Though it seemed like something out of a science fiction novel, the reality that an active volcano in Iceland kept most Americans—and legions of Europeans—from attending this year's London Book Fair has started some thinking about the importance of the event itself.

Reports from those who were at the fair said the rights hall seemed 50% vacant, and indications from LBF suggest attendance was down by about one-third. Approximately 15% of the seminar program was canceled. And, although many attendees talked about the joys of having fewer meetings, the feeling that the fair was a disappointment was unavoidable. Kent Carroll, publisher of Europa Books (which publishes a number of foreign titles), made it to Europe, but said he felt there was “a severe disappointment for British publishers and agents,” many of whom, he estimated, had nearly 80% of their appointments canceled. Ira Silverberg, at Sterling Lord, was one of the few American agents who made it, and he said that while “some felt it was a wasted fair,” he got more “high-quality time with colleagues.”

Although most American agents said they didn't hear of a “big book” emerging from the three-day event, deals went on. One agent said the British were “in a buying mood,” and Silverberg reported closing “significant pre-empts” on Norman Doidge's The Brain That Changes Itself in Australia and the U.K. (Clare Ferraro at Viking recently acquired the book in a major deal). Trident's Ellen Levine remotely monitored a heated auction in New York for Enon, the forthcoming novel from recent Pulitzer winner Paul Harding. Although the auction had not closed by press time, word from London is that people were buzzing about the title. And though Kent Wolf of Global Literary Management did not make it to LBF, he said the e-mail auction he was conducting for U.K. rights to the Pulitzer-winning Tinkers was close to completion on Friday. (Consortium, which distributes Tinkers, reported on Friday that it was preparing to ship another 100,000 copies of the book.)

With attendance low, especially among Americans, the idea quickly emerged that BEA might draw a heavy foreign presence in May, allowing American agents and foreign industry members to do the face-to-face business they were unable to in London. A number of agents said they've already heard that more Europeans are now planning trips to New York that will coincide with BEA, but it's still a question what exactly this will mean for that trade show.

Most American agents who spoke to PW said they doubt the BEA rights center will see much action, since they will opt to take meetings in their offices, in lieu of paying for a booth at the Javits Center. And Reed Exhibitions (PW's former parent company)—which puts on both BEA and LBF—had not made clear any concrete plans about how/if it might accommodate those who couldn't attend London. Steve Rosato, who manages BEA, said he has already starting receiving requests for more exhibiting space at BEA from publishers and agents (see story, page 23). Still, many in the industry are waiting to see what, if anything, Reed will be extending in the way of potential rebates. As one agent grumbled, when asked about what BEA might offer, “Reed isn't known for being generous.”

While most agents think BEA will be busier this year—many noted that, even if their meetings aren't at the Javits Center, their foreign clients will still stop by the show—some think doing more foreign rights sales there is not ideal. Brian DeFiore, of DeFiore and Company, said it will be hard to make foreign rights appointments “since agents are often dealing with their [authors] who are in town.” DeFiore said he thinks it's more likely that “foreign editors and agents will plan a replacement trip to visit New York offices some other time during the year.”

Robert Gottlieb, who did make it to London, also thinks BEA will see a stronger foreign contingency this year. Noting that there were noticeable absences among the Scandinavians, Spanish, and Germans last week at Earls Court, the Trident chairman questioned whether a livelier BEA will make everyone reconsider the value of London. “BEA is so close to London,” Gottlieb said, “so my question is whether foreign publishers wouldn't prefer to meet [Americans] in New York [during BEA].” He added: “I think it's really important for the London Book Fair to pay attention and make themselves really relevant if they want to be an international fair as opposed to simply a British fair.”