Review of the London Book Fair

One afternoon during last week’s London Book Fair (LBF) at Earl’s Court I attended a couple of seminars. While waiting between seminars,  I stood in a foyer outside the room in which one of the seminars had just been held.  Behind me was a suite of seminar rooms. In front of me was a window, through which I could look down on the main part of the fair – the trading floor, as it were.

This, it seems to me, provided a good position from which to assess the fair. There are two components to LBF: there is (1) the business on the trading floor and (2) the commentary on the industry. How is each component faring? And what is the relationship between the two?

So far as the trading floor is concerned, business looked pretty good. There were plenty of people coming and going. There was a buzz about the place. As I stood watching them through the window, people looked for the most part purposeful, going about their business confidently – energetically, even.

This impression has been confirmed by reports from major publishers of a successful fair – see, for example, the article entitled ‘London Book Fair: “Back with a vengeance”‘ in The Bookseller.

What of the second component – the commentary on the industry? Each year the fair seeks to present itself as more than just a fair – as, if you like, a festival. There are lectures, readings, seminars, articles in the press – all in all, plenty of opportunity to chew the cud, announce, pronounce, or prophesy.

It is difficult to judge, but my impression is that the seminar programme improves each year. There’s still room for further improvement though. In particular, the organisers should do more to ensure that sessions are properly chaired. In one session I attended, for example, the final speaker was by far the best – lucid, well-informed, provocative – yet because of poor-timing on the part of the chair, his talk was severely curtailed.

Overall the commentary function of the fair (or festival) seems to me rather unsatisfactory. There’s a natural tendency to seek to take stock and also to proclaim the news. The problem is that the time scales are wrong. The fair occurs annually – and in truth not that much changes in a year. I do feel a sense of ennui when faced with countless sessions promising, for example, to reveal ‘new business models’. (How many business models are there, actually? And of those, how many are new?)

The point is not that there is nothing new under the sun. It is rather that what is new this year (for example, that e-books are gaining an increasing share of the market) tends to be what was new last year too – and what is likely to be new next year.  (And it isn’t as if one really needs an annual event to announce that the e-book has arrived: I think everyone had got wind of that.)

I was struck by the symbolism of my vantage point: the two functions – trade and commentary – were happening simultaneously, but on different levels. They were visible to each other through that window but also cut off from each other by it, as if the two don’t articulate well with each other.

This is in part because the two levels are marketed to distinct constituencies. The events are attended by members of the industry, obviously, but overall they attract a more diverse audience, including readers, wannabe writers, students, and so on, each taking advantage of the low admission price (At £25 for pre-registering, LBF offers good value).

But there is a second divide, which is one of sentiment. The commentary seems always drawn towards the threats to the industry – library and bookshop closures, rampant piracy, and so on. APOCALYPSE SOON. Yet the people down on the trading floor looked pretty busy and confident to me. That article in The Bookseller that I cited above is characterised by words such as ‘positive’ (‘stupendous’, even!).

There is clearly a mismatch here. I did read an article by Alessandro Gallenzi of Alma Books declaring a general sense of optimism, but in general it is as if  two different industries are co-habiting. Do publishers undergo some sort of Jekyll and Hyde transformation as they climb the stairs from the floor to the seminar rooms?

Overall, I find LBF more convincing as a fair than as a festival. The article from The Bookseller carries the following quotation from Simon Littlewood of Random House: “I sensed there has been a collective will to make it a real success after the devastation of last year and there has been a buzz and vitality about it because of that”. Well, I don’t question the veracity: if Mr Littlewood sensed it, he sensed it, full stop. But how true is this? People in the book trade don’t make appointments with each other to express a ‘collective will’: they do so to do business with each other. Wasn’t the buzz and vitality because of that – that there was plenty of business to be done?

Ultimately LBF is founded not on collective will, but on bilateral deals. In other words, it remains a fair rather than a festival.

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2 Responses to “Review of the London Book Fair”

  1. […] found the fair an extraordinarily exciting event. In my review (16 April) of this year’s London Book Fair (LBF), I argued that the twin conceptions of that […]

  2. […] review of the 2011 London Book Fair (LBF) focused on the mismatch between the Jeremiah-ish Lamentations of the fair’s seminar […]

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