This vivid, compelling book on trolley-buses will change your life

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The Independent Online
THE Frankfurt Book Fair closes tomorrow. After a week of buying and selling, eating and drinking, publishers will disperse to their 6,497 publishing houses in 97 countries; a few days of recuperative abstinence and silence should ensue. Already as I write this, with two full days to go, people are complaining of being "talked out" (as well, of course, as being drunk out, smoked out, and spent out). One of the paradoxes of publishing is that the written word requires so many spoken words to sell it.

In hall after hall, at stall upon stall, on the fair's many escalators and in its cafes, sellers try to engage the interest of potential buyers: "It's got a really strong narrative ..." "It's not just the usual coming- of-age in America novel ..." "It's a non-fiction Less Than Zero ..." "He writes really well ... really powerfully." "She's very striking, very profitable ..." "He's got a very different voice ..."

According to Arnulf Conradi, the co-owner of Berlin Verlag and one of Germany's most distinguished publishers, this is the joy and essence of Frankfurt: "You come here and listen every year to a thousand new stories. It is a marvellous thing."

I can see, in theory, what he's getting at. There are about 327,000 different books (or blurbs about books) on show at Frankfurt, of which more than 92,000 are new. Put very simply, the purpose of the fair is to trade these books, either by buying and selling them as physical objects - six dozen copies from London publisher X to New Delhi distributor Y - or by buying and selling the right to publish them in other countries and languages. All these books contain stories, many in unfamiliar languages. Some stories need not be described. London Trolley Buses of the 1950s speaks for itself. But subtract the trolley-bus books, the mathematics textbooks, the diet books, the pop-up books, the teach-yourself-Gujerati and the Icelandic Cookery Book, and you still have thousands of stories in Mr Conradi's old Arabian Nights sense. Characters, places, and plots invented and described: the reader and listener detained and sustained; the wonder of what will happen next as the audience, chins on knees, draws closer to the fire.

Frankfurt, however, refuses to be a succession of modern Arabian Nights. Rather it's a succession of old Arabian Days, down in the bazaar, listening to dubious propositions from carpet sellers. The problem with these stories is that they take too long to tell. To hear them properly you would have to read the book.

Is a summary of the plot an adequate substitute if you want to convince a prospective buyer? On the experience of the past few days I would doubt it. I heard an American agent outline a "major, major novel" in which post-Cold War Berlin is described "from the viewpoint of a bisexual American who is coming to terms with his own sexuality - like, just as in a similar way the East and West are coming together". Today, in an entry in a catalogue of forthcoming novels, I read the opening sentence: "Blind from childhood and put into a state home, Ludlow Washington learns first the piano and then takes up the horn."

All may be brilliant books but we need more than plot to convince us. We need praise, that small vocabulary - so much sparser than the vocabulary of condemnation, as any book reviewer will tell you. Words such as "compelling", "powerful", "vivid" and (a firm favourite) "extraordinary". Sentences such as this one attached to an unfamous novelist in a Scottish catalogue: "He has been described as a modern Tolstoy." If these fail to work, there is always the basic pitch: say it is a very well-written book by an attractive young woman. This marketable combination is evoked at almost every hall and stall, apart from the trolley-bus and Islamic sections.

A GREAT mystery - perhaps also a great joy - of British publishing is the number of titles that are produced every year. Last year, for example, British companies published 87,000 different books, including new editions of books that had gone out of print, as against 70,000 in Germany and 50,000 in the US. The figures may not be exactly comparable - each country has different criteria for "new" titles - and some of Britain's lead can be accounted for by its large export trade to the former empire: British book exports were nearly pounds 1bn last year. But allowing for all that, and considering that British people and institutions buy only half the number of books sold in Germany and a fifth of the number sold in the US, Britain's variety of books seems remarkable.

It may not last. Among the British contingent at the fair - 861 exhibitors, the second largest national group after Germany - it is hard to find anyone who doesn't think that the collapse of the Net Book Agreement will mean fewer publishers, fewer authors, fewer titles, fewer bookshops, and higher average prices. An idea has got about in Britain that the Net Book Agreement was a cosy old arrangement that served the producer rather than the consumer, and in some ways it may have been. On the other hand, every other European country has a version of it. Even the US has legislation designed to protect small bookshops against higher publishers' discounts to chain stores.

I went to see Clive Bradley of the Publishers Association to see if he could explain to me - simply, because I've never quite grasped the plot from newspapers or television - why the agreement's collapse was bad rather than good news for people who enjoyed reading books. "Because," Mr Bradley said, "if price becomes a publisher's main marketing tool, then the publisher becomes much more dependent on market share for his revenue. The pressure will be on volume at the expense of the width of the list." Translated, this means that you have to sell many more copies of a best-seller priced at pounds 10 rather than pounds 15.99 for the same return; that the increase may be unfeasibly large; and that consequently the price of other less popular books will have to go up, or that you cut costs by eliminating them, and consequently the people who write, edit and produce them.

To hear such a prognosis in Frankfurt is rather like sitting in the luxurious offices of the White Star Line in 1912 and hearing rumours of hazards to navigation in the North Atlantic. Many hundreds of British editors, agents and sales people are encamped in the most expensive city in Europe (especially expensive at book fair time - one night in a fairly ordinary hotel room can equal pounds 300 on the expenses sheet), and from across the Channel comes the distant grinding and tearing of ice.

EVERY book fair is supposed to have a "hot book" - some work, perhaps even of literary merit, whose originality will soon burst upon the world. This past week there has been some despair - no hot book, or at least not until Friday when some people (or "everybody" as they are known here) began to mention Magdalen the Sinner, which as I understand it is in German and tells the story of a woman (Magdalen, presumably) who kidnaps a priest so that she may confess to him her seven extra-marital affairs, and then sleeps with him. If I have got that right, I have given away too much. You are probably not supposed to know about the climax in the loins of the cleric. This is the way that Arabian Nights are ruined.