Frankfurt Book Fair: Women authors make the big deals

pounds 200,000 in part for gruesome tale of Millennium Dome killer who sews finches into victims

FOR WHAT was once characterised as the annual beanfeast for the cosy male publishing world of Private Eye characters Snipcock and Tweed, this year's Frankfurt Book Fair has definitely turned out to be an event for the ladies.

While the headlines last year were grabbed by the sale of Elton John's autobiography (which was never written), this time the news has been all about high-priced sales of books by women - some of which do actually exist.

A pair of first-time thrillers by Mo Hayder, 36, an Essex author who left school at 15, went for pounds 200,000 (although only one has been completed), while a pounds 600,000 deal was struck for another first-time pair by Amy Jenkins, the writer who previously brought the world the This Life cult TV series - but she has so far only managed to write 2,000 words of her two new novels.

Some of the hottest gossip, indeed, surrounded a new women author who has yet to put pen to paper, and wasn't even at the book trade's biggest bash. She is, of course, Monica Lewinsky - said to be in Australia having one-to-one negotiations with Rupert Murdoch over a possible mega-deal with HarperCollins.

For Ms Hayder, who is currently an administrative assistant at Goldsmiths' College in London, the big prize came for devising a plot that seems to be more gruesome than anything Stephen King might devise.

It involves a serial killer, operating in the Millennium Dome area of London, who delights in sewing live finches into various parts of his victim's bodies. And, it seems, she strives to make him a sympathetic character.

Her deal with Transworld was clinched a couple of days before Frankfurt began, but made her one of its undoubted stars.

Her book was plucked from the obscurity in January from a pile of 3,000 unsolicited manuscripts sent to Gregory and Radice Authors' Agents, and has been reworked substantially since.

A genuine finished article, however, was sold by Linn Ullmann, daughter of the former screen siren Liv Ullmann, who works as a journalist in Oslo and was also selling her first novel.

Entitled Before I Sleep and described as a family saga, it would seem like a natural for Radio 4's Book at Bedtime, but only apparently fetched a modest pounds 60,000 for British rights from Picador.

Perhaps next time she would do better to submit only the sleeve notes before signing on the line.

So what brings about this yearly speculative madness in an otherwise civilised business?

"Everybody drinks too much, doesn't get enough sleep and their judgement can go a bit awry," said one Frankfurt regular.

"Everyone is there together, trying to find out what the hot deal is, and if they can be part of that deal then people get very excited."

But not, one suspects, as excited as the beneficiaries of their glee.

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