on to hit an 800-per-cent augmentation in rights sales after its guest of honour year.”
Canada’s approach to FBM2020 is closer to the New Zealand model. In addition to its regular literary translation fund, the Canada Council introduced a new fund specifically for translating Canadian works into German ahead of FBM2020. In July, 2018, a trade mission of 25 Canadian independent publishers visited Germany to learn about the market and introduce the Canadian market to German publishers, who have since been here as well.
According to Fizet, Canada is very close to reaching its goal of selling the rights to 200 Canadian-authored or illustrated works into the German-language market for next year’s fair. Germany’s most popular genre is fiction. More English-language works have been sold than French, which Fizet ascribes to the size of these markets.
“I think there’s generally a lot more openness among German publishers than many of their European counterparts,” Lam says. Arsenal Pulp has sold more books in Germany than in any other country.
As one of the few Canadian trade publishers working in both of Canada’s official languages, translation is at the heart of Linda Leith Publishing/Éditions. The Frankfurt sale Leith is most proud of is Wiebke von Carolsfeld’s debut novel, Claremont, with German and world rights sold to Cologne’s Kiepenheuer & Witsch (KiWi). Among the factors that attracted the major German publisher to this book set on Toronto’s Claremont Avenue was its author. Born and raised in Germany, von Carolsfeld worked at KiWi and comes to fiction writing from a celebrated career in filmmaking.
Canada FBM2020 is undeniably a commercial enterprise. It is also a cultural representation of Canada, with all of the country’s contradictions, including the present state of Indigenous relations. When asked about representing Indigenous writers in a global marketplace, both Millar and Lam note the stereotypes that still sometimes play out in conversations with international publishers. “I believe we have a very big responsibility in front of us to properly present Indigenous writing and break down any misunderstandings,” Millar says. She believes Lee Maracle, who publishes with Bookhug and other small presses, should be invited to Frankfurt next year.
Fizet notes that the Canada FBM2020 mandate includes Indigenous literary expression alongside English and Francophone works, and all three communities are represented on Canada FBM2020’s board of directors, as well as the committee deciding the program of Canadian authors visiting Germany in 2020. “We expect it will include a variety of works from Indigenous authors and illustrators from across the country,” Fizet says.
While Lam used to notice a lack of interest among foreign publishers in books that examined the contemporary realities of Indigenous experience, he says that is changing. “When we first published Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, about an ‘Indigenous’ young male phone-sex worker finding his place in the world, the initial response from foreign publishers was lukewarm. Now that it’s won many awards, we’re finally seeing rights sales.”
Frankfurt retains its relevance in the internet age because there’s no replacing the face-to-face meeting. Every publishing professional will tell you that Frankfurt is ultimately about cultivating relationships. Since Blue Is the Warmest Color, Arsenal Pulp has published several titles from Editions Glenat and has great relationships with queer publishers such as Albino Editions of Berlin, says Lam. Albino published the German edition of Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels like the Movies and just bought the German rights to Jonny Appleseed. Millar has found several corresponding publishers to Bookhug in Britain, including Galley Beggar, Influx and Dead Ink. Norway’s Forlaget Oktober and France’s Nobilia also have similar publishing visions. Leith, meanwhile, looks to Shanghai publisher Archipel Press and, back home in Montreal, Leméac Éditions.
Millar admits that international rights are still a minimal part of Bookhug’s overall business, but the long-term payout of establishing relationships with publishing professionals from all over the world means the real return on Canada FBM2020 probably won’t be known for years. “Even if the opportunities might not be there to work together now, I have a lot of confidence that the day will come. I know their tastes now, they know me now, and we’re going to find a project eventually to work on together.”
Elevator Pitches: Lead titles at FBM 2019
Brian Lam, Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver
- “Vanishing Monuments is a novel by John Elizabeth Stintzi, a non-binary writer who won this year’s RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers from the Writers’ Trust of Canada. It’s a brilliant novel that spans decades and continents, about a non-binary person who returns home to their long-estranged mother, who is now suffering from dementia.”
- “The Cure for Hate is a remarkable memoir by Tony McAleer, a former white supremacist who left the movement and now uses radical compassion to help others do the same. It’s a brave book that resonates strongly in today’s broken and divided world.”
Hazel Millar, Bookhug Press, Toronto
- “Author Steven Moore says it best in an endorsement blurb he wrote for the book: ‘Symphony No. 3 is not only a vibrant dramatization of the life of Camille Saint-Saens, but also a profound meditation on the place of music in culture, and of the tension between art and life.’”
- “The Nothing That Is by Johanna Skibsrud is like Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost meets Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. These essays collect Skibsrud’s various efforts to think seriously about ‘nothing,’ or about the very real implications and effects of what is often difficult to talk about – let alone to conceptualize – in concrete terms.”
Linda Leith, Linda Leith Publishing/Éditions, Montreal
- “Montreal writer Chih-Ying Lay’s first book is Home Sickness, which tells extraordinary stories about Taiwanese Indigenous, gay and otherwise marginalized individuals. Translated from Chinese by Darryl Sterk (who also translated Xue Yiwei’s Shenzheners and Dr. Bethune’s Children). March, 2020.”
- “We’re proud to publish the translation of rising Montreal literary star Fanie Demeule’s first novel, Lightness, about the relationship the narrator has with food as a girl and a young woman. Translated by Anita Anand. March, 2020. This will be Fanie’s first book to appear in English.”
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.