For the past four years, publishers have headed to the London Book Fair amid a rather curious set of circumstances. As Faber & Faber CEO Stephen Page noted in his opening keynote at 2019’s Quantum preconference, the book business has been enjoying an extended period of stability. Yet at the same time, world events have been chaotic and worrisome, including Brexit, the Trump administration’s unpredictable actions, a frightening uptick in prejudice and nationalism, the proliferation of fake news and increasingly sophisticated disinformation campaigns on social media, and, in some corners of the globe, outright crackdowns on free speech.
As publishers prepare for the 2020 London Book Fair, set for Tuesday to Thursday, March 10–12, at Olympia London, business remains stable. In the U.K., 2019 was another solid year for publishers, with revenues for British publishers up 2.4% in 2019 over 2018, according to Nielsen BookScan—a fifth consecutive year of revenue growth. In the U.S. market, however, NPD BookScan reports that after six straight years of gains, unit sales of print books declined in 2019 compared to the previous year.
Globally, digital audio remains a bright spot for a mature publishing industry that has been searching for a path to real, organic growth. The most recent figures in the U.S. showed a 24% jump in audio sales last year over 2018, the eighth straight year of double-digit growth, with audio revenues poised to top $1 billion in 2020.
But for publishers, forecasting the future isn’t getting any easier. The growth of digital audio, for example, comes with new challenges—mainly, evolving business models and changing consumer expectations in a market where Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify are the new standards. Case in point: in Sweden, companies like Storytel are aggressively marketing their digital subscription services for audio and e-books. In a report released last month, the Swedish publishers and booksellers association revealed that revenue from digital subscription services jumped 36.2% in 2019 over 2018, which was enough to overcome declines at bookstores and supermarkets but which furthered concerns that so-called all-you-can-eat subscriptions will cannibalize publishers’ traditional book sales.
Meanwhile, the political chaos show no signs of easing. Post-impeachment, and in an election year, the Trump administration continues to undermine Americans’ confidence in the free press. And future trade agreements and tariffs remain uncertain for publishers. In the U.K., Brexit has finally come—though no one is yet clear about what this means. In Europe, changes approved last year to E.U. copyright law remain a thorny subject, with the battleground now shifting to member nations’ own legislatures. Across the world, a growing open access movement continues to transform scientific publishing. And, in 2020, you can add a new wild card to the list: a coronavirus pandemic is snarling international travel and potentially infecting the global economy.
But as the famous poster advises, London Book Fair organizers are keeping calm and carrying on. And for all the uncertainty in the world, the 2020 London Book Fair program is certainly a good one. Among this year’s changes, the Quantum preconference has been replaced by a series of branded Quantum talks to be held throughout the fair. Also new this year is the fair’s inaugural Audio Summit (Tuesday, 9:45 a.m.–1:45 p.m.), which will take place in a new dedicated Audio HQ area at Olympia. And the fair’s professional program will feature a full slate of talks and panels on key issues, including rights and translations, copyright, the freedom to publish, open access and scholarly publishing, and self-publishing.
Also added to the program is a Global 50 CEO Talk featuring a timely participant: Storytel CEO Jonas Tellander, who will discuss how digital subscriptions are influencing the global book market (Tuesday, 2:30–3:30 p.m., Olympia Room Grand Hall).
For more, consult the full 2020 London Book Fair program online. And read on for PW’s annual roundup of some of the big properties U.S. agents will be selling at the fair.
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