"In Frankfurt everything happens at the same time"
The interview was conducted by Marcus Meyer for Buchjournal issue of 30 August 2023.
Hanser is one of the publishing houses that took part in the very first book fair in Frankfurt in 1949. Publisher Jo Lendle talks about his soft spot for the publishing event on the Main and its importance for the book industry.
Hanser stand at Frankfurter Buchmesse 1958
© Carl Hanser Verlag
Mr Lendle, if you had to name one constant feeling that accompanies you at Frankfurter Buchmesse, what would it be?
Always the feeling that I shouldn't just do what I'm doing at the moment, but also have time to really immerse myself in the fair. Everything else is actually a waste. There is simply too much beauty and knowledge concentrated in the narrow space of the fair for that.
Do you remember your first visit?
I went to Frankfurter Buchmesse for the first time in 1997, at that time working for DuMont. The publishing house didn't have its own literature programme yet, that only came a year later. So I didn't have to present any books, I was just there to talk to people. That was such a year for immersion.
What is special about Frankfurt?
Every fair has its own profile. We go to London exclusively to buy and sell rights. It's a deal fair. In Paris and New York it's the authors you meet, and in Italy all the illustrators come to the Children's Book Fair. So each fair gives the whole thing a different colour. But in Frankfurt, you find everything there happening at the same time: the authors, the book trade, the atmosphere, the politicians, plus all the publishers and agencies from all over the world. That's what makes Frankfurt special for me: the bringing together of all aspects of our work.
You come every year?
Yes. Arrive Monday morning, Sunday night back. The full programme.
And then a holiday to recover?
No, we have to continue the very next morning, because we have to take care of the business that has been initiated and read what has been offered to us.
You spoke of simultaneity as a defining aspect of the fair ...
... yes, and at the edges, like pillars, are two events that celebrate what it's really all about: on Monday the "German Book Prize", which praises storytelling, literature, and on Sunday the Peace Prize, which celebrates wisdom. This is indispensable, because this core of the literary business tends to be overlooked in everyday life.
Hanser has been at Frankfurter Buchmesse from the very beginning. Has something quite unbreakable developed there?
I am a total supporter of Frankfurt. I believe that the fair has a power – through the gathering together, the concentration – that we could not develop individually. But I also know that it was very tempting to see how much money the publishers saved by not going to Frankfurt during the pandemic. Yet the books, and we publishers, get the cheapest attention possible at the fair.
Historical photograph of the Hanser stand at Frankfurter Buchmesse
© Carl Hanser Verlag
What did you miss most during the pandemic?
That the newcomers didn't get the opportunity to go the book fair, neither the debut authors nor the new staff in the publishing houses. That they didn't get to experience the magic, that they weren’t ceremoniously accepted into the literary world. The industry thrives on the fact that every year a few people say: I would never want to miss this again. My worry was that the book industry would dry up if all we did for years was write and read and work, but no longer experience the special culmination at the fair.
Can you separate that at the fair, the publisher and the author?
As a publisher, it's all about our authors first, I try to keep an eye on who is currently sitting on the "Blue Sofa", who is on the ARD stage and who is currently receiving an award. With my own book I have to do another balancing act – at some points it becomes a centipede balancing act. That requires chameleon-like behaviour, but that is generally rewarded at the fair, where you are constantly in the most diverse situations.
You mentioned the "German Book Prize". Your publishing house won it once at the premiere in 2005, but not since. What does the publisher say about that?
Unbearable! (laughs). When Arno Geiger won the prize, I wasn't there yet. And since then we've regularly kept our fingers crossed at the award ceremony because someone from our company is almost always nominated; the year before last, three of the six nominees were from Hanser. That we ended up empty-handed is of course a scandal (laughs).
In return, you were allowed to rejoice over the Nobel Prize for Literature. Patrick Modiano in 2014, for example.
There are years when the announcement falls on one of the days of the fair. That was the case with Modiano. It was immediately clear: I could forget about the appointments, which are every 30 minutes, for the rest of the day. Now it's about other things.
Do you prepare for such events?
You can't go ahead and print on the off chance. There are always too many rumours swirling around in the run-up to the Nobel Prize for Literature. In the case of Modiano, we were actually totally blind-sighted because there was no new book published by him that year. And we don't carry any backlist to Frankfurt. We had to work night shifts to get books to the stand.
And Herta Müller 2009?
An absolutely exceptional year. Unlike Modiano, she was not a translated author, but Hanser was her original publisher, after she had moved here shortly before. I only know it from stories, but the whole publishing house was in a state of emergency for weeks, organising book supplies and licensing talks.
If you look at the history of Frankfurter Buchmesse, you see: Frankfurt was often the place where society negotiated its current problems. Is that still true?
Absolutely. You can see that in the way right-wing publishers are dealt with. It's about a contradiction that has to be reconciled again and again: we stand for freedom of opinion and freedom of speech, but we also have things that are non-negotiable: human dignity and equality, to name just one example. Both are high principles that often wrestle with each other. We have to negotiate and justify the contradiction again and again. That is exhausting, but necessary.
Messeroman (fair novel), would that be a genre for you as a writer?
For heaven's sake. It would be out of the question for me, but it might be interesting. The fair as an institution with the enormous pressure that weighs on everyone in a short time, the polyphony, the vanities - that would be perfect material for a novel.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Most likely everything. I don't just want to chat, not just read, not just manage, not just negotiate; it's the polyphony that excites me.