The Frankfurt Book Fair, which takes place every October, is one of the biggest international fairs for all those in the business of books. For the uninitiated, it isn’t a fair for book lovers to browse through and pick up the latest bestseller – it’s an opportunity for publishers to discover what their next bestseller might be. Spread over a week, with the last two days open to the public too, the fair is vast and buzzing. This year saw as many as 286,000 visitors, and I was one of them.

I’ve been to the fair a number of times, when I worked for a multinational publishing house. This year was my first time attending as the international rights representative of an Indian literary agency, and it was interesting to see the difference.

First of all, navigating the fair when you are by yourself and on your feet all day is exhausting, to say the least. As I trudged along in my unfashionable but comfortable sneakers sipping from my €-3 bottle of mineral water (because god forbid the price of food and drinks should be subsidised inside the fair), I found myself enviously eyeing those bright and beautiful stands with couches and refreshments. And some of the stands were indeed beautiful.

HarperCollins, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary, had displayed old editions of its books around its stand, while the children’s publishing pavilions were filled with colourful posters of their biggest brands. Not to mention hall 4, home to art and prints, where a stroll down any aisle would show you the most gorgeous calendars, maps, posters, diaries, et al.

From India, the National Book Trust had a lovely stall with the rest of the international publishers, with their books displayed, while the bigger Indian and multinational publishers had their place within their larger group. A number of independent Indian publishers chose not to attend the fair at all, preferring to focus on the local Indian market instead – an indication that the Indian book market is flourishing and holding its own.

“We want India”

All around me were people talking about writing, about stories, and how they could make books happen. I heard that Cher’s and Robert Daltrey’s memoirs had just been sold for whopping sums and although my own list of books was nowhere near as exciting, I found, to my pleasure, that foreign publishers were very enthusiastic about Indian literature. Many of those I met hadn’t yet published an Indian book but were keen to begin, they all wanted to be more international, and the Western markets seem to be ready for foreign books that are not by the usual already-famous names. Diversity is the need of the day, as star agent Andrew Wylie mentioned in his key-note speech at the fair opening.

News of Pan Macmillan’s global acquisition of a children’s fantasy novel by a young African writer was splashed across the Bookseller the next day, the fact that the protagonist was black somehow more interesting than the story itself. And Arundhati Roy’s latest had certainly left a positive mark as the “big India novel”. In fact, one European publisher refused to consider one of my literary/political novels because they were already publishing Ministry and felt they couldn’t manage another so soon. Undoubtedly, the Indian market is important to the western world, especially to the UK.

As a general rule, foreign publishers with offices in India will not consider an India-centric book if they don’t have Indian rights included. Smaller publishers too, are likely to reject an Indian book that they otherwise love and would have published if Indian distribution is closed to them. India is clearly a market the West no longer ignores.

Breaking through

I have found it tough, I must admit, to establish contact with new editors. While those who already knew me were happy to be in touch again, others, who had not heard of our agency, were far less receptive. I realised what a difference a brand makes, and how hard it is for those who are starting out. There were a few who responded kindly enough but already had their schedules filled (four months before the fair!) while many ignored my requests entirely.

I found it particularly difficult to get in touch with European publishers, and realised I would achieve nothing unless I worked with a sub-agent in these countries, who would make submissions on my behalf. On the positive side, I also met an editor who spent our meeting telling me what he was looking for – it wasn’t a meeting where he was buying or selling anything, it was simply to share information with a new agent. Another publishing director gave me the email IDs of all the others in his team, while another couldn’t buy anything from me but was happy to have a chat. Every single person I met was friendly, gracious and interested.

It is perhaps impossible to go to the fair as a total nobody and achieve anything simply by networking. Unless you push your way into all the drinks receptions, I suppose, or brandish your card at the person standing behind you in the loo queue. What I mean is, you need to already be holding onto a link in the publishing chain if you want to be successful. The fair is so huge and busy that people only want to meet those they already know or those they know of through other people, they won’t waste their half-hour slot on you unless they think it’s going to be useful to them.

I remember running into this man who had designed and printed a gorgeous photographic book on the Ukraine landscape. He spent his time at the fair walking around from stand to stand trying to get someone to look at it. I admired his resilience and passion but I wonder how useful his efforts were. The way things work in the western publishing world, you need an agent to sell your book for you.

The sanctum sanctorum

Which brings me to the revered Literary Agents and Scouts Centre. An entire floor dedicated to scouts and literary agents, you need a “pass” to enter the four cardboard walls of this exclusive haven. This pass is given to you at the reception after you tell them which agent or scout you are there to meet. Once you have the pass you can walk in and out freely for the next three days, and after all these Frankfurts I am still not sure of the purpose of this pretence at exclusivity.

Inside the centre, you will find rows of tables with fast and serious meetings one after the other, and a buzz that seems to say, this is where the serious business happens, that this is not a venue for socialising but one that’s about hard-core buying and selling.

The Fair, I believe, is both – it’s buying and selling content, and it’s also networking and partying and having fun with colleagues and friends. It is about celebrating books and remembering that no matter what they say about people reading less and books not selling, we are in an industry that is thriving, and where, most importantly, we love what we do.

Neelini Sarkar is an editor and sells international rights for Writers Side Literary Agency.