21 Oct 2 Seas Agency’s Virtual Frankfurt Book Fair Diary, part 2
The Actual Virtual Frankfurt Book Fair Week Is ON!
By Marleen Seegers — Article first published in October 2020
You may have read in my Virtual Frankfurt Book Fair diary part 1 about how I moved to my “Fauxfurt” headquarters on October 6, after having started conducting virtual meetings as early as mid-September.
We’ve now arrived at the actual week of the virtual Frankfurt Book Fair, filled with over 60 meetings . . .
Monday October 12
Today is the day Chrys and I would have started our meetings in Frankfurt. We would have gone to the Hessischer Hof, across from the fairgrounds, in the early morning to make sure we find a table to use for our meetings—and hold on to this valuable spot all day long. The actual Frankfurt Book Fair would not have started yet, we’d have to wait one more day for the LitAg to open, and two more days for the fair to officially start.
The Hessischer Hof would slowly fill with people searching for their next appointment—or just hanging out, waiting to run into people they don’t have a meeting with, whom they haven’t seen since last year, or whom they’ve never met before (oh! the number of people I met serendipitously there, at the entrance, in front of the reception). The waiters and waitresses would come over to our table from time to time to ask if we wanted anything else to drink and us, uncomfortable and afraid of overstaying our welcome, answering “yes please, another bottle of sparkling water, bitte sehr und Danke schön“.
But today we live in another world, a world where a pandemic has changed our lives forever. Frankfurt is a virtual book fair this year, during which we meet with publishing industry professionals from the comfort of our homes or offices, depending on where in the world we live. The Grand hotel Hessischer Hof is no more, one of the many victims of the economic downturn restaurants and hotels have had to endure since March.
Amidst so much uncertainty, I felt a strong need to see my international publishing connections again. Instead of in-person meetings, seeing them on a screen really turned out to be a close second. My first meeting today, at 10am Frankfurt time (1am California time), was with a German editor I’ve known for many years; the following meetings were also with people I’d already met in person. This was a gentle and reassuring way to start the week—I imagined it to be quite rough to start with someone I’d never met before, the very first day when I’ve fully switched to night shifts.
To my pleasant surprise I got to see the Mondadori building with its famous arches, just outside of Milan—which I’d planned to visit in April—as an editor I was meeting preferred to take the video call outside. When I finally met an editor I’d only been in touch with via email, I gave a quick introduction to the agency and mentioned I am based in California. I could see him do the maths as I was speaking, and soon the expected question came: “Wait… you’re in California right now? What time is it for you?!” He certainly wasn’t the last person to ask!
I’d planned on attending The Hof—My Frankfurt Blues Edition which was scheduled right after my last meeting ended, at 7pm CET. But I suddenly felt completely drained once I’d logged in and found myself staring at the grid view of around 10-15 people who were also present at this online event organized by the Frankfurt Book Fair. I felt the need to go for a walk as the heat was starting to warm up the apartment, and logged off to the only digital Frankfurt Book Fair event I’d registered for—the other events are held during previously scheduled meetings. Hopefully next year, if we’re still going full-on virtual (who knows?), the event calendar will be announced a little sooner, before my schedule is fully booked.
Tuesday October 13
After a rough first afternoon of not getting enough sleep on Sunday—ideally this week I’m asleep from 3:30pm till 11:30pm or midnight—I was fast asleep by 3pm California time yesterday. The big difference was that this time, I’d left the air conditioning on and installed a portable fan in my bedroom. At the moment outside temperatures reach 105 F/over 40 degrees C in the afternoon. Additionally, the bedroom faces south and most of its walls have large windows and glass sliding doors. As I learned the hard way on my first “night,” without the AC and the fan the room quickly becomes an oven. Now I just have to get up around sunset to switch them off and open the windows throughout the apartment. Oh, and of course manage to fall back asleep again. The latter is much easier by then, as it is actually dark outside.
Instead of the usual ice-breaking question of “when did you arrive in Frankfurt?”, most meetings now start with “what’s the situation like in your country?” or “are you working from home?”.
The situation in terms of new infections and government measures vary from country to country, and can change from day to day. The few people I spoke with who were still at their offices today (mainly from Germany and Italy) were all expecting to have to return to working full-time from home again soon, as the numbers are on the rise. One exception: one of our South-Korean sub-agents, who told me that the number of daily new infections hovers around a mere 100 for the entire country.
Besides a few more “so… what time is it now for you?” moments today, quite a few people were also asking about the recent wildfires that burned in California. Fortunately, after the scare we had almost three years ago, we’ve been spared so far this year. We did have a week of very smokey skies, during which it was best to stay inside. That was early September, when I felt pretty isolated already. I wasn’t traveling to Europe for the usual 3-4 weeks of business meetings while catching up with friends and family in France and the Netherlands before attending the Frankfurt Book Fair. As a result I was very eager to see everyone again, even if it’s only through a computer screen!
I have a very satisfying feeling as I wrap up my second virtual Frankfurt day. As I’m sending out my meeting follow-ups, I also get to conclude a nice auction in Germany for one of our titles!
Wednesday October 14
Today was the first day I started at 12:30am California time—ouch! Fortunately the meeting was with an editor whom I know quite well and have seen many times in person before. As always during book fairs (virtual or physical), I’ve tried to get a mix of meetings with people I already know and have worked with and people whom I haven’t met or worked with yet. Nikoleta has done a great job getting those meetings all lined up!
I’ve scheduled more breaks than I’d normally take during the physical Frankfurt Book Fair, when in the end it just becomes one long haul of back-to-back meetings from 9am till 7pm (I usually switch off the lights in the LitAg). For every three half-hour meetings, I have a half-hour break.
This allows me to stretch my legs a bit and also catch up with email, which seems to be coming in constantly. That’s one of the consequences of the virtual book fair: normally, during the Frankfurt week we all live in some kind of bubble, away from the “rest” of the world so to speak. We can focus 100% on what’s going on at the fair. Colleagues and other people we work with know we’re much less available. Now however, everyone is attending the virtual Frankfurt Book Fair while working from home or the office. For some reason, this gives “non-Frankfurt-goers” the impression that it is business as usual. Many people pointed out during my meetings that they’re having to deal with a lot more “urgent” matters than when they are physically in Frankfurt at the fair.
Sr Agent Chrys is also attending the virtual Frankfurt Book Fair this week. Together with London and the occasional joint visit to the Paris Book Fair, Frankfurt is one of the few occasions during the year that Chrys and I get to see each other in person. The first time we met was in Frankfurt in 2015!
The fact that we’re not seeing each other in person this time doesn’t prevent us from having our traditional Frankfurt dinner. The two of us normally sit down and catch up over a nice & quiet dinner somewhere in Frankfurt. We did so again this year, albeit at a long distance: from Nicosia, Cyprus to Ojai, California. We both ordered dinner after a long day/night filled with meetings and enjoyed some “down” time together. Her husband João joined us at some point too, something that obviously wouldn’t happen in Frankfurt!
Thursday October 15
Four days in, I’ve listed a few advantages of this virtual book fair:
- No standing in (a loooong) line to go to the bathroom;
- My breaks are true breaks. When I’m eating a sandwich I don’t get interrupted by someone who has written a book on alien sightings in North-Western Alaska (no judgment or offense) and is looking for a publisher;
- I manage to get in full-focus mode during every single one of my meetings and feel this is the same for the person on the other side of the screen. I’m extremely isolated at the retreat center and overall there is zero background noise—the only sounds I hear are, from time to time, cicadas, the occasional owl hoot or a deer that walks past. Quite the opposite from the buzzing LitAg;
- Since there are no people walking by to say hi to, there are no such interruptions during our meetings (and obviously I don’t receive phone calls at 3am—and the people I met with seemed to all have silenced their phones).
- Today I had dinner with my husband & agency co-founder Derek (well, it was breakfast for him). Even though we first met at the Frankfurt Book Fair, he hasn’t been going there for a few years now. This means that I usually don’t see him for 5 weeks in a row or so.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t miss the drinks, dinners, serendipitous meetings, stop-and-chats in the LitAg and elsewhere, paying €20 for a glass of wine at the Frankfurter Hof, trying to get a ticket for the Canongate party on Friday, seeing the man with the hammer, the giant Astérix and the passionate violin player at the U-bahn Messe exit at 8:20 in the morning, and all the other beautiful, unique, at times annoying but mostly fun and heartwarming moments that make up the Frankfurt Book Fair. This morning/evening my heart literally melted as I read the LitHub piece I’ll See You in Frankfurt: On Missing the Biggest Bookish Gathering in the World, written by my friend and fellow-agent Szilvia Molnar. It captures the Frankfurt Book Fair essence so magnificently.
Friday October 16
I just finished my last meeting! The virtual Frankfurt Book Fair, a.k.a. Fauxfurt a.k.a. Fakefurt is over . . .
More than 60 meetings cramped in one week, working from 12:30-1:00am till 10:00am every day, seeing publishing people from around the world with whom I laughed a lot and also cried a little as we are not all together in Frankfurt, got excited about books and the idea that some day this too shall pass and we will see each other again in person. I missed turning off the lights in the LitAg but instead enjoyed a final walk around the amazingly beautiful Meditation Mount, my FBF headquarters for 2020. I am grateful for everything, above all (and extremely tired, which makes me very emotional!).
In terms of interest for our titles and actual rights sales during this virtual book fair season, it’s been quite diverse as far as genres and territories are concerned. We’ve had offers come in as of September and it has been steady since, though I feel there is more hesitation than usual among acquiring editors. As I mentioned before, many of them have had to postpone titles that were planned for the spring, which leaves less room for new acquisitions.
Throughout the week, as one European government after the other announced more severe measures to fight the spread of the Coronavirus, European editors also expressed concerns about the Christmas period, as there is no visibility on what is to come in terms of (partial) lockdowns.
One thing we do know for sure though, is that a virtual book fair will never completely replace the physical Frankfurt Book Fair. But this was a good alternative, and it is reassuring to know it worked out for me in spite of the 9-hour time difference.
Here are some of the pictures I took on my final walk in the surroundings of my virtual Frankfurt Book Fair retreat below: