22 August 08 | Chad W. Post

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Frankfurt Book Fair (the history of which actually dates back hundreds of years, although the modern version started shortly after WWII), the FBF newsletter is focusing each month on another decade of the fair. This month they look at the 1980s and talk to Peter Mayer, who, at the time, was the CEO of Penguin International and is now the publisher of Overlook.

Sounds like the 80s were a particularly good period of growth for the fair (in 1988 there were 7,000 exhibitors from 92 countries), and Peter’s description of the importance of the fair seems pretty accurate:

You have attended the Frankfurt Book Fair for over 40 years. What does the Fair mean to you?

Publishing as an activity, while centered on books and authors, is not only about them, although when I was younger I thought it was only about them. We live in a book community, the community matters to me and Frankfurt is a great coming-together place. One often drinks a lot and stays up too late; one loses one’s voice. One smiles at people whose face one knows but whose names have been forgotten over the last 12 months. One comes to know who is married to whom, and to whom no longer, how many children each acquaintance has, how these children are getting along, where friends live. Sometimes I have been lucky enough to visit them in their own countries or have them visit me in mine.

On the business side, I always have a very busy schedule. There were many years when there were very “big” books and I think the fair became a center point for the publishers and agents to excite their foreign counterparts and thereby manage to extract some very high advances. The same regarding co-publishing art books. The opportunity to do that leads agents and publishers often not to sell rights to the books before the fair because at the fair high-pressure and event fever can be generated. For Overlook Press, this worked with Robert Littell’s The Company when literary agents Andrew Nurnberg and Ed Victor and I worked very closely together to produce some very pulsing excitement and the book was sold to many countries. This probably led to the emergence of The Overlook Press as a company which today is seen as one having quite a few commercial books alongside the literary books we are perhaps mostly known for.

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