Just five years ago, the London Book Fair was abuzz with predictions about publishing’s digital future: print was in decline, and e-books were the next big thing. Those trends have now flipped as print sales remain solid and e-book sales dip. But another digital format grabbed the headlines at a low-key but busy 2018 London Book Fair: the audiobook, which has seen explosive sales growth over the past few years.
Though there were no blockbuster rights acquisitions, publishers and agents at this year’s fair, which concluded April 12, reported high-quality submissions and brisk rights dealing. “I think it has been a good fair, with the right people here for rights and international deals,” said Faber CEO Stephen Page, who pointed to especially strong submissions in nonfiction, driven by “new and challenging ideas in gender issues, technology, politics, and the state of the world.” Curtis Brown agent Gordon Wise said the fair was “good” and “buzzy” and agreed that the quality of submissions was strong.
Josh Getzler, an agent at Hannigan Salky Getzler, said he thought the show was “active and energetic,” especially on the deal-making front. In particular, Getzler thought there was a hunger for near-future science fiction and “a lack of energy for anything historical not dealing with World War II.” He also added that he felt mysteries seemed to be “having a rough time” as “everyone is awaiting the bubble to burst on Gone Girl-y domestic suspense.”
HarperCollins used the fair to announce the newest signing in its global publishing program. The company acquired world rights to six novels by Daniel Silva, the first author to take part in the HC effort. The first novel in the new deal, The Other Woman, will be released in July. Since Silva became part of the global program, HC has published seven of his novels in 24 countries and 15 languages. Sales of the seven novels stand at 5.5 million copies worldwide.
“People are in acquisition mode,” said Canongate’s Jamie Byng. “There is a lot of interesting and successful publishing going on around the world, and book fairs are a great way to remind you of all the good things that are going on.”
The lack of negative headlines was rather welcome at this year’s fair. There were no simmering battles with Amazon, for example, and though political uncertainty still looms with Brexit in the U.K. and the chaos coming out of the Trump White House in the U.S., publishers have kept stiff upper lips, supported by a stable global book market.
At a packed session on Wednesday, April 11, Steve Bohme, director, Nielsen Book Research U.K., described the past five years as “a mixture of going up hill and down dale” for publishers, with print sales in the U.K. dropping from 2012 to 2014 as e-books gained share, and then print rising from 2015 to 2017 as e-book sales declined. And Bohme noted that though print sales in the U.K. were down slightly last year in volume from a strong Harry Potter–fueled 2016, overall consumer spending on print has kept pace. “Print has seen a real resurgence,” he told fairgoers. But it was audiobooks, he added, that hit a milestone in 2017, accounting for as much 5% of consumer book spending in the U.K.
“Audiobooks are the golden child of publishing at the moment,” said Orna O’Brien, conference manager of Quantum, the digital conference on Monday, April 9, that preceded the opening of the London Book Fair.
That sentiment that was shared by Hachette U.K. CEO David Shelley. “Audio is not a blip,” Shelley told Quantum attendees, predicting that audiobooks “could be one of the biggest parts of our business.”
Michele Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association in the U.S., offered the American perspective, saying at the Quantum afternoon session that the APA estimated that U.S. audiobook sales in 2016 totaled more than $2.1 billion. And the latest APA survey suggests that there is still room to grow: some 24% of Americans, or more than 67 million people, reported listening to at least one audiobook in the past year, a healthy 22% increase over 2015. Though APA figures for 2017 have not yet been released, the Association of American Publishers’ StatShot survey of 1,212 publishers showed sales of digital audio up almost 30% in the first 11 months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016.
In remarks before the fair, LBF director Jacks Thomas said the data suggests that audio sales “are not eating into print or e-book share” but are bringing new consumers into the book market. “The rise in podcasts and the ease of listening on digital devices may have turned on a new generation to the joys of having a book on the go,” she added.
In recent years, the fair has examined the state of free speech. This year that task went to the International Publishers Association, which held a “Censor, Advocate, or Disruptor?” seminar on April 10. Mark Stephens, a human rights lawyer, said that when it comes to censorship around the world, publishers and freedom-of-speech advocates “have a nest of trip wires we have to navigate.” He offered an overview of several trouble spots around the world, noting that the big question is whether to “engage in dialogue with a country that engages in censorship or to leave it alone.”
Several seminar sessions referenced Turkey, where press freedom has been in significant decline since the political crackdown following the attempted coup in 2016. Maureen Freely, president of English PEN and translator of Orhan Pamuk, noted during one session that a crackdown on intellectuals and the media has put a significant amount of people out of work. “The people who have been dismissed from their jobs had their passports confiscated and can no longer find work,” she said, adding that 140 media organizations have been shut down, as have 30 publishers and 18 magazines; there are 80 writers in prison, and most are charged with being members of terrorist organizations.
Kristenn Einarsson, CEO of the Norwegian Publishers Association and chair of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish committee, pointed out that there are other countries in Europe where there are threats to free speech. “The governments of Poland and Hungary are becoming increasingly problematic,” he said.
Though the London Book Fair doesn’t report its attendance until after a final audit, an organizer told PW that pre-registrations for this year’s fair were up and that feedback from across the fair was positive, with “people reporting very busy stands and events.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect comments made by Josh Getzler, who said publishers were interested in books related to World War II, not the reverse.