Harper's paean to publishing: A Q&A with Gideon Lewis-Kraus
Gideon Lewis-Kraus attended the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2008, writing up its biggest personalities and proceedings for "The Last Book Party," the cover story of the March Harper's Magazine. Typically, the Frankfurt book fair (and other, smaller ones) provides a place for publishers and agents to make deals for new and upcoming books. It's also where the love of commerce and moneymaking meets a passion for literature. Gideon Lewis-Kraus, who makes his home in Berlin but has some longstanding connections to the American publishing industry, talked to some of the grandest characters at the fair in an effort to discern where publishing is going.
Jacket Copy: People who follow publishing have been abuzz about your piece. Are you writing for them, or for a broader audience?
Gideon Lewis-Kraus: I guess I was just hoping to write a piece that would be interesting to the varied audiences that makes up the readership of Harper's. Obviously, some nontrivial subset of those people are connected to the literary and publishing worlds, but I don't think I was trying to write for any particular audience. I aimed to write something that would hold the interest of both a reader who knew something about that world and a reader who knew nothing. I hope I succeeded.
JC: You attend a big party thrown by Bertelsmann at the end of the fair and conclude that there probably won't be parties like this again. It sounds kind of fun -- a roast beef and sushi buffet, drinking and dancing -- but not particularly indulgent. How do you think it compares to the parties thrown by other industries?
GL-K: Well, I didn't conclude that it was the last Bertelsmann party; it was described to me in those ominous terms, but my guess is that Bertelsmann has some parties left in them. I haven't the faintest idea how it compares to parties thrown by other industries; I don't get invited to too many industrial parties. My brother works for Apple, and I went to a party they threw once. The Apple party had better music, I guess, but I wasn't cool enough to talk to anybody there.
JC: You write that the likelihood that literary writers like Richard Ford might "get rich" is swiftly declining, but you also write that authors "are excused from the process" of Frankfurt's commercial book market, where "it is time for the professionals to take over." What might happen if writers did participate in Frankfurt?
The answer -- and more, including how to tell Andrew Wylie he's being called "greedy" -- is after the jump.
GL-K: If there were enough of them [authors at Frankfurt] they'd probably have a good time. It's pretty common for German writers to go to Frankfurt; they do readings and sign books, since for Germans the fair has a whole additional consumer component. (Visitors even dress up like their favorite book characters; there were a lot of goth kids for some reason I never quite figured out.) My German writer friends all seem to have a good time there.
JC: Most authors have agents representing them, and many of the literary ones wind up with the grand Wylie Agency. At Frankfurt, you find yourself translating a German profile of powerful agent Andrew Wylie directly to him; you tell him it calls him the "most ambitious man at the Fair." But you write, "What it actually means is 'greediest,' but I'm not about to say this to Wylie." But aren't you telling him -- fairly publicly -- by writing it in Harper's? How is it easier to say that in print than to his face?
GL-K: Isn't it always easier to say something in print than to someone's face? Besides, if I'd said it to his face at the time, I wouldn't have had a story to relate later.
JC: You describe the attire of many of the attendees in detail; only a few literary executives have a knack for fashion. I wonder what it would be like to describe the luminaries at Fashion Week by the books they're reading. Why did you include the sartorial choices of agents and publishers?
GL-K: I'd love to read an account of Fashion Week all about the books being read! That's a good idea for a story. When I did describe what people were wearing -- which I didn't always do -- it was usually because I thought that their clothes somehow reflected the figure that they cut, and this was a piece where I tried to give a sense for the particular, rich culture of book publishing as embodied by a few of its most striking and storied characters. (And then tried to suggest that this is a culture that would survive wholesale corporate divestment, even if some members of its community fear otherwise.)
JC: You're not the first person to describe Random House USA CEO Markus Dohle as "the printer" (his industry background), but you may be the first to note his "Teutonic Lou Ferrigno back." Comparing him to the 1970s TV Hulk makes me think he's lumbering and inarticulate -- do you think the changes he's made at Random House are Hulk-smash destructive?
GL-K: I didn't get to hear him speak, so I can't say anything about how articulate he is, but I don't think he was lumbering -- he looked pretty agile to me. (I'm not sure the Hulk was exactly lumbering, either.) He's probably not a stupid guy, and I doubt that he sees what he's doing as "Hulk-smash destructive," but by calling attention to his background as a printer I was just saying that it's pretty clear he's not of the culture I tried to describe in the piece, or committed to its posterity.
JC: What prescriptions might you make to help the publishing industry?
GL-K: I think that a lot of the things they're beginning to try, some of which I mention in the piece, are good ideas. There are a lot of smaller presses, such as Open Letter, that are looking to cultivate audiences that might not be huge, but with any luck will be more invested in their projects over time, more intimately connected to the books they publish, and maybe to each other.
JC: Do you think you'll go back to the Frankfurt Book Fair?
GL-K: Ideally, I won't be going back to Frankfurt at all anytime soon; it's a pretty dispiriting place. Germans are always complaining about the cities they don't live in: Berliners talk incessantly about how shallow and bourgeois Munich is, and people from Munich think Berlin is dirty and full of layabouts. But the one thing everybody can agree on is that Frankfurt doesn't have much to recommend it.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: The Turkey pavilion at the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair. Credit: Marco Braun via Flickr