Places to Go: Unpublished and proud at Frankfurter Buchmesse

Submitting an unsolicited manuscript to a publisher or agent can feel like rolling a story into a glass bottle and tossing it into Niagara Falls hoping someone at the bottom will catch it. Niagara Falls Syndrome.

Most of these experiences are followed with a single day of relief and nine months of excruciating cerebral agony wondering where the hell you had just sent a piece of your soul. This sort of one-sided communication is typical in the industry and is the reason I journeyed to the international Frankfurt Book Fair, or Frankfurter Buchmesse (FBM), the world’s largest book fair, to witness the elusive world of publishing. With the intention to connect with physical people instead of keyboards, I was itching to make sense of why writers are rejected and how they can get around the Great Wall of Rejection.

Rejections hurt and the solutions that stories offer come at a cost — the tragedy and comedy of life give birth to voices with lessons to tell. Ink only appears on a page when we take the time to listen, transforming the craft of writing into an act of submission to screw the right combination of words together.

It may not sound like it, but putting (or slamming) words on a page is truly intimate, and arguably, one can lose a part of their soul through the process. The voice, the soul, whatever you want to call it, shares human experience and makes it possible for people to explore the shell of another. Without stories, we lose the ability to feel empathy, and ultimately we lose the ability to connect.

I was experiencing Niagara Falls Syndrome — well, I still experience it — so I decided to take a more proactive approach to connect with those I had been writing to, or better yet, stumble on a fresh network of professionals eager to acquire new projects like my own, a noir-crime novel set in South Korea.

Outside the plane window, thick smoke from weeks’ worth of BC bushfires stewed below the tips of the Coastal Mountains for miles across the horizon. With my head out of the haze, the change in perspective cleared my thoughts. I woke up 20 minutes before landing and heard the pilot say, “Goodnight, Canada. Guten tag Deutschland.” Aside from the demon child behind me who kicked the meal tray as if it were a soccer ball — the melatonin and Black Label worked wonders to beat the jet lag. The local time in Frankfurt was nine hours ahead. Still, I couldn’t have been more wired from the uncertainties ahead.

A plane ticket to the Frankfurter Buchmesse.
A plane ticket to the Frankfurter Buchmesse. Kevin Nyitrai / The Ubyssey,

Rock of ‘genius’

From the airport by rail, I arrived at the behemoth-sized fairgrounds connected with overpass bridges encircling an outdoor agora with hundreds of people walking about in semi-formal wear. I swapped my hoodie for a blazer, checked my rucksack for two euros and threw my visitor pass over my shoulder stoked to be in a place so deeply entwined with the business of books. Little did I know, I was en route to a reality check.

I caught the last half of a Publishing Perspectives forum with guest speaker Charlie Redmayne, CEO of HarperCollins UK and half-brother of Eddie Redmayne (the actor who played Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything). Charlie spoke to a crowd of pensive, tilted heads when someone raised their hand to ask: “Considering some writers have been known to pump out twenty books a year using artificial intelligence and creative-writing software, has HarperCollins made any investments in A.I.?”

In a content-rich world, would A.I. win? It only took 20 minutes at the fair to feel my stomach sink.

Competition to earn people’s time is bad enough without sentient machines. In a fast-paced, tech-congested publishing world, how is one heard? Surely not by whispering. Six degrees of separation, I searched the crowd for Stephen Hawking’s soul, desperate for him to tell me how to outsmart the system.

The system... The same way one listens to the voices of those who tell the story, one ought to listen to the environment they wish to enter. Be aware of turning tides. I perked my ears and walked tall; my attitude, reset. Like Mother Nature, some things just can’t be beaten; ride the wave of literary swells or swim against the current.

A body of water

The festival’s currents carried me across the fairgrounds and through convention-centre-sized buildings with holding capacities in the thousands — big- and small-time publishers from every corner of the world filled the spaces of the exhibition halls.

From biographies to children’s books, high fantasy and manga, the aisles were filled with stories that all had one thing in common — acceptance into the publishing world.

Neatly-dressed professionals flipped through printed books, tapped on tablet screens and poked their laptops with pens oohing and aahing at the titles. Coffee and sweets crammed the empty spaces between stacks of books waiting to be discussed.

The sheer excitement around those stories moved me — those books, which were once stories trapped inside minds, were touched, shared and read. Passing each stall, I envisioned myself sitting at one of those coffee tables, my soul moving around the table in book form. I snapped out of the daydream and tried to pick out the author from the crowd.

Which current brought you here?

A bookmark from the festival.
A bookmark from the festival. Kevin Nyitrai / The Ubyssey,

The fair was truly a body of water, the way the waves of people moved in and out, replacing each other at the tables to push the next publication. The waves were brought on by people trapped in a pandemic, hungry for escape and desperate to find exactly what they were missing: a life, solutions, perspectives. This reassured me business is blossoming, even overflowing, contradicting everything I thought I knew.

If publishing is so alive, why do I feel like I’ve been sending my submissions into a void?

An overwhelming urgency loomed as professionals rushed from one meeting to the next, and I got the sense almost everyone was overloaded, overworked and tapped out. Unavailability, the root cause of the void, or what others might call a virtual graveyard, a slush pile or the paper shredder.

It’s one thing to read about the difficulties of print publishing, but it was a visceral experience to hear it from the mouth of an executive two feet from my face.

“The price of paper is up 50 per cent” was repeated so often I started to believe it was the slogan of the fair. With inflation and high production costs, publishers have limits as to what they can take on, meaning that even if a manuscript delivers on quality, the staff cannot keep up with the number of submissions leaving emerging writers with slim publication chances.

Without direct contact, submitting an unsolicited manuscript can result in the Niagara Falls Syndrome. Side effects may include: decreased self-esteem, mood swings and second thoughts on life choices.

The near extinction of the paperboy

The fair was overflowing with voices, but they were the voices of those who refrained from whispering. I had the urge to stand on a milk crate and wave my manuscript around like the paperboy, a performance surely at odds with my reality check — listen to the environment.

The near extinction of the paperboy carries a valuable message. The ways in which people consume content has evolved, and the inherent risks associated with print forces publishers to use the guillotine on unsolicited submissions. Where does that then leave the emerging writer with already limited options to be heard?

Kobo CEO Michael Tamblyn said one in four English books they sell are self-published.

“Effectively for us, self-publishing is like having a whole other Penguin Random House sitting out in the market that no one sees,” said Tamblyn. “It’s like the dark matter of publishing.”

He attributed the success of the self-publishing market to the flexibility of authors to try new platforms and techniques, alongside their sensitivity to provide what readers want.

Ashleigh Gardener, a senior VP at Wattpad WEBTOON Studios, said, “There are over a billion stories that have been written [with no ISBNs on Wattpad] ... and written by people who maybe would not have thought of themselves as authors, or thought to write, and those are going to be the prize-winners of the future.”

Gardener associated the large volume of stories on Wattpad to the interactive social-media loops that allow readers to comment on recently uploaded chapters. The interaction between the audience and author motivates writers to produce content and “[creates] sixteen-year-olds [who] have written million-word sagas on [the] platform,” said Gardner. This, she admits, is an exciting volume of content that is not accounted for in the traditional book industry.

While a million-word, teenage love saga may not appeal to everyone’s taste, publishers’ cherry-picking tendencies for content they deem worthy is dissolving because of the self-publisher, who shares a part of the pie nowadays, showing that traditional publishers have a reason to be concerned that authors will eventually cut them out of opportunity — a turning of the tide by the author’s hand.

What’s even more appealing about self-publishing is that authors who wish to sell print copies can do so by using print-on-demand platforms without tying up capital in sitting books. Print-on-demand platforms offer a bright solution: sell first, print later. Beyond the unnecessary carbon footprint, why print in hopes someone might purchase?

The ways in which people consume content continue to evolve, and innovative business models embrace more minds. Above all, the inclusivity extends to the creators. Non-traditional publishing like eBooks, audiobooks, and print-on-demand platforms offer writers endless opportunities to voice a story and shape the fluid mold of society. Yet, among all the innovative enthusiasm and the invitation for creators to express their art without barriers comes a warning call: whose responsible for harmful content? Whether the creator is aware or not, harmful content can arise, and once it is out in the world, can it ever be undone?

Turn the tides and align the stars

The author now has the ability to turn the tides, a great power that is completely opposite to what once was, a power that may be unsustainable for a single person. Assuming the writer does not have an editor, book designer, or team of therapists — which is most likely why they sought out a publisher in the first place — self-publishing will require them to perform a type of exorcism that will split the self into a dozen fragments. Some fantastical power slips into the dimension of self-publishing echoing Uncle Ben in Spider-Man, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

Words carry weight. The founder of Silkworm Books, Trasvin Jittidecharak, talked about her team of editors and translators in Chiang Mai who experienced constant interrogations by local Thai authorities. They admitted to her that they fear the police and “are constantly worried they may one day disappear.” Her response to her team? “Don’t worry. I will disappear before you do.”

Publishers have helped many philosophers, thinkers and writers spread their ideas to shape society, and when I looked around the fair, Russia’s stories were nowhere to be found. Excluded, their words were silenced by the international community. Mother Nature swells the minds of many tipping the scale askew. I wonder how similar publishing is to mainstream media where a select few are given a loudspeaker to shout the colours of their flags until the batteries die and the next trend is found. A true testament to the power the industry still holds.

Going in circles, I sank and rose in a hydrosphere of ideas, while a bittersweet aftertaste coated my mouth, courtesy of the book business. With all the self-publishing tools available to empower the voice of a writer, a rejection of the industry started to stem from within. I felt myself rushing around like I had somewhere specific to be on my own terms; my instincts pulled me forward against the current and toward a familiar face—Ed Nawotka, a charismatic and vetted editor in the industry.

Nawotka and I met at a Coach House Books Wayzgoose party in 2015, and while reconnecting I pitched him my novel, we exchanged cards and I told him I had to run off to an appointment. We said our see-you-laters, and I watched him carry on with his stroll as I contemplated the root cause of rejections and voids. Our encounter brought back a valuable lesson Nawotka imprinted on me after the first time we met: connecting an editor, agent and author is like aligning stars.

Spilling creativity

Strings of classical Spanish guitar and crisp Estrella beer set the mood in the Guest of Honour pavilion. Spain is this year’s invited guest, their slogan: “Spilling Creativity.” A setting sun splashed pinkish rays on white, ceiling-to-floor bed sheets made to look like the oversized pages of books. Poems were printed on the near-translucent fabric, and they were hung in a circle to serve as the walls for a dreamlike venue.

Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina spoke to an audience as if it were taking place in his living room. I found a spot outside the curtains, staring in from beyond the fluid walls. Molina’s raspy voice emanated through the fabric as he spoke on political oppression and the incarceration of writers. “Where does the strength to write come from when you know you will not be published?” he said.

Attempting to answer Molina’s question at that time of day would have resulted in the implosion of my mind, so I took his question in the form of an exit slip, downed the last of my Estella and set off to find my hostel in the Red Light District before nightfall.

Musical chairs

Daily commuters crossed paths at Frankfurt Central under the impressive steel archways of the train station extending high overhead. A warm, salted pretzel and a train-station coffee curbed my hunger as I watched the intersection of lives take place before my eyes.

Frankfurt is home to as many as 180 nationalities, and at central station, it showed. With a significant population of refugees and immigrants, a diversity similar to Vancouver transpires. Stories pass by us each day — untold and unheard. Every now and again, yelling in German, Arabic, or English voices broke the constant hum of traffic and car horns filling the wet streets bordered by decrepit, Renaissance-revival buildings. The tired, first-floor lots housed kebab stalls spitting smoke, washed in neon red from closed-curtained windows above.

A noticeable fatigue blanketed the air as Arab-German hip-hop from speakers added texture to stimulate the senses. I walked on as a young man exited a building ahead of me. By the time I reached the doorway, I saw a pair of heels climbing the stairs. The sign above the doorway read Sex Inn, then came Coco Loco, and after that was the 5 Elements Hostel. The hostel has a bar on the first floor, an international crowd, and a big window to watch the world outside.

I sat across from Maike, a crime writer from Berlin, who was at the fair to accept a scholarship she had won through a writing society focused on empowering female authors. She has a daughter and her husband is a German soldier who she consults when writing about firearms in her stories.

“As a young writer,” she said, “I was more flexible to change, but the older I got, the more scared I became, and the more I sought to control and force things.” I asked her what advice she had for emerging writers. Her response: “Be bold enough to not have a plan.”

J.P., a 20-year-old Faroese backpacker with no travel plans, overheard our conversation and recommended a popular Nordic noir set in his home country. He joined our table and shared about his isolated life on the Faroe Islands, a volcanic archipelago part of the Kingdom of Denmark floating somewhere in the North Atlantic. From first impressions, J.P. painted his home as if it were the Hawaii of Scandinavia with its thousands of seabirds, grassy heartlands and steep coastal cliffs.

Then again, its tradition of harpooning whales, perpetual summer twilight and divine fjords, crafted an eerie backdrop for a crime. One wrong step along the cliff. The possibilities for a writer are endless. I admitted to him I had never heard of the Faroe Islands, and he said, “Most Danish people haven’t heard of it either.” Out of all places in Germany, in the Red Light District of Frankfurt, J.P. was far from home.

Like musical chairs, people spun around the bar until a guy with tattoos spilling out beneath his cuffs pulled me aside. He introduced himself as a children’s book publisher from Indonesia and said he had overheard me talk about the Korean noir I wrote and had to tell me something. He waved away the fluff conversation and began to tell me about his uncle who committed a first-degree murder. Whether his uncle faces jail time remains a mystery. “You can buy anything in Indonesia,” he said, “especially freedom.” His honesty sounded like the opening line of a series set in Jakarta, a city with over 10 million and a place to blend in with the crowd.

Twitching from information overload, the hostel life fueled creativity and reinforced my step into the unknown. At a nearby table, I fell into conversation with Leticia, an editor at an indie publisher in Paris, and Ali, a wholesaler from Dubai. They both took my pitch very seriously which caught me off guard. “Look, if you want a book deal,” they said, “you need to visit the Big Five in Section 6.2 or the Literary Scout Centre in 4.2... Just watch out for the Gatekeepers.”

Their advice formed my agenda for the following day.

Finding a spouse

With over 300 agencies, I was optimistic at least someone from the Literary Scout Centre would agree to meet. “Who is your appointment with?” I searched the list for names of literary agents I had queried over the year, none of whom were at the fair.

I put my trust in fate and reread the list several times, clawing for another name, convinced I’d recognize someone. The longer I hovered, the more I felt like an underage teen loitering outside the club with a fake ID.

Without an appointment, I was down on my luck.

I was just as unsuccessful with the publishers as I was at the Scout Centre. I wish I could say I weaseled my way into a meeting at Penguin Random House, but this was definitely not what happened. Not at Penguin Random House, nor at any of the other Big Five publishers. The “Gatekeepers,” otherwise known as the receptionists, served as the first line of defense to reject the unknown. When I considered saying that ‘I’d meet with anyone available,’ I held my breath and walked off.

Something didn’t feel right, and it wasn’t right because finding a partner in publishing is like finding a spouse. After all, it’s a business of souls. Why beg to give it up just to anyone? It ought to happen organically; whether or not the relationship will be civil is another story.

Four days in Frankfurt

During their limited time at the fair, agents sell rights to books they already represent, and similarly, publishers buy and sell rights to titles on the market. Neither are necessarily looking to discover unpublished work, and this was quite obvious from my experience.

When researching the fair, I learned of Hannah Johnson’s “Authors Guide to the Frankfurt Book Fair”. In it, Hannah advises unpublished authors to do three things before arriving in Frankfurt: define your goals, research people and companies and schedule meetings.

As ideal as it would’ve been to schedule meetings pre-departure, it’s difficult when the industry plays hard-to-get. Disconnection is what convinced me to visit Frankfurt. Should an empty itinerary discourage an opportunity to learn? Hopefully not.

And for someone with no concrete plans, I was able to meet dozens of people without having to beg. Those organic, face-to-face encounters offered reciprocal experiences more valuable than the kind from the other end of a keyboard. With every introduction came a new discovery about publishing, the craft of writing, myself, and most importantly, the project I thought I had known all along.

Do research and schedule meetings, if you can, but regardless, FBM in itself is an opportunity to research, forge relationships, and redefine your own goals. Connection is why I went and connection is what I got.

Four days in Frankfurt informed my craft, which without, I wouldn’t be the same as I was before I left.

Why are writers rejected (or ignored)? Quality perhaps, but the logistics that plague print clearly play a factor that forces even polished submissions to go belly up. How can writers get around the Great Wall of Rejection? The possibilities are endless through self-publishing and non-print alternatives; by the same token, this creative freedom is accompanied by a new challenge for the writer to become more than just a creator, but an entrepreneur equipped with self-sufficiency to swim in a space drowning in content.

Writing explores challenging topics humankind has trouble grappling with. It requires reaching into your experiences, your life, spilling your heart onto a page. So if our written stories are rejected, where does the strength to persevere come from?

Rejections can do all that constructive crap like mirror improvements and inform craft, but let’s not forget, rejections serve as reminders of why we never did it for approval in the first place.

Unpublished and proud.