Skip to Content

London Book Fair 'buzzy'

14 April 2014

Last week was dominated by the London Book Fair and it's good to be able to report a very buzzy fair, with confidence returning and a mass of business being done.

LBF is a rights fair and has increasingly come to be the major book fair of the spring, balancing the Frankfurt Book FairWorld's largest trade fair for books; held annually mid-October at Frankfurt Trade Fair, Germany; First three days exclusively for trade visitors; general public can attend last two. in the autumn. The American BookExpo is much larger but is essentially focused on the huge US domestic market. London is easy to get to for publishers from many European countries but also increasingly a magnet for publishers from much further afield, such as Japan, China, Brazil and (this year's LBF Focus) Korea.

This year's Fair was much busier than last year and saw the return of American publishers in much greater numbers. During the years of recession publishers have been drawing in their horns and cutting their lists, but now there is a new mood of optimism. As mentioned recently, this is partly because big publishing has got to grips with digital and now thinks that it knows how to make money out of ebooks. The mood is one of having successfully overcome huge challenges to the traditional publishers' world and now having a stronger idea of how to move forward.

Whether this optimism is misplaced, only time will tell, but plenty of commentators think Amazon's plans to become the dominant international online retailer (getting into fresh food must be making the supermarkets feel nervous) are going to lead to even greater dominance of the book world which it successfully used as its testing-ground. Booksellers are an endangered species and with British indie bookshops sinking to below 1,000 stores nationwide, it's a sad moment for those who support them.

The great question of the moment is still big versus small and the LBF's traditional Great Debate this year was on the motion ‘It's all about size: bigger is always better'. Mike Shatzkin of The Idealogical Company said that digitisation hadn't changed the reliance of small publishers on larger ones. Successful self-publishers could not have done what they have without Amazon - size and scale are essential to success in the book business. Taste is at the heart of publishing. In the old world it was all about distribution - writers couldn't get into that. ‘The internet is the universe... publishing houses have to negotiate that universe.'

Ken Brooks of McGraw-Hill Education argued quite plausibly that big is a by-product of sustained success - big publishers started off as small ones but grew successfully. Scott Waxman of Diversion Books argued that the big battalions are less flexible: ‘Bigger is always slower.' Stephen Page of Faber argued that ‘We are in a writers and readers' world now and publishers need to give them what they really want.

Although the arguments for the motion were actually quite strong, it was interesting to see that the motion was defeated. In spite of all the changes and the growth of big publishing, many people involved in it still have a visceral feeling about it. This passion for books and preference for the independent rather than the corporate still survives in publishing, which is why it's the attractive people business it often still is. And that's why the motion was defeated.