Germany’s Books at Berlinale: The Gaeb Agency’s Bettina Wißmann

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Germany’s 2023 Books at Berlinale program today includes Bettina Wißmann’s presentation of Fernanda Melchor’s ‘This Is Not Miami.’

Frankfurter Buchmesse president and CEO Juergen Boos, right, is with Henning Adam of the Berlinale Co-Production Market on February 20, onstage in the Books at Berlinale event in its 2023 edition. Image: FBM, Ines Bachor

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

At Germany’s Berlinale: A Literary Star From Mexico
There’s “no pressure,” as we always say with a wry smile, to pitching one of the 11 books being presented today (February 20) Books at Berlinale.

As film and television producers from many parts of the world gather at the Berlin House of Deputies at 10:30 a.m., Bettina Wißmann—chief of film and television rights at Literary Agency Michael Gaeb GmbH—is well-positioned to capture the attention of the studio and production house leaders who have been given seats for this annually influential books-to-screen marketplace.

The New Directions US cover of Sophie Hughes’ English translation of Fernanda Melchor’s ‘Aquí no es Miami’

Wißmann has a warm personality, energized by her enthusiasm for the work she’s presenting today. She’ll be onstage in a live interview with Books at Berlinale’s experienced host, Syd Atlas. And Wißmann may be walking in with the best-pedigreed text of the morning for filmmakers to consider: This Is Not Miami is by the Mexican author Fernanda Melchor. She’s an author who already has a film adaptation of another of her books coming–with Netflix distribution–not to mention more than 30 international publishers producing her books.

First, the technical details on the work, for producers, as Wißmann and the Gaeb team are listing it:

  • Author: Fernanda Melchor
  • Film Rights Holder: Fernanda Melchor represented by Literarische Agentur Michael Gaeb
  • Original title: Aquí no es Miami
  • Country of origin: Mexico
  • Topics: Crime, drugs, shamanism
  • Genre: True crime, reports, drama
  • Time: Present and recent past
  • Location: Veracruz, Mexico
  • Main cast: Women and men between 15 and 40
  • Material: Spanish and English editions
‘The Market Seems So Vibrant at the Moment’

Elisabeth Ruge is interviewed by Syd Atlas in her presentation of Helene Bukowski’s ‘Die Kriegerin’ at the 2023 Books at Berlinale Image: FBM, Ines Bachor

What may particularly catch the attention of filmmakers and television-series producers is that this is not one novel, but a set of “devastating standalone stories,” as they’re described, set in and around Veracruz. And with the Spanish-language audience for film and television being as big as it is, the potential reach of such work is, obviously, enormous.

The Penguin Random House cover of Fernanda Melchor’s ‘Aquí no es Miami’

Here are corrupt police officers, hustlers, hookers, small-time dealers–and even exorcists. As the agency’s material puts it, Melchor’s work “probes deeply into the motivations of murderers and misfits, their desires and circumstances. Forcing us to understand them, Melchor intertwines psychology, social analysis, and a sharp eye for the human condition in a violent society that can turn the soul feral.”

Not for the faint of heart, in other words, this is searing testimony to the realities of an aching world by one of its own daughters: Melchor is a prize-winning journalist based in Puebla, Mexico, and she’s drawing attention in one international market after the next for her unstinting depictions of the homeland she knows.

“We’re very happy” with the chance to make this presentation today, Wißmann says with characteristic understatement, “because this is the first time we applied to pitch a title” at Books at Berlinale, “and we got into the selection.

“The market seems so vibrant at the moment,” she says. And having worked in contracts for some time, Wißmann says she was “watching for a chance to do something more content-related.”

Bettina Wißmann

With so much development underway for books in film and television—and so much superb production raising the bar on screens—”We really felt like we have to do more there,” Wißmann says.

“You can tell how desperately people are really looking for strong content. And it’s there” in the book business, she says. “They just need to find each other. It’s a question of putting us all together, and that’s why I really appreciate these programs” such as Books at Berlinale.

Fernanda Melchor

The title she’s pitching, This Is Not Miami, comes from one of the stories in Melchor’s collection and immediately captures some of the tragic challenges that Melchor has embraced as specialty.

“When some Dominican refugees enter the harbor at Veracruz,” Wißmann says, “they’re greeted by port workers there.”

One of the refugees says to the dockmen, “Please tell me this is Miami.”

“Are you kidding?” the answer comes back. “This is not Miami. This is Veracruz.”

One Film Adaptation With Netflix: Releasing in July

Katja Stergar from Frankfurter Buchmesse’s 2023 Guest of Honor Slovenia at the Books at Berlinale event. One of the 11 books being presented is ‘Why Don’t I Write’ (‘ Zakaj ne pišem’) by the Slovenian author Dijana Matković from the publisher Mladinska knjiga Založba. Image: FBM, Ines Bachor

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, Books at Berlinale is a joint initiative of the Berlin International Film Festival and Frankfurter Buchmesse. Since 2006, the program annually has selected roughly a dozen books to have presented to as many as 150 internationally established film producers. A networking reception follows—when producers and book presenters can speak one-on-one about the works. You can review our preview of the 11 books selected for today’s event here, and we’ll list them again for you at the end of this article.

The wing of the Berlin operation that coordinates with Frankfurt on the program is the Berlinale Co-Production Market, which runs this year through Wednesday (February 22).

And when they hear from Wißmann, producers and scouts this morning will learn that This Is Not Miami’s English translation of the book by Sophie Hughes is slated for publication by New Directions in the United States in April. Melchor is published in the United Kingdom by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Melchor, 41, was called “one of the most celebrated new voices in Latin American literature” by Benjamin P. Russell in his article for The New York Times last May.

He went on to write about her unblinking evocations of her homeland, “While her writing turns an unsparing eye on the dysfunction and violence of her native Veracruz, Melchor makes clear that it is neither her job nor her intention to explain her homeland. Her novels are less portraits of Mexico than they are literary MRIs, probing unseen corners of the human heart and finding that many of its darker shades are universal.”

So universal are those darker shades, in fact, that soon after the film adaptation of her Temporada de huracanes (Hurricane Season) is released in July in its WOO production in Mexico, it’s to be streamed by Netflix. The English translation of the book was released in March 2020, again in a translation by Sophie Hughes from New Directions. The film adaptation has been developed by director Elisa Miller and Daniela Gómez.

Is this starting to ring a bell? Here’s another of Melchor’s titles: Paradais, yet another release from New Directions in English from translator Sophie Hughes. The film adaptation rights for Paradais are being handled on behalf of the Gaeb agency by Sylvie Rabineau and Carolina Beltran at WME, William Morris Endeavor.

Cover art for Fernanda Melchor’s ‘Paradais’

And even if you’re more on the bookish side of the industry than the film and television side, you’ve heard of Hurricane Season and Paradais because they both have had International Booker Prize attention. Hurricane Season was shortlisted in 2020 by the Booker Foundation’s jury, and Paradais was longlisted just last year.

In short, even book publishing professionals who may not yet have Melchor’s fast-rising career in full focus yet have been aware of her work. Now, This Is Not Miami (Aquí no es Miami) is getting its moment to find developmental interest at today’s Books at Berlinale and raise Melchor’s profile even higher.

Michael Gaeb’s team at the agency in Berlin already have landed no fewer than 34 international publishers for Melchor’s work:

  • World Arabic: Dar Altanweer
  • Australia: Text
  • Brazil: Mundaréu
  • Bulgaria: Labyrinth
  • China: Insight
  • Croatia: Vuković and Runjić
  • Czech Republic: Paseka
  • Denmark: Aurora Boreal
  • Finland: Aula
  • France: Grasset
  • Germany: Wagenbach
  • Georgia: Avril
  • Greece: Doma
  • Hungary: Európa
  • Indonesia: Moooi Pustaka
  • Italy: Bompiani
  • Japan: Hayakawa
  • Korea: Eulyoo
  • Lithuania: Vox Rara
  • Macedonia: Artkonekt
  • World Spanish: Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial
  • Netherlands: Wereldbibliotheek
  • Norway: SolumBokvennen
  • Poland: Kobiece
  • Portugal: Elsinore/Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial
  • Romania: Trei
  • Russia: Eksmo
  • Serbia/Bosnia and Herzegovina: Imprimatur
  • Sweden: Tranan
  • Taiwan: Sharp Point
  • Turkey: Ithaki
  • Ukraine: Deinde
  • United Kingdom: Fitzcarraldo Editions
  • United States: New Directions
From Point A (Book) to Point B (Screen)

At the entrance to the invitational 2023 Books at Berlinale event. Image: FBM, Ines Bachor

One reason that Melchor’s work may seem especially cinematic is that she’s had experience in the business. She was listed as a co-executive producer on Netflix’s Somos, an intensely gritty piece set in a Mexican border town. It’s been reported that she wrote her first draft of Paradais while working on that project.

The New Directions US cover of Sophie Hughes’ English translation of Fernanda Melchor’s ‘Temporada de huracanes’

Wißmann says that with certain authors the agency represents, the team has been interested in exposing the writers to elements of screenwriting. She describes conversations with writers in which an agent may ask, “Could you please make the next series with ongoing characters?” so there might be a more direct potential for television development.

As it happens, This Is Not Miami is Melchor’s earliest work. It’s the work that first attracted the attention of Michael Gaeb at the agency, as well.

“Then she had two novels,” Wißmann says, the first being Hurricane Season, with its film release coming in July and subsequent Netflix availability. Paradais, then, is the second novel, and that’s the one that William Morris Endeavor is handling for film interest. As many of our readers know, WME’s interest, itself, is of note.

“Each title has a different situation,” Wißmann says, as often happens when a writer’s visibility rises quickly, screen development occurring in a different order from that in which the books have appeared–and at its own pace.

And to give you a sense for just how dark and dramatic some of Melchor’s truth-based stories are in This Is Not Miami, Wißmann quickly relates the plot of one segment about a former beauty pageant winner crowned carnival queen in Veracruz.

“Six years later,” Wißmann says, “she’s accused of killing her small babies and burying them in a plant pot. And putting them on her balcony. “The beauty queen now is splashed all over the tabloids’ crime pages.”

In a court trial, the former pageant heartthrob is convicted despite questions of an insanity defense. “And in prison she becomes the girlfriend of one of the most famous drug bosses. It’s this fascinating reality that’s hard to believe, but true,” complete with “the entanglements of politics and journalism around them.”

Somehow, Bettina Wißmann says, Fernanda Melchor’s work can spin true crime into what feels “like magic.”

Titles Chosen for Today’s Books at Berlinale Pitches

Outside the 2023 Books at Berlinale event in a rainy Berlin on February 20. Image: FBM, Ines Bachor

  • A Relative Good /Un bien relativo  (Teresa Cardona, Spain, Edciones Siruela, 2022), A.C.E.R. Agencia Literaria, Spain
  • Aleksandra (Lisa Weeda, the Netherlands/Ukraine), De Bezige Bij, 2021, the Netherlands
  • The Art of Losing / L’art de perdre  (Alice Zeniter, France), Editions Flammarion, 2017, France
  • The Warrior / Die Kriegerin (Helene Bukowski, Germany, Aufbau/Blumenbar), Elisabeth Ruge Agentur, Germany
  • These Streets (Luan Goldie, United Kingdom, HarperCollins UK/HQ, 2022), Eve White Literary Agency, UK
  • The Storm is Coming / Familien Brattbakk  (Julia Kahrs, Norway, Gyldendal, 2022), Gyldendal Agency, Norway
  • This Is Not Miami (Fernanda Melchor, Mexico, New Directions, April 2023, translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes), Literarische Agentur Michael Gaeb, Germany
  • Why Don’t I Write / Zakaj ne pišem  (Dijana Matković, Slovenia), Mladinska knjiga Založba, 2022, Slovenia
  • The Light Behind Us / Das Licht im Rücken  (Sandra Lüpkes, Germany, Rowohlt, May 2023), Rowohlt Medienagentur, Germany
  • Sonny, Inside / Zo hoog de zon stond  (Simone Atangana Bekono, Netherlands), Singel Uitgeverijen, 2022, the Netherlands
  • Virginia Hill (Peter Blaikner, Austria), Thomas Sessler Verlag, 2022, Austria

More from Publishing Perspectives on Books at Berlinale is here, and on adaptations of books to film and television is here and here. More on rights and licensing is here and more from us on the work of literary agents is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.