“God Bless David Bowie,” and Let’s Still Save Publishing: A First-Timer’s Adventures at the London Book Fair

"I'm afraid it's just for display"

WARNING: I’m going to make a series of statements that will smack of nervy newbie to the sales, marketing, and consulting professionals who’ve been attending the London Book Fair (LBF) for years, but this post isn’t for them. Well, it is, but read at your own peril.

Here goes: LBF is decidedly not a show that acknowledges the role of libraries in the publishing ecosystem or encourages their further involvement. It also has nothing to do with books in the sense that there are nil gratis galleys stacked in towers for easy grabbing by librarians, journalists, and other taste makers. Prepublication word of mouth does not rate as a goal as it always does at Book ExpoAmerica, a bizarre concept for a book review editor to digest. That publishers have desirable content is taken for granted‚ as is that you already own enough damn tote bags (the choice specimen at top was stapled to the wall of the booth, read: not for sale).

As a result, the cozy, quonset-like Earl’s Court contained the civilized hum and murmur of big-time rights, distribution, and media deals being made in a dozen languages. Mini elevated soccer field‚ sized booths demonstrating the continued growth of the Chinese book market literally tripped me, as did the presence of the United Arab Emirates‚ to which the United States and the UK export a helluva lot of books, I learned. The English equivalents of the American Big Six didn’t roll out their best-selling authors for signings, but they erected pantheon-like collapsable monuments to their images (J.K. Rowling at Hachette, in particular).

The action at the Hachette booth; a streaker wouldn't have been noticed (I considered)

Amazon, for its part, used London to shill its Kindle Direct Publishing program to what appears to be a fairly sizable author attendee base, though you can bet director of Amazon Publishing, Larry Kirshbaum, panned for best-seller gold. Start-up Small Demons and LJ partner NetGalley were hustling hard to ink new clientele and happy with the results.

The booth that made me think I'd walked into a Hong Kong mall

As Kuo-Yu Liang, VP of sales and marketing at Diamond Book Distributors put it during his lovely initiation spiel Tuesday morning, This is a place for serious business. Check, check, check.

As a library advocate and journalist, I didn’t feel exactly congruent with the fair, but I still wonder at the possibilities of libraries in the international book marketplace. Data presented at the Monday morning panel Global Publishing Markets: Mapping Data, Developments, and Patterns of the Publishing Industry Worldwide reinforced other reports I’ve read indicating that the largest book markets‚ namely in the United States and the UK‚ are mostly flat, yet production is up according to figures excluding self-publishing, perhaps because publishers are desperate to make something‚ anything‚ stick.

Chewing on those and other stats, keeping in mind that data and standards are sorely lacking, as presenter Rüdiger Wischenbart pointed out, I found it a bit absurd to be surrounded by so much commerce. Who are all these players selling to? How are they going to encourage coupling between books and readers? I was hoping the Monday afternoon panel Competition vs. Collaboration: Trade Digital Publishing Initiatives Inspired by Working with the Competition would address that question just a little. The main takeaway, however, played like a retread of what we’ve been talking about in New York for three, four years‚ that building communities may ensure future customers (IMHO, Facebook in and of itself does not equal outreach, especially for a best-selling author).

Accordingly, the panelists’ success stories involved some usual suspects, hardly the competition per the panel description‚ an app (Faber and Faber’s BAFTA-nominated Malcom Tucker: The Missing Phone, a book trailer (for Jacqueline Wilson’s Lily Alone, published by Random House), a vertical community (Drama Online, a subscription service created by Bloomsbury Publishing and Faber and Faber).

Dubbed a library website by the publishers, Drama Online captured my attention for the simple fact that it incorporated the input of librarians, whose profiles have been diminished in the wake of crushing closures in the UK but who possess keen insights into reader behaviors, just the element needed to patent more “stick” factor. Although Eela Devani, Bloomsbury Publishing’s digital business development director, did not get into the specifics of the pricing, I could only assume that librarians were also consulted about that as well and seem content with the results, at least on the London side of the pond (U.S. librarians can register for a trial).

Bloomsbury, of course, created Public Library Online, viewed by many as a forward-thinking, library-friendly ebook subscription service (dig Bloomsbury executive director Richard Charkin’s pro-library comments from 2009; I hope he’s held his ground).

Other groups I discovered that were ripe for library collaboration, though by no means prepared to take the step or even aware of their similarity in mission: the Discover Story Centre, a charity in Queens, NY‚ like Stratford, London, dedicated to encouraging literacy through oral and written programming, plus thematic, interactive installations. See their forthcoming, device-agnostic app from Winged Chariot. And the StoryBuilder app (Beta) by Little Robot, which allows users to manipulate the story lines of existing children’s books (at the Turin International Book Fair, they will do their first real demos with librarians, according to founder Hermes Pique).

In closing, the image of a lovely door on a Georgian terrace in Bloomsbury, just a stone’s throw from Virginia Woolf’s Tavistock Square. Call it the phantom tollbooth to the future of publishing, just don’t call me late to a dinner of toad in the hole.

(Special thanks to Broma Patel, digital sales manager of the London Book Fair, for her generosity and food pointers.)







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Heather McCormack About Heather McCormack

Heather McCormack (hmccormack@mediasourceinc.com, HuisceBeatha on Twitter) is Editor, Book Review for Library Journal.


  1. Kuo-Yu Liang says:

    Two other oddities, to continue the Bowie theme.
    One: there are no equivalent of national library conferences in UK/Ireland like ALA. Business and networking are conducted regionally.
    Two: London Book Fair has virtually nothing to do with the UK/Ireland book market. it’s mostly about exporting English-language books to the rest of the world.