Emcee Syd Atlas on Germany’s Books at Berlinale

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Not least because ‘we need more events that bridge worlds,’ Syd Atlas has moderated Books at Berlinale for 18 years—’and I love it.’

Syd Atlas, standing at right, leaves the stage to speaks with one of the producers in the audience at the 2024 Books at Berlinale event. Image: FBM, Tina Pfeifer

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

‘Connecting People Who Want To Create’
Busy month that February has been, we don’t want to miss a chance to give you a look at this year’s Books at Berlinale program from Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 16 to 20) and the Berlinale Co-Production Market at the  the Berlin International Film Festival‘s “Berlinale Pro” framework. This year’s program was coordinated by Karla Kutzer.

We’ve asked Syd Atlas, the longtime moderator of the annual pitch sessions for some of her expert observations on this singular event.

This was, after all, her 18th year moderating Books at Berlinale, which makes her a certain type of onstage expert on the annual event, which invites 150 or so producers to consider a curated cohort of 10 books for possible screen development.

Atlas is a frequently seen host and moderator, as well as a coach to many others and an author of two books from the Holtzbrinck Group’s Rowohlt division:

This Year’s 10 Titles Pitched During Books at Berlinale

Quickly, to refresh your memory, this year’s Books at Berlinale presentations to participating film and television producers were:

  • The Secret of Nox: Light, Shadow, Bat Rats! Volume 1 / Das Geheimnis von Nox: Licht, Schatten, Flederratten! Volume 1  by Claudia Scharf (Germany); Carlsen Verlag, Germany
  • Me: In Between / Dazwischen: Ich by Julya Rabinowich (Germany); Carl Hanser Verlag, Germany
  • White Clouds / Weiße Wolken by Yandé Seck (Germany); Copywrite Literatur und Filmagentur, Germany (being published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch)
  • Cesare’s Story: Choosing Happiness With Your Eyes Closed / La storia di Cesare: Scegliere a occhi chiusi la felicità  by Valentina Mastroianni (Italy); DeAgostini Libri, Italy
  • Dissident Club by Taha Siddiqui and illustrator Hubert Maury (Pakistan/France); Éditions Glénat, France
  • History’s Angel by Anjum Hasan (India); Jacaranda Literary Agency, Singapore
  • Everything for Jo / Die Entflammten by Simone Meier (Switzerland); Kein & Aber, Switzerland
  • A Poisoner’s Tale by Cathryn Kemp (United Kingdom); Penguin Random House UK
  • The Áróra Investigation Series: Cold as Hell / Helköld sól by Lilja Sigurðardóttir (Iceland); Reykjavík Literary Agency, Iceland
  • Xerox: Hard Copy  / Xerox by Fien Veldman (the Netherlands); Sebes & Bisseling Literary Agency, the Netherlands
‘Happy To Be Engaged in Person’

The first question we had for Atlas, of course, were which of the books being presented seemed most impressive to her?

“The film and book industries can be so separate and—like European countries—everybody is speaking different languages.”Syd Atlas

“I think stand-outs were The Inflamed, Xerox, and Dissident Club, she says.

The Inflamed is an historical fiction with a parallel modern-day story about Vincent Van Gogh’s sister-in-law—a woman behind his fame: surprise. “Xerox is a very original story of a woman who falls in love with her printer.  It speaks to the loneliness that we all feel, how we’re replacing human contact. And Dissident Club is a graphic novel, the true story of a journalist (our heroes today) living as a refugee in France after an assassination attempt on his life in Pakistan.”

One of the attractive elements of the Books at Berlinale afternoon for producers is the chance to have the program’s live presentations. “I think people are very happy to be engaged in person,” Atlas says. “After ‘Zoom fatigue,’ some people seen to have forgotten how to interact.”

And the instance of one book presented from Asia, she says, went over well: “We had a book based in India. History’s Angel by Anjum Hasan. It was represented by literary agent Jayapriva Vasudevan of Singapore’s Jacaranda Literary Agency. We had a video clip of the author  talking about the book, and I found that there were producers interested, though it’s a faraway place.”

Literary agent Jayapriva Vasudevan of Singapore’s Jacaranda Literary Agency pitches ‘History’s Angel’ by India’s Anjum Hasan. Image: FBM, Tina Pfeifer

Another reason that the annual Books at Berlinale audience of producers seems upbeat each year, Atlas says, is a level of unanticipated humor she brings to the afternoon.

“I’m funny,” Atlas says, “and no one is expecting that at all. They’re expecting a normal moderation. In my introduction this year, I shared some insights on books from the perspective of an Uber driver in New York, who told me he doesn’t read books because they’re dangerous. He said a book can get into your mind and never get out, and that that’s the power of what creative people can do.

“With him saying that this is why books are dangerous, I told him, ‘Let’s get dangerous, by all means.'”

And on another note, she says, “I talked about book and film people being the shining light in the back of your refrigerator: always on, even in the dark and cold.”

The pitch at the 2024 Books at Berlinale for ‘The Secret of Nox: Light, Shadow, Bat Rats,’ Volume 1 (‘Das Geheimnis von Nox: Licht, Schatten, Flederratten,’ Volume 1) by Claudia Scharf
of Germany, presented by Carlsen Verlag. Image: FBM, Tina Pfeifer

‘You Have To Grab Them Right Away’

In terms of what she has seen over the years as the surest-fire genre offerings, Atlas says, “Thrillers are always popular. I think producers are looking for stories that are not just about this moment but that have the long view, probably since it takes so long to get a production together. If a book is too topical, producers often are not interested.”

“Tell them what you can promise them in the next few minutes. Is it zany, historical, dark, or sci-fi?”Syd Atlas

And though it’s a demanding job of onstage moderation, covering a lot of content quickly, Atlas says the demands of this annual appearance don’t bother her.

“I’m so used to it,” she says, “and I love it. I got into this because I was surprised and shocked that very smart people who really care about their books aren’t always able to talk well about those books. In my coaching, I work in several industries,” and there are similarities, she says, in how reticent professionals can be in talking about their work, “not just book folks.”

But one asset familiar to authors, in particular, is what a good pitch in Books at Berlinale has with the proverbial “elevator pitch” an author always has ready, she says, is the ability to grab attention quickly. She says that getting quickly to the point for a pitching professional is essential because the number of available properties is “like flipping channels, so you have to grab them right away and tell them what you can promise them in the next few minutes. Is it zany, historical, dark, or sci-fi?”

‘White Clouds’ (‘Weiße Wolken’) by author Yandé Seck of Germany, was presented by Copyright Literatur und Filmagentur. Image: FBM, Tina Pfeifer

Over her almost two decades of leading Books at Berlinale, Atlas says, she’s become impressed with the way in which “This event is unique. We need to unite more creative people together, whether they’re in books or film. The industries can be so separate and—like European countries—everybody is speaking different languages.

“We need more events that bridge worlds, connect people wanting to create. Because if you want to create, you’re hopeful. And God knows, we need hope.”

A Note on This Year’s Frankfurter Buchmesse

Repeating our note to Frankfurter Buchmesse trade visitors working in books to film and words to screen: At the 2024 trade show (October 16 to 20), Frankfurt Friday—October 19—is again designated “Book to Screen Day,” with a focus on film and series adaptations.

Events being planned will offer filmmakers access to key players in world book publishing and facilitate interaction between participating professionals. More information will be available later this year.

Syd Atlas, the 18-year moderator of Books at Berlinale is fourth from the left in our shot of the afternoon’s group of pitch-people for the 10 books offered for consideration to producers for development. Image: FBM, Tina Pfeifer

Our special thanks to Tina Pfeifer for photographic assistance.

More from Publishing Perspectives on Books at Berlinale is here, and more on adaptations of books to film and television is here and here. More on rights and licensing 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.com, 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.