In his opening keynote at the London Book Fair’s 2018 Quantum conference, Tom Goodwin, head of innovation for Zenith Media, described a publishing industry slogging through what he called the mid-digital age. “We live in this amazing age where incredible things are possible, but routinely people are quite disappointed,” he observed. “It always appears that when new technology arrives, we think about how we’ve done things before and sprinkle a little bit of technology around the edges.” He urged publishers to get “much better at looking ahead, not behind.”
But as trade publishers prepare for the 2019 London Book Fair, set for March 12–14 at Olympia London, they’re feeling pretty good about their old technology: for a fourth straight year, print sales are increasing. According to NPD BookScan, print sales in the U.S. topped 695 million units in 2018, up 1.3% from the year before. In the U.K., print was up just over 2.1%, on sales of roughly 190 million units. And, despite slowing growth for traditional publishers’ e-books in the U.K. and another year of e-book declines in the U.S., audio continues to fuel publishers’ digital businesses. The rise of digital audio was a major focus at last year’s London Book Fair, and it will feature prominently again in 2019, as the format’s double-digit annual growth shows no signs of stopping.
“I think this year will be another year of real growth for audio,” says Amanda D’Acierno, president and publisher of the Penguin Random House Audio Group, citing ever-improving technology (including smart speakers and virtual assistants such as Alexa and Google Assistant) and tantalizing data showing that more than half of today’s audio consumers are ages 18–44, a prized demographic. “They are downloading titles from Google Play, from Audible, from Apple Books, and they are using OverDrive’s Libby app to borrow from their libraries. The more people I meet, the more combinations of audio apps I see.”
Of course, 2019 also holds its share of challenges for publishers. The Trump administration continues to sow chaos in the U.S., including attacks on the free press and a trade policy centered on tariffs, while turmoil related to Brexit has British publishers on edge. In Europe, an insurgent new open access movement threatens to roil scientific publishers, and a major copyright revision may spark a tough political battle ahead of this spring’s E.U. elections.
But despite political uncertainty around the globe, the publishing industry has kept remarkably calm and carried on. At the close of the 2017 London Book Fair, Pan Macmillan managing director Anthony Forbes Watson said publishers were “feeding off the chaos in the world outside rather than being depressed by it.” That certainly appears to be holding true in 2019.
This year, the London Book Fair will once again unofficially kick off with Quantum, a digital-themed preconference offering an insightful, data-driven program on a range of topics relating to the book business. The fair’s professional program will again feature a full slate of talks and panels on the key issues, including rights and translations; copyright; the freedom to publish; open access and scholarly publishing; new opportunities for authors, including in the self-publishing arena; and political challenges. And, of course, agents and publishers will be on hand in the International Rights Center, where rights dealing is expected to be brisk.
For more, consult the full 2019 London Book Fair program online. And check out PW’s roundup for a glimpse at some of the big properties U.S. agents will be selling at the fair.