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E-Interest High at 'Happy' London Book Fair
Jeff Zaleski -- 4/3/00

I feel like a flower surrounded by a swarm of bees," exclaimed Jacqueline LeDonne of Subrights.com, midway into the 2000 London Book Fair. She was talking about the degree of attention focused on anyone--including the folks manning the equally crowded rival Rightscenter.com stand--who was offering guidance to fair g rs eager to navigate a publishing world digitizing at megaspeed.

With 8,178 exhibitor personnel (a 14% increase from 1999) and 14,184 visitors (up 12.9% from last year), plus a thriving International Rights Centre (see sidebar), the fair, held March 19-21 at the Olympia Exhibition Hall in Kensington, bustled on several fronts aside from e-retailing: there was bookselling, rights trading, networking and just plain browsing. The many barred by security guards from the overcrowded "E-books" seminar sponsored by the e-packager Versaware, however, embodied the cutting edge of interest. "British publishers are increasingly aware that they need to do something in response to e-books and online selling," Sal Rosenberg, president of Versaware, told PW later. "But what and how? This is my third time at the fair. The first time everyone thought we were from Mars. Now we're getting closer to Earth."

The fair began only five days after the online release of Stephen King's Riding the Bullet, so the challenge of e-publishing seduced, or preyed upon, the minds of many. Ralph Vicinanza, King's agent on Riding the Bullet, was booked solid at his table in the Rights Centre. He paused a moment to explain to PW the response at the fair to the King e-book. "Everybody is going after the rights," he said. "And some are going after the translation rights." Vicinanza affirmed that the story will never appear on paper. He also revealed that, for now, no online translation rights are for sale, because "we're waiting to see what the worldwide market is for short pieces in English."

Other digitally savvy publishing folk were also in demand at the fair, from Roxybooks.com, with its plan to open an über-e-bookstore, to Xerox UK Ltd., which printed and bound books on demand from its massive DocuTech Publisher, to PW's own John Mutter, whose seminar, "College Bookstore Marketplace," comparing online and traditional college booksellers, was a hit. (Notably, nearly all the e-oriented business at the fair came from the States. But where, wondered more than one observer, was NuvoMedia and its Rocket eBook? That company's failure to exhibit seemed a misstep.)

It's an old lament at the BEA show, but the blue badges of bookseller/retailers seemed in short supply at the London Book Fair, even though 2,971 booksellers were in attendance. As James Fox, national accounts manager of Reader's Digest Children's Publishing Ltd., put it, "We've been disappointed by the lack of independent retailers. We were geared up for them, with all of our displays." But Tim Godfray, chief executive of the Booksellers Association, explained that "the bigger booksellers deal with publishers on a frequent basis and lots of small ones deal with wholesalers"--thoughts ech d by others to account for the relative dearth of booksellers, particularly homegrown, compared to years long past.

Many of the British booksellers in attendance seemed to have aims other than to buy. Tim Ford, manager of the Union Bookstore in South Birmingham, for example, was checking out computer systems, and Janine McCauley of Brisbane, Australia, a wholesaler for nontraditional accounts such as gift shops and kitchen shops, was there primarily to gauge market trends.

The evolution of the London Book Fair from a booksellers' fair toward a rights fair has intensified only in recent years and defines only a small swath of its history. This year marked the fair's 30th anniversary; to celebrate the occasion, Helen Shiers, the fair's exhibition director, presented a handsome silver-framed plaque to Lionel Leventhal for his role in creating the fair in 1971, when it was known as the Small and Specialist Publishers' Exhibition. PW caught up with Leventhal at the stand for Greenhill Books, the military publishing and distribution house he founded and directs. "We started as a tabletop affair in the basement of a London hotel," Leventhal said. "I got it up to a threshold of 500 exhibitors. What you see around you is what Reed [Exhibitions] created. This is my child, now in its maturity--brilliant!"

That brilliance is today due in large part to the energetic Shiers, who has been involved with the fair since 1994 and who oversaw many of this year's developments, including a marketing guide for booksellers, an increased number of seminars, a greater influx of overseas (predominantly American) visitors and the explosive growth of the Rights Centre. She predicted that, by 2001, the small remaining empty space at the Olympia Exhibition Hall will be sold out and that the tech area in particular will expand. "I'm very upbeat," said Shiers. "Things are changing through electronics, of course, and that can be a bit scary, but the CD-ROM didn't kill off the book, and the Internet hasn't either."

Like many others, Shiers pointed out that the London Book Fair serves as a complement to Frankfurt. There's a charming British reserve to the event, manifested in the paucity of after-hours parties as well as in the general absence of glamour. Only a few authors--Shere Hite was the biggest name--attended. Show-biz is making inroads, however. Two humans in full gorilla suits prowled the floor, and a Marilyn Monr clone purred come-ons while a tall beauty done up as Barbie added a touch of the absurd. Bridge Publications ran clips from the upcoming film version of L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth; according to Javier O. Ruiz of Author Services, which handles Hubbard's work, rights to the tie-in book have been sold to Estonia, Turkey, Greece, Portugal and to the U.K.'s Blake Publishing (for $100,000).

Like BEA, the London Book Fair is an event in transition--appropriate in this transitional year into a new millennium and in an industry transforming itself day to day. Ultimately, it seems as if the rush of change itself instilled a sense of excitement, of hope and challenge, and of goodwill, into those who attended London Book Fair 2000. Martin Rowe, director of new media at Booklight Inc./Lantern Books, a Web site/publishing company, put it well when he exulted, "It's a happy fair."

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