To say that the annual London International Book Fair, held last week at Earls Court, was “business as usual” is not the faint praise it might at first appear to be. After the disaster that was the 2006 fair in the Docklands, the fair's 2007 return to Central London was much like the release of patient who had barely survived an accident: hopeful of recovery, but not altogether steady on its feet. By this year, though, the fair was in good health, bustling and robust. Attendance was good, systems worked—and even the complicated floor plans of the meeting rooms and rights center were more or less navigable. It was all so hunky-dory that more than one fair-goer was heard to opine that London was “back,” once again a worthy and somewhat more pleasant rights fair than its elder competitor, that old Buchmesse in Frankfurt.
Yet while there was much that smacked of traditional publishing—a lovely noontime event (with champagne, natch) at which former Penguin CEO Peter Mayer received a lifetime achievement award; plenty of whining about how there is no “big book” this year, although, of course, there hasn't been one in years—there was no mistaking that we're definitely, finally, in the 21st century. Yes, digital publishers were, as always, confined mostly to a small hall adjacent to the main one (“Earls Court 2,” a banner proclaimed), but there were plenty of them, and they were plenty busy. The large Ingram/Lightning Source booth in the main hall was always buzzing and the company that makes DNL eBooks hosted several SRO 75-minute presentations. Add to that a handful of well-attended seminars on various aspects of digital publishing and you can't help thinking that even in bookland, times have changed.
There were other forward-thinking moments, too—such as the last-minute turnaround in which bestselling British novelist Sebastian Faulks (Birdsong) became the interviewer instead of the announced interviewee; apparently, he and new British PM Gordon Brown share a publisher, who convinced the erudite Brown to talk books and politics with former journalist Faulks. Ex-Hyperion chief Bob Miller was there, too, fresh on the scent of a book he could publish under the new low-advance/high-royalty model he's developing for Harper. And for anyone who still doubts that there are American publishers of note (and heft) outside of New York, there was the purchase, by Illinois-based Sourcebooks, of the children's title Horrid Henry, which has sold a reported 12 million copies worldwide but had not, until now, come stateside.
Still, one of the unfortunate byproducts of being of the moment means that, well, you have to be of the moment—and at this moment, the dollar is in a disastrous state. Many agents admitted that financial negotiations were fraught, some insisting that rights be paid for in euros or pounds, thereby risking deals. And almost every American publisher I talked to allowed as how they'd brought smaller-than-usual contingents to a London that was already expensive enough before the dollar trouble. LIBF might be getting healthy again, but it doesn't do us much good when our own economy is so sick. (Stay tuned for BEA; as I write, Thomas Nelson cited rising costs as the reason for withdrawing from that fair.)
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