London Book Fair is like speed dating for book trade professionals as they tell each other stories while buying and selling rights during half hour meetings. Negotiating rights deals – foreign language, film and TV, audio etc – with international partners is its core focus. On another level LBF provides opportunities for publishers, literary agents, authors, booksellers, librarians, literary organizations, and suppliers to network and exchange ideas, as the latest offerings are showcased and promoted at their stands or at seminars, conferences and author events. LBF’s spotlight focus this year was on Ukraine. Opened by the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, the fair’s headline authors were Colson Whitehead, Kate Mosse, Ann Cleeves, Dapo Adeola and Robin Stevens. All the press and PR was handled by Midas PR.
Tables in the International Rights Centre (IRC) where rights professionals meet had sold out in the blink of an eye, and there was a long waiting list. So a number of agents and scouts ended up sitting at someone else’s table: no bad thing for swapping tips and info since each market has its own unique nuances and preferences, and what works in one market may not work in another. Walking around, the humming of voices was so loud you could hardly hear yourself think.
Unscheduled encounters at drinks parties held at stands at the end of the day, or at ‘invitation only’ parties outside the fair, provide opportunities for more relaxed discussions. Hélène Duchêne, the first French ambassador to present her letters of credence to King Charles III, hosted a soirée at her private residence in Kensington Palace Gardens. The plush, carpeted reception rooms, shimmering chandeliers, gilt furniture and monumental tapestries exuded an air of opulence and elegance that enveloped publishers, translators, scouts and other guests as they arrived. Naturally the winner of the recent Nobel Prize in Literature, Annie Ernaux, featured in Hélène Duchêne’s welcome speech.
Over supper at Andrew Edmunds in Soho the following evening, the hostess – a leading scout from New York – declared: “This is the first real book fair since the pandemic that feels like a book fair.”
Best not forget that publishing is a business dominated by The Market : what’s hot and what’s not, who’s in and who’s deadmeat. According to the Publishers Association, total publishing income in 2022 was £6.9 billion GBP of which 2,7 billion GBP were sales in the home market and 4.1 billion GBP sales in the export market. Academic publishing is a strong area of growth. Of course 2022 was dominated by the war in Ukraine, with many publishers suffering from a massive surge in paper prices, resulting in rocketing production budgets.
A few choice nuggets came my way over a couple of days of scheduled meetings and surprise encounters . . . BB’s sources quoted prefer to remain anonymous as is the way with professional journalism.
“There’s a weird market out there, this year it’s all about making personal contact and finding that random book which might take off.”
“Concept novels are doing well, and Ukrainian novels of course, but no one is buying like they used to.”
“Publishing is a function with everyone focused on the same thing. A bestseller is made by five people – publisher, editor, marketing, sales person, publicist – thinking through strategy and detail, being clear, setting a plan in motion and sticking to it.”
“Publishers bought whoever was for sale in the pandemic, so the big five are getting bigger and there are fewer independents.”
“It’s very hard to be an editor in a huge organization today. The book which they bought which they and their colleagues are so enthusiastic about is fed into a central sales machine consisting of unitary departments . . . a huge entropic centre.”
“Profit is a consequence of good publishing: homogenization and an obsession with the bottom line is not sustainable.”
“I rain curses on the heads of those people who said Brexit was going to be simple, you don’t have a divorce without having to pay a settlement! Since when do you set a referendum for 50:50? It’s always 60:40, we’d never have left if it was 60:40. People who voted to leave thought we’d just walk away scott free into the sunset!”
“Sending contract copies to Europe is a problem since Brexit: the recipient has to pay duty despite the sender’s customs declaration. It depends on the country as there are different rules and regulations. Many businesses don’t ship to the EU anymore.”
“The pandemic was a major shock to the global economy. While some publishers did fantastically well, others suffered. Shipping collapsed. The Chinese lost so much printing in lockdown that this year Chinese printers have flooded the fair looking for business from publishers. Some of us are turning them away on the grounds of human rights abuses and the Uyghur genocide.”
“Events are not only about selling books. People pay to go see authors and hear them in person. Since the pandemic people are very selective and go for specific events. Most book events are extremely local. Habits have changed.”
“Bookselling is focused and segmented in the UK today. The independent sector is only 7% of overall annual book sales.”
“There are 1000 independent bookshops across the UK. They are enterprising and entrepreneurial in spirit, as they promote reading for pleasure, offer subscription packages, and develop a loyal following of people who attend their festivals, book clubs, outreach events. The Booksellers Association promotes events through its Caboodle Service.”
“Although many booksellers buy their books online, London’s newest indie bookshop Backstory in Balham, set up by Tom Rowley, shows what can be achieved thanks to crowdfunding, Substack and a passion for reading.”
The Paris Book Fair, recently renamed the Festival du Livre, is all about publishers showcasing their lists and big-name authors – in person – as they sell their books to an avid public. The Festival du Livre is a booksellers’ fair; it is a haven for literature lovers. The atmosphere is a bit like a Gallic Hay On Wye Book Festival. The first ever Paris Book Market held in June last year, to be held again this summer, is where the rights deals happen.
The Festival du Livre is where publishers connect directly with readers queuing round the block to get in; ‘hand selling’ books to readers. As a great many of the publishers prefer to just attend Frankfurt Buchmesse in October and skip London, it’s worth the trip for Francophile literature lovers.
Fifty authors were among the Italian delegation sent to Paris this year as Italy’s guest-of-honour literary stars. Sales of Manga and Dark Romance were this year’s success story. The BookTok stand had a flow of YA readers. People of all ages thronged publishers’ stalls, crowded author talks, and attended Media events throughout the three days of the fair.
I came away from both fairs feeling conflicted. On the one hand, the reduced size of London Book Fair this year to just the ground floor of Olympia signaled that traditional publishers need to adapt faster to changing times . . . a gut feeling validated by conversations with a couple of software developers whom I met . . . the industry must innovate and invest in digital platforms and new technology . . . rethink business models and explore new revenue streams. Especially since self-publishing has changed the game, with authors no longer needing to rely on traditional publishers to get their work out into the world.
On the other hand, storytelling is intrinsic to human nature: we think and remember in stories, turning our experiences into narratives. So although the ‘new normal’ feels weird, and people don’t consume media in the same way they used to since they are glued to their smartphones and tablets, a love of books and reading will not disappear.
Printed books have been with us for a good few centuries, apart from which reading off a screen strains the eyes way more than reading print on paper. A book can be taken anywhere – on a train, up a mountain, on a sandy beach – and with the rise of digital detox, people are switching off. To feel the paper, and relax with a book, is a personal sensual pleasure, as well as being essential for the human brain as described by psychologist Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow.
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