Article — From the March 2009 issue
- Current Issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Article — From the March 2009 issue
One of the saner comments in the New York article comes from an agent named Ira Silverberg. “I’d rather have several soft years,” he said, “when investors get out and people who care about the values in the business reinvest.” I first meet Ira as he walks out of the Hessischer Hof hotel to have a smoke with a beautiful woman of indeterminate European origin. It’s early afternoon in Frankfurt, a grimy transit hub for shiny banks, on the Monday before the Wednesday that begins the annual Book Fair. Ira, in a bracingly Windsor-knotted pink tie and smart blue sports jacket, just stepped off the red-eye from New York but looks as though he just stepped out of an extravagant shower. His gray curls, shot through with some black still, are swept back from his forehead in a way that seems both distinguished and boyish. Credited with looking like a Jewish Richard Gere, he is finer-hewn than that, his features sharper, more clever. He speaks in a nasal New York trill that harbors a cultivated louche sense of amusement, but right now, when he mentions the literary first novel he’s just sold to a vaunted German house, his excitement seems secretly heartfelt. He is immensely pleased.
“Our roots are in literary books,” Ira says. (When Ira was a teenager he went on a pilgrimage to see Burroughs.) “They’re not our day-to-day business; our day-to-day business is disgusting. You’ll be hearing a lot about vampires this year. But here is where we can at least remember what we think differentiates us from widget salesmen.”
Today, agents, foreign-rights representatives, and literary scouts for foreign publishers—who are contracted to know everything going on in the American market as they help foreign houses make purchases—are holding forth in serial meetings. In these first few days before the Fair officially begins, foreign rights are bought and sold in a parade of half-hour intervals. Everyone’s got a list in front of her. “A tremendous new voice.” “Well, I’ve only read one story, but…” “It’s all about how authentic it is.” “This is upmarket, as opposed to literary.” (Upmarket, somebody explains to me later, is code for “might actually sell.”) “There’ve been some nice reviews; we’re still hopeful.” The cannier salespeople flick through their lists and say, entre nous, “This title isn’t for your house, so let’s just skip ahead to this one, which I really think you’re going to love.” Six foreign scouts make a noontime prosecco toast to “Guillermo del Toro and vampires”: apparently the Spanish film director has written a supernatural thriller whose foreign rights are one of the Fair’s hot properties; vampires are perennial winners. There’s quite a lot of genuine-sounding “I love this book.”
Between meetings, one agent introduces me to Michael Pietsch, the publisher of Little, Brown. Little, Brown is one of the few companies that have fared pretty well over the last several years, and Pietsch is the kind of man you would be chuffed to have as your uncle. He tears up as he talks about a Quaker-style memorial service he was at recently in Claremont, California, for David Foster Wallace, whom he edited and with whom he was very close. He says he’s been crying for weeks, so we change the subject, but invariably we circle back to the funereal. I ask Michael why there’s this chronic elegy for a business he claims is more or less fine.
He says that publishing is an industry founded on dissatisfaction. “There is a rich loam of disappointment.” He reconsiders. “It’s an industry built in a rich soil of disappointment.” He ultimately goes with “loam.” One can readily imagine this man actually editing, doing his part to help make those loam/soil calls. “Three out of ten books make money,” he says. He makes sure I understand that this means seven out of ten do not. “Most of the time a book never reaches the standards its writer, editor, and publisher have imagined for it. I tell writers not to come to Frankfurt,” he says. “This is all about the commodification of books. It’s a writer’s version of hell.”
Over the course of the week, I will hear a lot of this sentiment: that the stock should not be shown the abattoir. But the more I’m told that writers are excluded to protect their literary innocence, the more this begins to sound aggressive and suspect. It’s faux-apologetic, and I think its real point is not to deride the seamy flux but to flaunt it. The commerce is not the embarrassment; it is the pride. Writers aren’t invited or welcome because once their manuscripts are in the hands of their agents and their publishers and their foreign-rights reps, they are excused from the process. It is time for the professionals to take over.
Frankfurt is at least in part about the feeling among the professionals that these books are now, rightfully, theirs—theirs to talk about, theirs to own, and, most importantly, theirs to sell, if only for this terribly long week. They come here to see people with whom they have what’s constantly described as a familial relationship, though they see one another perhaps once a year and they sell one another books. They watch and cheer for these titles as they are bought and eventually land overseas in strange foreign markets. The personal intimacy becomes evidence of, and a vehicle for, the broader potential of translatability; the friendships here enact the international market.
The great pleasure of these perfervid book-business friendships is the alignment of commerce and distinction. The sales are not just profitable but valuable. They are thick with shared passions edged with the anxiety and rush of commercial risk. Thus what’s at stake is not only the usual business credibility but a credibility of taste. Relationships here are built not only on the promise of profit but on the history of joint sensibilities, in some cases over decades, and when you have your half-hour slot of “I love this debut novel and I think you will love it and your public will love it and there’s even a chance you will make money on it, as we, too, are hoping to make money on it,” you are holding yourself accountable not only to commercial but to aesthetic standards. This dual standard is fundamental to how book people see themselves. Each deal is a mutual act of aesthetic-commercial catechism; devoutly observed is the ideal junction of the remunerative and the good. In my father’s house there are many mansions, and Richard Ford lives in one.
More from Gideon Lewis-Kraus: