Concern is mounting among the publishing community, in London and elsewhere, over a possible relocation of the London Book Fair to the ExCel Exhibition Centre in Docklands, the far east of the capital.
The 2014 event is likely to be the last in Earls Court, which is due to be demolished to make way for an £8bn live-work development. London is not over-endowed with exhibition spaces and there are really only two possibilities, the other being the refurbished Olympia, home to LBF for almost two decades. However, it would appear that ExCel--owned by ADNEC, the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre is the preferred choice of LBF owners Reed Exhibitions--which, during one of a number of tours for groups of agents, rights sellers and scouts, has been highlighting its "cutting-edge" facilities and its position as "a hub."
But insiders have been saying that ExCel cannot be a hub for the simple fact that it's not central--and because many of those who would drive the Fair's business from their tables in the International Rights Centre will stay away. The experience of LBF 2006 remains stark in many minds: inadequate public transport and, on one day, a major breakdown on the Docklands Light Railway; the 45-minute journey as the bus taking those who'd travelled by boat inched its way from dock to exhibition hall; the lack of cabs; the lack of restaurants… In short, a Fair that felt like it was in another city, which is how it seemed to visiting Americans and Europeans staying in their usual West End and Belgravia haunts.
LBF Director Jacks Thomas and her team are at pains to point out how much the infrastructure of London, from Old Street east towards Docklands, has improved in the intervening years, but the fleet of taxis conveying one of last week's LBF visiting parties took over an hour from Olympia. There are now many more amenities in Docklands, hotels and restaurants, and trendy Shoreditch and Hoxton will be a draw for some, but most visitors will not wish to forsake their familiar comforts. And for those who work in London, but live west, there's no escaping the long journey.
David Roche, Chairman of the Advisory Board, refuted claims that ExCel was effectively a done deal and emphasized that "ExCel, post-Olympics, is a totally different beast in terms of transport." Reed would provide shuttle buses from nearby transport hubs to the venue, wherever it is, something BEA has always done but which has not been a feature of LBF. He thought (though wasn't sure) that it is now possible to step off a river bus and walk to the exhibition centre in a few minutes, which it wasn't in 2006.
French agent Donatella d'Ormesson said LBF's location in Central London had made it "very attractive. My feeling (but this is only my feeling) is that the London Book Fair will suffer from being so far away from the centre and little by little will lose its prestige." Scout Anne Louise Fisher agreed. "The London Book Fair needs to combine work and pleasure, without too much hassle. ExCel creates hassle." Maria Enberg of Sweden's Grand Agency "hated" ExCel and feels "the whole atrmosphere will disappear if it is at Docklands; it will be pure business and no charm."
It was also pointed out that more senior staffers, who have fewer demands on their time at book fairs and attend for the networking, will want high-end restaurants if not within the confines of the Fair itself, then within easy reach, which is the case at Earls Court and Olympia.
Already at this early stage, a number of agents have declared their intention of staying away, holding a refuseniks' alternative in Central London (the Arts Club in 2006) or simply hosting meetings off-site. New York-based Barbara Zitwer, who remembers "the nightmare" of ExCel, said: "Many agents and editors will do London Book Fair in hotels and not go to the Fair--we can all meet at the Ritz or the Savoy or the Groucho Club." Jane Gregory, whose office is near Hammersmith, agreed: "This agency will not go. I also know that all the foreign publishers loathed ExCel. The transport links aren't up to it." Independent Publishers Guild Honorary President Sonny Leong predicted "a breakaway group" and "a parallel fair. It's a shame, but that's what will happen." Profile MD Andrew Franklin harboured no doubts: "I would rather go to Luton than ExCel. I would rather go to Middlesbrough than ExCel. The London Book Fair at ExCel was the worst book fair ever, and that includes some infamous Moscow fairs at the height of the cold war."
Speaking for Hachette UK, Clare Harington was more philosophical. "I think it's a different place from the one we went to all those years ago. It's amazing that for a city of our size, there is very little choice and I am sure that those of us old enough to remember the last time we were there will be generous enough to acknowledge the difficulty of finding the perfect venue and trust Jacks and the team to get it right for us."
There is also the issue of LBF's expansion. Some question whether, as a book fair, LBF really needs to expand, but instead, as Frankfurt has done, shift the emphasis to IP. One area deemed ripe for development is games, where there are obvious synergies for children's publishers in particular. For those whose bread and butter is fiction and general non-fiction, such an incursion appears a distraction from the business at hand. "We have a three-day long fair with back to back meetings," Fisher pointed out. "If UK agents are focused on selling rights, they're not going to be talking to games people. I'm really not sure of the economic potential." She added that the refurbished and expanded Olympia was now "absolutely beautiful, all natural light."
If LBF does relocate, Fisher said she feared the Fair would begin a long, slow decline, likening it to BEA, condemned now to occupy the soulless, utilitarian Javits Center in a Manhattan no-man's-land. "People love coming to London, a great city with fabulous food. Because of that they have embraced the Fair, but you could do the same business in another way. It won't die overnight, but LBF will die. A slow, gradual death."
Roche assured that "there will be no forcing. Reed is being very transparent. They've started the consultation and extended it and it has further still to go." Asked if Reed itself was being offered sweeteners to move to ExCel, or if any wider cooperation with Abu Dhabi was on the cards (Frankfurt, once so involved in the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, appears, to have pulled out, or at least drastically reduced its engagement), he said he was not aware of anything. "To my knowledge there's absolutely no incentive or skullduggery or any hint that there's something in it for Reed. Everything is being aired, the emotional voices are being heard. That's the purpose of the consultation."
The London Book Fair issued the following statement:
As yet, there is still no closure date for Earls Court. However, due to the ongoing uncertainty regarding this, the London Book Fair is liaising with a number of stakeholders regarding future venue options. In the first instance, the LBF Advisory Board members have visited the two venues London has to offer - Olympia and Excel.
These visits, part of a variety of activities around the venue change, have been on the Advisory Board’s agenda for some time and have taken place post-LBF 2013 to fit with numerous schedules. They are part of a programme of visits being arranged for LBF’s sector specific Advisory Boards, steering committees, other stakeholders and industry association colleagues. No decision has yet been made.
The London Book Fair 2014 will take place in Earls Court from Tuesday 8-Thursday 10 April.
A longer version of this story originally appeared in the London-based trade publication, BookBrunch.com.