Philippa Donovan on Frankfurt: 'The languages of digital and editorial'

Philippa Donovan on Frankfurt: 'The languages of digital and editorial'

Normally, I must confess, I find the digital aspects of book fairs overwhelming.

Huge areas dedicated to the newest reader or tablet, gleaming white benches and coloured pods. They use marketing language which is unfamiliar to me and I never feel like I have a handle on it. The concepts I get. The way the big companies go about presenting those concepts, not so much. 

So this year at Frankfurt Book Fair was a revelation. I felt like the digital players were finally talking directly to me.

The first manifestation of this occurred in David Nicholls' launch discussion at the Halle 4 Business Centre. He mentioned an app, Write or Die, which he had used to complete his new novel. The idea of the app is that it deletes the words you have written, one by one, if you fail to keep writing. (I think there is some sort of grace period -- screensavers set it off or something). Genius.

It's the kind of app that has direct use for writers, in contrast to the writing apps that have been launched up to this point which merely categorise and collate and make text look pretty. It is relevant. It is playful. And it has a funny title. It feels lighthearted when so much about writing can feel burdensome and intimidating. I'll be recommending that app to every single one of my writers.

I had a bit of a wander about the halls and passed Ingram. I know Ingram are big on content and signing some significant international deals at the moment (I walked past their ceremony with Chinese publishers which was incredibly formal and charming). The director of acquisitions was at the front of Ingram, just chatting and meeting people. I had a motivating conversation with him about how I might put ebooks on my site (my ebook  boutique, a sort of marketing opportunity for my authors and portfolio for agents and publishers to browse). He made it sound so simple, so attainable. I left thinking that the languages of digital and editorial are finally converging. 

Same thing at Google. Every time I have tried to explain my business model to them (over a series of many years), they have looked rather blank and turned the conversation to gaming or books in the public domain (sorry, Google). This year however, I discussed the fact that I was looking at digital options for those writers who want to publish independently.  It feels a bit unthinking for me to say "just use Kindle", when I know there are so many other routes to consider. The helpful lady said they now have a a whole department dedicated to sourcing new writing for Google Play. Is the reach of Google wider than that of Amazon? I don't know, but it'd be nice to put that dynamic to the test. 

I chatted with the inspiring founders and editors at Unbound. They talked a lot about the IP being the centre of transactional publishing, and their model puts authors right upfront -- where they should be.

I spoke to Valobox and Byte the Book, working on discoverability of ebooks and wide networking events.

But by far my most exciting discovery came right at the end of the Fair, as I walked past a sign that said "Are you the Fastest Editor in Frankfurt?" (I'm not.) Futureproofs is a new editorial programme that allows you to mark up texts -- old school -- using your computer and then compare versions using multiple editors. I cannot tell you how much I miss the incoherent squiggles and arrows and lines of the editorial process. I don't use a printer so marking up in this fashion is no longer an option (I sometimes copy-edit on screen, but it is laboured and counter-intuitive). Now I can copy-edit texts using my computer, and send proper proofs to my authors.    

Finally, the best bit of a Fair, irrespective of digital, traditional, genre or aspect: you get to meet new faces. There are so many good agents out there and I was lucky enough to be paired with Sophie Lambert of Conville & Walsh for a discussion on discovering and developing talent. Sophie is an editorial mastermind, and we have quite similar ways of working with authors.

It confirmed to me that no matter where you sit in the process, there are so many people creating and supporting books. And that is sort of the whole point.          

Philippa Donovan is an editorial consultant and the founder of Smart Quill Editorial. Since 2011 she has been offering bespoke author services, and opening access to submission and publication. She provides digital and agent recommendation, full editorial services including structural reports and copy-edits, and was named as a Bookseller Rising Star for 2014. Her blog and video channel are available at   

Frankfurt Book Fair images provided by BuchMesse - photographers Peter Hirth (top) and Alexander Heimann