Life and Death at Frankfurt

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

Literary agent Barbara J. Zitwer reflects on the pivotal role the Frankfurt Book Fair has played in her life and career.

By Barbara J. Zitwer

Barbara Zitwer

Barbara Zitwer

I hadn’t even made it to the first day of the fair when I received a phone call from my family in NYC that my father had died. It was the eve of my debut as a scout with Franklin & Siegal and the beginning of my career in publishing. I was excited about what lay in store during the next couple of days. I had only heard about the Frankfurter Hof and the Hesh; partying all night and selling books at a bar really appealed to me. I just couldn’t wait. But before I even set one foot on the Messe, I was on a flight back to Manhattan.

But the next year, I got my first taste of how books could be sold when I met Morgan Entrekin at the Frankfurter Hof and he told me about a book, Monster, that he wanted to acquire. He needed a certain amount of money in foreign sales in order to pre-empt the world rights from the agent.

It was by Monster Kody Scott, an LA gang member in prison for life. When Morgan talked about the book in the loud, jam-packed bar, I was completely entranced and his vivid description of when the author was shot and bleeding on the ground, nearly dying but thinking of his young daughter and then finding the strength to live on; I was thoroughly moved.

MonsterI wanted to help Morgan and Kody Scott get his voice heard all the more so because it was the same time that Madonna’s Sex book was selling. I was really annoyed that everyone was going crazy over Madonna and her book of silly naked photos. I felt that Monster was a voice that was truly important to be heard; his book wasn’t exploitative or frivolous. So I gave my full energy and attention to help Morgan sell the foreign rights to Monster, so he could acquire the book.

I told him I would get him some money and I ran around the Hof and found my German publisher, Hans Peter Ueblein at Heyne and talked to my Italian publisher, Salani. The hotel was buzzing and I could barely be heard above the booming crowd but my passion emboldened me and convinced my clients who actually made offers on the spot. I brought the offers to Morgan and he bought the book and he published it.

In one fell swoop of adrenalin, passion and with a mission, I saw how I could help make things happen and how the international world of publishing really worked. I think my course as a literary agent was set on that day, although I didn’t know it at the time. I was a scout for two more years before I took my next step. 

Friday Night Knitting ClubYears later, as my mother was terminally ill, I found myself torn when I got on the plane to Frankfurt. I was racing against her fate when I sold an unknown writer and the book The Friday Night Knitting Club to about fifteen publishers around the world. It was years after I helped Monster and I had learned full well about the domino effect of international sales, and how timing is everything in order to whip things up. I learned how to create a hot book of the Fair.

The weeks before the Fair started I closed a good deal with Putnam and Hodder and sold the movie rights to Julia Roberts and Universal. I brought the author and had her sit at my table with two needles and a ball of yarn; I marketed what I had hoped would be an international bestselling franchise series with ease. Everyone loved The Friday Night Knitting Club and it was a #1 New York Times Bestseller.

Inside the Red Mansion, would be my hot book of a Frankfurt book fair in 2006. Written by Beijing bureau chief of the Times, Oliver August, it was a very sexy and thrillingly told expose of China and the rise of capitalism through the life story of Lai Changxiang, a self-made billionaire real estate mogul whose corruption brought down more than 400 police and politicians when he fled the country in a speedboat from Xiamen Island to Taiwan. I thought the book could be as successful as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Chinese style, and I was excited to sell it on proposal at Frankfurt.

But, then my mother took a turn for the worse and said what would be her last goodbye to me from her hospital bed. She wanted me to go to the Fair and be successful and “get on” with my life, rather than sit and wait by her side. My sisters did that. But she wanted me to fly; she insisted I go and so I did.

With a handful of paper dynamite, I was anxious to secure a UK deal for my British author and also to sell foreign rights. The author had to leave China to finish the book and could never go back there once the authorities read what he was working on. He would be banned for life and so he needed money.

With a handful of paper dynamite, I was anxious to secure a UK deal…

At the time I was working with the superb British agent Patrick Walsh, who was intrigued when I told him about the book and he said hello to Oliver August, but he was focused on other books to sell and didn’t have time at this Fair.

At Frankfurt, I never take “no’ for an answer because somewhere from someone I have always gotten a “yes.” I scoured the aisles for someone who could help me. I was desperate to get Oliver’s book out to the world of British publishers immediately and knew that Frankfurt is the biggest hunting grounds in the world and the prey was hungry.

Robert Kirby stepped into my line of sight and he sold the book to John Murray, which secured Oliver the support and foundation he needed to continue. Doris Engle of Eichborn and several other foreigners then bought the book too. I was opened up then, in many ways, to the progressive and innovative publishing that is going on in the UK. I began to see that selling exotic and foreign books might be easier in the UK than the US and that cemented my everlasting love affair with British publishing, including the first publication of my own first novel, The JM Barrie Ladies Swimming Society to Short Books, several years later.

Seven years after Oliver’s book was sold, both my parents were dead and I was about to go to the airport for Frankfurt once again. It was last October and I always think a lot about my parents and our otherworldly connection to Frankfurt. It must have a meaning, mustn’t it?

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could FlySometimes I worry when Frankfurt is around the corner. Will someone I love die? As my fate with Frankfurt would have it, my best friend Doris died last year in October, exactly six years to the day that mother had passed on. I was at the Frankfurt book fair trying to get a UK deal for The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly. This Korean classic bestseller by Sun-mi Hwang was going to be published by Penguin in the US and had sold in many countries, but there was no UK home for the writer who was chosen as the Author of the Day for the London Book Fair 2014!

I was bereft in all ways – professionally and personally. How could this beautiful fable not have a British publisher at a book fair honoring Korea that would be in London? It was unthinkable. Much more unthinkable was the rabid spread of melanoma that had just killed my best friend in only seven weeks. I thought about Sprout, the plucky hen who is the main character of the Korean fable and how she persisted against all odds, against life and death to fulfill her dream of freedom and to help an orphaned baby. How she had sacrificed herself in the end. And I thought about my best friend, Doris, who had sacrificed a lot for her daughter, too, in her life.

It’s taken me a while, but now I think Frankfurt is the place that ferments all my dreams and where all my emotions and passions come together and somehow I am able to rise above them to become the best of what I can be.

Frankfurt forces me to “get on.” When I think about going to Frankfurt I am not afraid anymore; my family and the friends that I love are really like books. They are forever. 

Barbara J. Zitwer runs the Barbara J. Zitwer Literary Agency in New York City.

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.