Publishers are still prepared to pay good money up front for the right books, agents have told The Bookseller, after a raft of high-profile rights deals were struck ahead of the Frankfurt Book Fair and at the fair itself. But agents also warned of gaps in publishing schedules and slow decision-making caused by doubts over retail support for the less high-profile books.
Big deals at the fair came mainly in the form of established names and previously self-published authors. Agent Georgina Capel of Capel & Land, responsible for the £1m deal with Weidenfeld & Nicolson for Simon Sebag Montefiore's next historical non-fiction project, said publishers were prepared to pay good money for the right property, and to protect their big names: "There is that sense that you protect your citadel at all costs. I also think that because a lot of non-fiction authors were let go in the past 18 months because the confidence fell out of the market, the authors that stuck around have retained a lot of their value by proving their staying power."
But she warned that there were a "lot of gaps for 2014, 2015, 2016", with publishers under-buying in sectors such as historical non-fiction, an area in which titles need to be commissioned a long way in advance.
PFD's Juliet Mushens handled the four-round auction for supernatural thriller Natural Causes by self-published author James Oswald, which was won by Penguin. She said: "I think that when there is a property that is really hot and really well written, publishers are still prepared to pay for it. Something like Natural Causes is a real market test."
Blake Friedmann agent Oli Munson, who sold world rights in high-concept novel The Three by Sarah Lotz to Hodder on the basis of a 33-page partial shortly before the fair, said publishers were moving quickly when they saw story quality: "I think there was a time when people were very risk-averse to buying on a partial, because perhaps they had got burnt, but I think now that doesn't exist to the same degree. I think as long as there is a fully formed idea for the novel—even if that isn't presented yet—then publishers are willing to put their confidence in it." He added: "In terms of finding a mass audience, a book has to have mass appeal."
Hodder and Headline rights director Jason Bartholomew said: "I think with The Three we thought it might be tricky in some territories because it is a partial, but it just shows you how much people are looking for good stories." He added: "The UK market is in a slower moment. Italy, Germany and Brazil are likely to pay more money."
Curtis Brown joint-c.e.o. and books division m.d. Jonny Geller echoed this point, attributing it to "the turmoil of the retail market" in the UK: "There are many books we are selling in translation first, ahead of the UK; or signing a bigger deal in the US or elsewhere. That was more pronounced than at Frankfurt last year."
Publishers and agents stressed the mood around the fair was positive, despite questions over digital and doubts about the economy. S&S executive director Kerr MacRae said: "I think a lot of people felt it was a good Frankfurt. There was less chat about digital and more chat about content; less talk about the delivery method and the channel and more about the filling. That was very noticeable."
Aitken Alexander Associates m.d. Andrew Kidd said: "This time people seemed less preoccupied with talking about the 'state of the nation' and were more focused, for better or worse, on just getting on with it."