The London Book Fair is proving a test of will for many of the agents and scouts who see the show as central to their business. Most still plan on traveling to the fair, even as the thought nags that the show may be a very different place—or that they may not be able to go at all.
Debates across the industry—from the most independent agent to the largest houses—have centered on what the attitude should be about traveling to the convention. In December, before the talk of war grew to a fever pitch, American stands were expected to constitute 25% of the space at the LBF rights center, a significant increase over three years ago. Nearly two dozen American companies are first-timers in the center. But the increased threat of terrorism and the high probability of a war in Iraq have forced many to deliberate. London starts on March 16, a date that seems increasingly likely to be overshadowed by military action.
Meanwhile, fair organizers said concerns about foreign affairs have not dampened enthusiasm for the show. "Whatever happens, people have invested a lot of time in the London Book Fair and they want to carry on," said director Alistair Burtenshaw. "People are coming to the show because they realize it's one of the key fairs of the year." Burtenshaw said it's "full-steam ahead" for a show that has seen 35% increase in general preregistration and an exhibitor space increase of 7%. Tables in the rights centers have climbed to almost 400, a significant percentage increase since last year, he noted.
HarperCollins, which discussed the matter internally, is moving forward, with an executive meeting and a party for Larry Ashmead still on schedule. But HC CEO Jane Friedman said that while HC plans to attend now, they will be "realistic" as world events unfold. And many imagine that if war does come, London will become a show with less business and more nervous chatter. "It will be like Frankfurt after September 11. No one will want to talk about books," said scout Linda Michaels, who said that titles she represents, like Madeleine Albright's memoir, actually become more salable in today's solemn atmosphere.
A small political house like the New Press sees opportunity in the dark clouds, too. "We will definitely be cashing in on the antiwar sentiment," quipped the press's Colin Robinson. Robinson is throwing a party for Lewis Lapham's Theater of War, for which he is selling foreign rights. And international travel, ironically, can bring some relief. "New York just feels so oppressive," said scout Maryann Thompson. "I can't wait to get on a plane."