Frankfurt "I DON'T OFTEN SIGN deals here," said Bruce Harris, publisher of Harmony Books, as he conferred with Andreas Papadackis of London's Academy Editions. "Many things are set in motion." The two men were meeting in the back of the Academy booth, protected from the eyes of the crowd by a flimsy curtain. Harris looked over Papadackis' list, expressed interest in a picture book on Los Angeles, and worried about prices. (The imbalance in production costs between the United States and Britain is making it harder and harder for American publishers to buy finished British books.) Then Harris ate his sandwich, described some projects of his own, made some notes, looked at his watch, shook hands and moved on to another appointment.

Everyone at the Frankfurt Book Fair carries appointment books, known jokingly as "dance cards," with each day divided into 30-minute segments. The fair is so enormous that meetings cannot be left to chance. There is little time for casual chitchat here. People scurry up and down the endless aisles with a fair directory in one hand -- it's two inches thick -- and their appointment book in the other, for all the world like a thousand white rabbits muttering "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late . . . ."

The Franfurt Book Fair is part of the mythology of publishing. There is the lure of the whole world of books laid out in one place for a few short days, deals to strike, sales to make, the competition to look over. The statistics for the 1980 fair, held October 8-13, tell part of the story: 5,500 publishers from 94 countries exhibited an estimated 280,500 books. Countries from Togo to the Vatican City rented booths in five cavernous halls, each covering an area so large that small trams ferry the footsore from building to building.The busiest halls were five, where all the foreign publishers were housed, and Six where the crowds and the incredible diversity of stands attested to the fact that the German publishing industry has not yet felt the chill of recession.

The theme of the 1980 fair was Black Africa. An entire hall was set aside to display the books published for and by black Africans. The director of the fair, Peter Weidhaas, was deeply involved in this project as part of an attempt to make the fair a viable commercial forum for less developed nations. The fair itself paid for 30 African authors to come to Frankfurt, and the $3,000 Noma award for publishing in Africa was presented to Senegalese novelist Mariama Ba. The accompanying symposiums focused heavily on language, which is, of course, for African writers a burning political issue. To write in English, French or Portuguese is to acknowledge the insidious legacy of colonialism; to write in a native African language is severly to limit potential audiences. The question of South Africa was, predictably, a tense one. It took pressure from the fair director's office to secure permission for two black South African authors, Peter Randall and James Matthews, to travel to the fair at all. Established South African publishers exhibited in hall Five far from the black African publishers. Many of the African nations closed their stands for one day in protest. "In solidarity with South African people we boycott the fair today," read a sign over the booth of Mozambique.

In addition to his energetic sponsorship of the African exhibit, director Weidhass is also responsible for the awesome task of making this huge happening work. Known affectionately among fair veterans as "the king of the fair" Weidhaas is a genial distinguished man in his forties who directs his 30 staff members and 500 service personnel on the fairgrounds with astonishing efficiency. Hotels within 100 kilometers of Frankfurt were all booked up on the first day of the fair, and only rooms in private houses and floating "boatels" along the Main were available for latecomers.

Weidhaas was undaunted by all the talk of recession, "When business at home is bad, publishers put more effort into exports and the fair is especially active." He also pointed out that 80 percent of the world's book translation business is handled at Frankfurt. Brooks Thomas, the president of Harper & Row, a company heavily represented at this year's fair, disagreed with Weidhaas. He has developed his own mock-serious "litmus test" over the years to test the health of the fair and worldwide publishing. He explained it with a slow grin: "There are two kinds of carpet here, the matting in the aisles and the rugs in the booths. In the good years, the two almost meet." And in 1980? "I saw a lot of concrete," said Thomas regretfully.

The response to any question about recession in the book trade was so uniform that it began to sound like a saying from someone's little red book: "Oh, we're doing just fine this year, but everyone else . . . is having a tough time." One or two iconclasts were more realistic. British agent Michael Sissons, who numbers Margaret Drabble and Arthur Koestler among his clients, said flatly "there are just too many books being published. British publishing will just have to put its house in order." Sissons felt the questions of economics and quality were inseparable. "editing skills are going down the drain in Britain," he said wistfully. "It's too expensive to edit." Surprisingly, he felt the problem was less acute in the States. A recent title he sold received nine months of close editorial work, revisions and conferences with the author in New York, but was about to be sent to the printers in its original draft in London until Sissons protested.

Ania Chevallier, foreign rights director of the French firm of Gallimard, was vibrantly outspoken about the trade and about the "serious" literature that she cares for deeply. She felt that America has drifted away from Europe in the last 10 years and that it is now hard to sell promising young French writers to the Americans. She agreed that the recession was real, but felt that its results were a matter of national personality. "Publishing is in trouble in both Britain and Italy. In England they are pulling back, sinking into despair, not buying. But Italy!" She made an expansive gesture. "They are losing money all over the place, but they are publishing. They are active."

Ion Trewin, former literary editor of the Times of London and now a top editor with Hodder and Stoughton, reported that his firm had bought James Clavell's latest novel for publication next June directly from the author when he was in London recently. A large poster heralding Noble House dominated their booth. Trewin says the novel is set in contemporary Singapore but involves conncections and descendants of many characters from his previous novels. With John Le Carre also on their list, Hodder should weather the hard times with ease.

Not everyone was gloomy. Lennart Sane, a major Swedish agent, broke off between back-to-back appointments to say with a smile that he had done $26,000 worth of business the previous day, had had a record opening day at the fair and had already rung up a further $15,000 -- and it was barely lunchtime. Selling in Scandinavia he said were the big American "macho" thrillers. Robert Ludlum, Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon were being competed for at the expense of what he called "the middle class book." As always, it's tough on the middle classes . . .

At 1 o'clock on Thursday, October 9, news reached the fair that exiled Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz had won the Nobel Prize for literature. A frenzy of activity ensued, some of it devoted to finding out how to pronounce his name (Chess-wahf Mee-wash). Farrar, Straus and Giroux is scheduled to publish a novel by Milosz, Issa Valley , in February, and their booth was deluged with inquiries. Robert Straus Jr., the president, sat serenely behind the table as business cards rained down around him and remarked: "It was a lot worse than this in '78 when Singer won and we controlled the world rights." In fact, as Straus patiently explained to half a dozen different questioners, Issa Valley is the only work that FS and G controls. He redirected breathless rights people to Ecco Press, which publishes Milosz's poetry, and pointed out that both Doubleday and Knopf have published books by Milosz that are currently out of print. One publisher ran off to a transatlantic phone, clearly intending to remedy that situation.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is so big that everyone there is in constant fear that he has missed some big news. "Is there a big book this year?" is an ever-present question. At past fairs the work of Henry Kissinger, Gay Talese or Judith Krantz has filled the air with speculation and visions of dollar signs. The British house of Weidenfeld and Nicholson was rumored to be offering the diaries of Noel Coward for a quarter of a million dollars. The only trouble with that item as news is that they found no takers. One bid was for a mere $150,000, and it looked as if no deal would be struck at the fair. The days of the big-spending guys from Manhattan seem, at least for the moment, to be over.