As fox-hunting songs rang from the gallery of the Olympia Exhibition Center, and tuxedoed waiters wheeled about holding silver serving trays piled with copies of P.G. Wodehouse novels, a large crowd of Penguin authors and employees gathered to mark the launch of a new series of pocket-size Wodehouse paperbacks and to celebrate Penguin's recent victory as winner of the British Book Award for publisher of the year. It was the last night of the London Book Fair, and the party seemed a fitting conclusion. An upstart among book fairs, born 29 years ago, it has rapidly become one of the largest and flashiest book trade events of the year.

The secret to London's success rests in part on its timing. Coming six months after Frankfurt, London is shrewdly positioned as one of two poles around which European publishers organize their international sales, promotions and rights business. At less than 30,000 square meters, however, it is far more compact and easily traversible than Frankfurt, lending it a much more congenial atmosphere. Talking to the American players who surfaced at the fair -- among them FSG's Roger Straus, Penguin Putnam's Phyllis Grann and HarperCollins's Jane Friedman -- one is left with the impression that the publishing industry is, like Wodehouse's England, a genteel, chummy affair. "There's a great sense of community," said Friedman, who was visiting the London fair for the first time. "I've been spending a lot of time talking to my friendly competitors. We're all talking about the health of the industry."

Although an early BEA has forced some publishers to choose between the events, the London fair, held March 28-30, continues to grow. This year, for the first time, there was a waiting list for exhibition space. Some 13,000 visitors attended the fair and close to 1500 companies were represented, 25% from outside the U.K. By crunching attendance numbers from recent years, the organizers have targeted their marketing efforts to a wide range of publishers, booksellers, printing services and, increasingly, to manufacturers of what fair director Michael Alsopp calls "nonbook product," such as toys.

Though balancing the fair's different constituencies has proven a complex task, the event's organizers have taken pains to meet their various needs. "The international publishing business is extremely volatile and the fair seeks to mirror that," said Alsopp. To that end, Alsopp and his staff have taken the fair in new directions, opening up more exhibition space for book accessories; creating a large Web site to help visitors navigate the three-day event; presenting back-to-back seminars on topics ranging from territorial rights to independent and electronic bookselling; and co-sponsoring, with Ottaker's, a British chain, and the Word, a new London literary festival, a "signathon" featuring dozens of writers.

The fair's evolving identity has been steadily influenced by the fact that the rights trade and export sales have come to eclipse the domestic bookselling business that once was its raison d'etre. European booksellers were in high attendance and remained the target of publishers' efforts on the floor. All the same, "More and more of our marketing dollars are spent in getting books into promotions at chain bookstores," said Little, Brown UK group marketing director Terry Jackson, gesturing toward the posters advertising forthcoming books that decorated his kiosk."Chain buyers may not have made their minds up about certain titles and this may sway them."

While U.K. booksellers remained jittery about their uncertain future, as cybershops and American companies continue to gain ground, there was little of the acrimony that has dominated bookseller conventions on this side of the Atlantic. Ingram president and CEO Martin Keeley noted that bookseller business at his stand has been brisk, and the subject of Ingram's merger with Barnes &Noble had scarcely come up. "There's been very little chatter about the acquisition. Everyone is very aware of it; the community is tight. But we've not heard anything negative about it."

Amazon U.K., which kept a low profile at last year's fair, took part in bookselling seminars and is currently advertising its wares on the Tube in London. Indeed, evidence of the fast-growing business of electronic bookselling was everywhere. Ottaker's announced the launch of an online division, while already existing Internet ventures like Bertelsmann On-line, PubEasy -- an ordering and inquiry service -- and Ingram's I-page attracted keen interest. "Publishing, which had been thought of as a pocketwatch industry," Jane Friedman declared, "is entering a new era."

A Hothouse Rights Market

The impact of electronic media could also be felt in the rights center, where rights agents, some armed with proposals they'd received in the form of e-mail attachments, met with foreign publishers in a cordoned-off area above the din of the convention floor -- an arrangement almost everyone compared favorably with Frankfurt. Given the sheer size of Frankfurt, said Grove/Atlantic foreign rights director Elizabeth Schmitz, "if you end up with a 10-minute meeting, you're lucky. Here it's really doable."

Although the myth of the big book -- a rocket from nowhere that captivates the fair, be it Dr. Zhivago or The Prince of Tides -- more or less still persists, it's become increasingly difficult to discern through the hype which of the books that gave off sparks in London will actually catch fire. Alsopp sees that hype as largely irrelevant. "There is a heritage to the fair that it's a workmanlike business event," he said. "We haven't majored in the big splash."

That hasn't stopped agents from scrambling to make their books the talk of the fair by seeking a high-profile deal a few days before it begins, then using that deal as a springboard to draw in foreign publishers. In the week leading up to the fair, said Transworld publisher Patrick Janson-Smith, "every agent in town wanted answers within five minutes."

Perhaps the chief beneficiary of that strategy was Sunday Times reporter Paul Eddy, who e-mailed his agent Ed Victor five chapters from an unfinished thriller called Flint earlier this spring. The last week of March, Victor sold the book to Phyllis Grann as part of a two-book deal rumored to be worth $1 million, which set off a frenzy as British and European publishers fought to get a look at the manuscript.

"I don't see any difference in selling a hot book in Frankfurt 10 years ago," Victor commented. "The principle is exactly the same. The book fair is a hothouse. In a hothouse, everything grows fast."

But that speed has accelerated recently, as electronic communications and rapid media coverage have conspired to drive book hype into the stratosphere. Four days after Daily Variety reported that Pocket's Emily Heckman paid six figures for an "Italian Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," agent Paul Marsh was fielding German and Dutch offers on the strength of a 50-page outline that came to him via e-mail from the author's American agent. As Curtis Brown's Diana Mackay put it, "As soon as the frisson of excitement breaks and word gets around, you've got to take advantage."

Bridget Jones's Offspring

Mackay should know. Her colleague Johnny Geller brokered another much-bruited deal of the fair, selling a first novel, Getting Over It by 29-year-old magazine editor Anna Maxted, to Arrow Books for £250,000 on the basis of a 40-page excerpt. It was one of several books compared reverentially to Bridget Jones's Diary, which, with Trainspotting, is perhaps the best example of a book that succeeded on both sides of the pond. "Bridget Jones started a trend," said Mackay. "This kind of British fiction, depicting a 1990s career woman's life, seems to work everywhere."

Whether Anglo-American publishing relations have grown cozier is difficult to say, however. Sophie Brewer, the rights director at Penguin, said of Ralph's Party by Lisa Jewel, another hip, new British writer, which was sold to Claire Ferraro at Dutton, "It's not a culture thing, it's a generation thing. If you're reading about a group of friends living in a flat it d sn't matter if they're in New York or London."

Or d s it? Transworld's Janson-Smith was one of a number of publishers to say that British and American tastes are more divergent than ever. "Bridget Jones is a one-off," he said. "It's an accident. Certain books travel the world. Then there are the rest."

Those books that transcend national boundaries were the focus of hectic sales activity on the floor of the fair. At the Simon &Schuster booth, international sales director Cyrus Kheradi and his colleagues resembled air traffic controllers, their schedules jammed with appointments with international publishers and booksellers buying for the open market, including an increasing number from Poland, Hungary and other East European countries.

"There's a new level of exuberance in the market," said Kheradi. Among the big names on his list were Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King, and he was quick to admit, "It's easy to sell when you have world-wide brand names. But people are buying at levels that are encouraging."

Serendipity on the Floor

The size and variety of booths ranged from DK's 182-square-meter spread to Norton's seven-and-a-half-meter cubby hole, to what was unquestionably the most striking stand on the floor, which belonged to Stichting Frankfurter Buchmesse '93, an organization promoting Dutch and Flemish literature. Designed by two young Dutch architects, it resembled a giant Technicolor arc, with book stands sprouting from its exterior and a sleek silver reading room. According to Bas Pauw of the Dutch Literature Foundation, who runs SFB, "We had to stand out here. We're selling something quite abstract. We're not trading in rights. We're not selling, we're just promoting."

A few feet away was the American collective stand, which also served as an ambassador for publishers making their first forays into London. Sitting with a journalist in a "survival room" stocked with coffee and other amenities, Combined Book Exhibit president John Malinowski said his objective was to "provide a full turnkey service for all publishers who come with us. We provide the stand, the furniture, the electricity, the badges, the shipping, the phones and fax. All they have to worry about is getting on the plane."

Malinowski was making his first trip to the London fair and, like many Americans there for the first time, he was sold on it. He plans to double his exhibition space next year, when he'll be joined by Ingram.

What gives the London Book Fair its character is that despite the minutely planned business meetings that preoccupy the more prominent agents and publishers, there remains an element of serendipity. "Things happen by fate," said Jamie Byng, publisher of the innovative Edinburgh house Canongate, which made waves last year with its series of books from the Bible with new introductions by contemporary writers. "You meet editors and publishing houses you've never heard of," he said. "I'll be surprised if by the end of May we haven't done 15 new deals."

London is still an intimate enough fair that its ever-widening cast of visitors are still likely to bump into each other unexpectedly and find time to schmooze -- whether they're flogging new projects or simply pondering the complexities of an industry that's reeling under the influence of the electronic age. "The great thing about conventions," said Janson-Smith, is the camaraderie that makes this business the joyful business it still is." As Bertie Wooster might say, "Right ho!"