The London Book Fair has emerged as a crown jewel of publishing expos. How fitting, then, that this year, for the first time, Queen Elizabeth II at last acknowledged the fair by honoring the British publishing industry two days before it opened. Dressed in a very Muggle powder-blue suit plus beige hat, with handbag, the royal reader paid visits to a publishing house (Bloomsbury), a bookstore (Waterstone's Piccadilly), a distribution center and a public library, and also hosted a reception at Buckingham Palace for more than 600 British publishing folk.

The queen neglected to set her feet upon the bustling floor of the fair itself, but lords and ladies aplenty wandered there. (As Ben Jacobs of Facts on File observed to PW, "Because London is expensive, it tends to be the decisionmakers who attend.") There was Jane Friedman, talking up a storm with Nicholas Clee of the Bookseller outside the huge HarperCollins booth. There was Lyle Stuart, with his wife, Carol; Morgan Entrekin, conferring with a British publisher; and Roger Straus, impeccably tailored, in conversation at a rights table. And there, striding across the convention floor on its second day, was a dapper David Baldacci and his wife, Michelle. "Why are you here?" PW asked the author, the highest-profile writer at a fair that through its logo ("The Business of Publishing") emphasizes its B2B character—and that, by extension, draws few authors and displays little patience for glitz and giveaways.

"Simon & Schuster U.K. thought it was important, and I thought so, too," Baldacci replied. "The British market is important because it affects other countries. My contract with S&S for Wish You Well [released last year in the States by Warner] lists 75 countries that the British publisher has rights to.

"Baldacci's observation and his presence on the floor underscored the international character of a fair that still retains a British accent. The weather outside the LBF's venue—the Olympia Exhibition Centre, in the city's gritty west side—was appropriately Sherlockian, with not one ray of sun brightening the magnificent curved glass ceiling of the Grand Hall, which remained smeared with gray and drizzle throughout the proceedings. Inside, however, all was quite cozy—and smoky. Americans in particular stared incredulously at the white clouds floating into the air from innumerable Marlboros and Dunhills.

The mix of international players with British customs, plus the many educational seminars and product demonstrations held at the fair, drew large crowds. Exhibitors numbered 8,844, up 8% from last year, and the number of stands increased 5%, to 1,593; more than a quarter of the exhibitors were from outside the U.K. The number of visitors totaled 12,795. As the bespectacled Lionel Leventhal, who founded the London Book Fair 31 years ago, told PW, "Everyone's here! When this started, it was a regional fair. Now it's a world-class fair." As if on cue, stepping upon Leventhal's last word was Emanuel Hausman, publisher of the Israeli house Carta Ltd., who wanted to talk a little business. By the time the fair ended, Leventhal, now managing director of Greenhill Books, had met with publishers from Hungary, France, Canada, Russia, Germany, Malta, South Africa, Belgium and the Czech Republic—a confluence that, he explained, "reflects the outreach of the English language as the lingua franca.

"Unquestionably, rights trading of the sort Leventhal spoke of dominated the fair. Most of it took place at the International Rights Centre overlooking the National Hall. A lot of buy-and-sell, though, occurred on the floor itself. Dominique Raccah, for example, founder and publisher of the dynamic indie Sourcebooks, whose booth formed part of the American Collective, called "incredible" the interest in rights to Sourcebooks' forthcoming Light: The Beauty and Science by Ben Bova.

That many at the fair were trading whatever, wherever and whenever they could was reiterated in "What We Buy Here," a seminar/breakfast sponsored by PW on the fair's third day and hosted by PW's executive editor for bookselling, John Mutter. During the seminar, panelist Andre Bernard of Harcourt allowed that "Harcourt's list has become increasingly international in nature. We look to London to fill our list," while Clive Priddle of Fourth Estate said, "The book fair is turning very much into a rights fair. We look at it as a post in between Frankfurt and the next Frankfurt.

"Still, there seemed nearly as many reasons to attend as there were people at the fair. Jane Friedman told PW she was there in support of HarperCollins's global initiative (a declaration duplicated by David Kent, newly appointed president of HarperCollins Canada, when PW ran into him the next morning). "The more international book fairs we have, the better, in this world of international business," added Friedman. "I'm looking at what my competitors are doing."

The London Book Fair began in 1971 as a small booksellers' fair; 30 years later, booksellers continued to flock—889 from overseas, 1,506 from the U.K. They, too, evinced numerous reasons for attending. Rebecca Naismith, reference librarian for the London Borough of Redbridge, said she was interested in "getting catalogues for further acquisition." Amanda Morrison, proprietor of Black Red Green Books in Brighton, wanted "to link up with publishers"—although she admitted that "some of the publishers we deal with, like those who work with anarchist materials, aren't here." Every variety of publishing professional was at the fair. Bill Buford, literary editor of the New Yorker, for example, told PW that he'd found three hours at the fair as valuable as three days at Frankfurt. He declared "the buzz book of the fair" to be The Impressionist, a first novel by Hari Kunzru for which Dutton had just bought North American rights (Hot Deals, Mar. 26). Buford was considering publishing an excerpt in the New Yorker; he was planning to read it by e-mail later—a sign of how the Net is changing the way the industry deals with books.

This change, particularly the potential avalanche of e-books, concerned many at the fair. The most ballyhooed announcement of the three days revealed that the U.K. online retailer and Microsoft had formed an alliance to bring e-books to readers in the Microsoft Reader format at an online "eBookstore" that WH Smith would open at the end of the summer. Jeff Ramos, Microsoft's director of worldwide marketing for eMerging Technologies, made the announcement. PW experienced no clearer demonstration of the fair's magic than what occurred later that day. As we spoke on the floor to Michael Fragnito, v-p of B&N Digital, about a future "killer device" that Fragnito said would soon come from Microsoft and prove the tipping point for e-publishing, who should wander by but Ramos, who gave the nod to Fragnito's news. It's this sort of serendipity, possible only in a small, accessible fair like the LBF, that makes this event so useful to so many.

Not quite so upbeat was the forecast voiced by Crown publisher Steve Ross during the seminar "E-Books: A Glimpse of the Future or the Emperor's New Clothes?" sponsored by PW. In response to a question from PW's John Mutter, chair of the seminar, Ross referred to "gaseous predictions" about e-books and opined that they would most likely follow the "model of audiobooks" in terms of impact and market share; he saw "many more ramifications from print-on-demand." If the desire of fellow panelist Sheila Lambie of Helicon comes to pass, however, who knows? Lambie said she looks forward to the day when she has an implanted panel on her forearm that allows her to do everything digitally, including reading e-books.

With all the talk of digitization at the fair, and with thousands of visitors peering intently down into screens at one time or another, there was a certain English irony in that perhaps the most effective electronic display was the one overhead—the 2.5-meter, helium-filled advertising balloon run by remote control from the gallery above the Grand Hall. Hours before the opening of the second day of the fair, PW came across the young man with the remote. Upon our request, he drew in the balloon from far across the hall. As the balloon neared, PW noted that this Britisher was bringing into view an ad for a book of poetry by an author with a Greek name, from an American house with a Web site for its address—and that about summed up the multinational, multireality character of LBF 2001.