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The Rights Place to Be
Herbert R. Lottman -- 4/3/00

The fair is up here," a VIP among Continental publishers exclaimed to PW's observer from the mezzanine International Rights Centre. "This is where an acquisitions editor has to be," a colleague added. Rarely were so many compliments heard about a fair's siting, timing, seating, even catering; it was enough to make a member of the management staff blush. The London Book Fair had apparently found the ideal setup for its Rights Centre two years ago, and last year ironed out the last wrinkles.

Just before the fair, the organizers had announced a dizzying total of 237 tables booked to agents, publishers and packagers from the U.S. and everywhere else. By opening day, the count had been upped to 284, surely a world record, and Susan McCaslin (borrowed from BEA's rights center), in charge of the facility, said there was no room for even one more.

One of the things London's Rights Centre had going for it was its positioning at the heart of the fair, with an overhead view of one of the twin exhibition floors. Marcy Posner of New York's William Morris Agency, who was present with her boss, London first-timer Owen Laster, admitted that she wasn't going to leave her mezzanine perch for the run of the show.

The comparison with Frankfurt was heard often. If London is now seen as the spring relay of the traditional autumn Buchmesse, it's this one that's become the fun fair. Part of the attraction is the local publishing scene. As John Baker reported in his British survey on March 13, U.K. publishers look wistfully at the U.S. as a business model, but for much of the world, the saucy London book scene is model enough. "We see more interesting things here than in America these days," volunteered Leonello Brandolini, president and publisher of France's Robert Laffont.

Brandolini was one of several French heads of houses, publishers and editors who took the surprising step of coming to London during the run of their own Paris Salon du Livre. Flammarion's foreign editor, Patrice Hoffman, told PW he believes London is growing into the "indispensable" fair. Did he mean London is more important than Frankfurt? Hoffmann paused only momentarily before replying, "Qualitatively."

It was a place for list-building. PW met a Dutch publisher, Sander Knol, armed with a writ to set up a new Bertelsmann imprint with a first year's output of no fewer than 125 titles--mainly translations (from guess what language). In fact, Knol's company, the House of Books, will publish trade editions of titles that will go into ECI, Bertelsmann's big Dutch club. Henceforth, instead of buying volume rights and laying off trade editions with other Dutch houses, Bertelsmann will publish in both formats.

World Spanish publishing is dominated by megagroups, and every one of them--including Planeta, Bertelsmann's Plaza y Janés, Ediciones B, Santillana, Oceano--was on hand. But so were such small but premier literary imprints as Tusquets, as well as such upmarket offshoots as Alfaquara, Taurus, Alianza.

"Wait till the Americans really begin to come," suggested a European fair veteran. Most American rights were being offered by U.S.-based agencies or down on the floor via transatlantic groups, but U.S. heads of houses were still rare (PW encountered only Roger W. Straus Jr., Paul Gottlieb of Abrams, Overlook's Peter Mayer and Morgan Entrekin of Grove Atlantic). "If more Americans book tables here, as they say they want to, BEA will lose a lot of its appeal" was the doomsday view of one international agent. For it to maintain its appeal, BEA would then have to be scheduled a couple extra months' distance from the London fair.

And if Reed's London show threatens to cannibalize Reed's Chicago one, it is also giving Frankfurt a run for its money. So it is interesting to see what major German players thought about the potential new rival. "It makes everything easy," commented first-timer Arnulf Conrardi, CEO of the upscale Bertelsmann imprint Berlin Verlag. The fair allowed him to double the number of British contacts he could meet, something that mattered to him because he was putting together a catalogue for a new paperback venture. Rowohlt's Peter Wilfert sees the London fair as gaining weight because of the Continental rapprochement. "More and more books will move from one European country to another," he predicted.

Or take book fair player Lothar Menne, who never seems to miss one. "By far the best thing I've seen" was his judgment of London--and that includes Frankfurt.

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