After two years during which North Americans rights professionals have overwhelmingly stayed away from international rights fairs, many are making a return at this year’s London Book Fair. And though this is cause for celebration, the continued uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and the war in Ukraine has left some feeling a little unsettled.
The fair is offering 480 tables in the International Rights Center, and all are booked, according to the organizers. The IRC will be smaller than in previous years, when it offered nearly 700 tables—a consequence of renovations at the Olympia London exhibition center that necessitated moving the center to the ground floor, closer to exhibitors.
Though most people contacted by PW say they’re excited to once again be face-to-face with their international colleagues, questions about LBF linger. Putting aside the war in Ukraine—which all respondents say is devastating but is unlikely to affect the fair—many worry that a new development with the pandemic could cause them to change their plans to attend. Some also lament the fact that attendance by their European counterparts could be lower than usual.
“It has all been more tentative this year,” says Gail Hochman at Brandt & Hochman. She adds that although she is going, the buildup has not been as it was in the prepandemic years. “Usually, the minute we get back from Christmas we are bombarded by the scouts and publishers and coagents asking for meetings. This year, no such flurry.”
Hochman, like many agents interviewed, says she decided to attend the fair in February, and only because she knows she can still cancel and get a refund. But she remains optimistic. “I think the mood of the people who have decided to go is relatively positive about the fair itself,” she explains. “If we were not optimistic, we would cancel our plans and simply not go.”
Hannah Brattesani at the Friedrich Agency, who is based in New York, says she was planning a trip to her hometown in Scotland and would already be in London around the time of the fair, so the decision to attend was an easy one. Without a table in the rights center, she will be “squatting and having coffees.” She’s looking forward to attending a few parties, which, she notes, run the gamut from predinner cocktail hours to late jazz nights. “It’s the first in-person fair we’ve been to in years, and, like our first interactions after quarantine, we all have so much to catch up on.”
The Cheney Agency’s Beniamino Ambrosi says his decision to attend in person was made in early January and now the excitement is tempered. “Book fairs are, in many ways, what our professions are about,” he explains. “There has been a sense of measured excitement and anticipation, but it feels ill-advised to make predictions about the mood at the fair now, particularly in light of the recent events in Ukraine.”
At JABberwocky Literary Agency, subsidiary rights director Susan Velazquez Colmant says the agency noticed “substantial activity” at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, despite the low in-person turnout. When it saw the omicron infection rate numbers dropping, it wanted to be on the ground in London. For this year’s LBF, only the founder, Joshua Bilmes, is attending, but the agency is expecting a positive event. “It won’t be as lively as previous years,” Colmant predicts, but “it’s the first time many of us will be able to connect with our foreign partners in several years, and there is some joy in that.”
Szilvia Molnar, director of foreign rights at Sterling Lord Literistic, confirms that the agency’s table in the rights center had been rolled over from 2020. While she’s looking forward to seeing international colleagues after such a long pause, she is watching the situation in Ukraine and is particularly concerned about colleagues there and in Russia. “We have been able to adapt to canceled book fairs since the pandemic,” she says, “so should the book fair not end up happening, we will make sure to promote our authors’ translation rights in other ways.”
Melissa White, v-p and director of subsidiary rights at Folio Literary Management, says, “I made my plans in December, trying to be cautiously optimistic. In January I wasn’t really sure I or anyone else would be going, but in the last two to three weeks, I’ve heard from so many who are.” White adds that she thinks the mood will be “one of joy and excitement—the book business is flourishing, and it will be nice to get back to some sense of normalcy.”
Peter McGuigan, the founder of Ultra Literary, is even more emphatic, when asked what he expects: “Folks who are used to seeing each other three times a year seeing each other for the first time in two and a half years? I predict it will be awesome.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that Hannah Brattesani is based in Scotland. She is based in New York.