Day three of the London Book Fair was quieter than the previous two, as numerous attendees had already absconded from the conference, but no less buzzy for it. The overall feeling of the fair remained upbeat, with many already looking ahead to Frankfurt and hoping that the German fair in October will take place under even better circumstances—specifically, an end to the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
The war, it must be said, cast a pall over the fair for some. London is home to many Russian emigrants—the language is often heard on the street, particularly in Kensington, where the fair is held—and the local soccer club, Chelsea, is owned by Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch who is under sanctions, which some are concerned may bankrupt the team.
One topic of debate among those in the publishing community was whether or not a blanket ban on all Russian publishing was appropriate. Rūta Nanartavičiūtė, head of programs and projects for the Lithuanian Culture Institute, led the international call for fairs to stop working with Russian publishers, and she reminded PW that the London Book Fair took the longest of all the major book fairs to respond—and issued the weakest condemnation. Nanartavičiūtė felt that the ban was important, and saw part of her work at the fair to help explain the persistent threat Russia poses to other countries, such as those in the Baltics. "I have started and ended every conversation I have had at the fair with talk about Ukraine, and I hope I am helping people understand," she said.
Earlier this week, Ukrainian publishing website Chytomo published a list of 50 books serving as anti-Ukrainian propaganda that were published by Eksmo and other major Russian publishing houses. Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov, who attended the fair, told PW that an outright ban of working with Russian publishing and cultural institutions is the right decision, as least for the moment. "While one might favor a black and white list of publishers and authors to work with, it is an idealistic idea," Kurkov said. "Right now, it is impossible. And most of the Russian writers speaking out against the war are those who no longer live in Russia."
Kurkov said that it was publishers' responsibility to educate the world about the reality of Ukrainian history and its story. He recommended Timothy Snyder's book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic), and Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday), as good places for readers to start learning more of the history of the conflict between the two countries.
Social media and enlisting the youth of TikTok for more attention might also be a solution, Kurkov noted. To wit, Nielsen released data about book sales in the U.K. on Wednesday during the fair that underscored just how influential the social media platform was on publishing. A third of the bestselling titles in 2020 and 2021 were backlist titles, a trend powered by TikTokkers and influencers.
The data also showed there was a resurgence in print book sales in the U.K., with 213 million books sold in 2021, reaching a record high of £1.82bn. That resurgence is continuing this year so far, with 2022 volume sales in the country up 13% year-to-date on 2020. Like elsewhere in the world, manga saw a boost in popularity, with sales netting £19.2m in just 42 weeks in 2021—an increase of 111% on total manga sales through the whole of 2019.
One topic that seems to have receded from discussion this year was Brexit and its impact on publishing in the U.K. In May 2020, at the start of the pandemic, the U.K. reduced value-added tax (VAT) on e-books to 0%, to match that of print books. Though it had "no discernible impact on sales," said one publishers, it was nevertheless welcome.
On Wednesday, the E.U. made some strides toward following suit to reduce VAT on books, when the Economic and Financial Affairs Council agreed to give individual countries the ability to also reduce VAT on books and ebooks to 0% should they wish. The wording here is deliberate, as 0% doesn't mean that VAT was outlawed or eliminated, just that it won't be charged—giving governments the ability to levy VAT in the future on books and e-books should they decide to do so.