The book industry's big show and tell


The London Book Fair is a mammoth annual event, and while major deals are done – this year’s round included a seven- figure contract – publishers often treat it as a showcase for what is on their books, writes SINEAD GLEESON

LONDON BOOK FAIR, Earl’s Court Tube station: Tuesday morning. Helpfully, I have approached the wrong exit for where I’m headed, when I spot a policeman. I enquire where Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre is and he replies, in singsong cockney, “Ana-ver one. You off to the book thing?” He points in the right direction and, when the train station canopy is not in the way, it’s hard to miss the building.

Imposing and hangar-like, inside “the book thing” – London’s Book Fair – is in full swing. Now in its 41st year, the LBF has become one of the world’s most influential book fairs. Second only to the behemoth that is Frankfurt, London’s version gathers publishers and editors looking to buy international rights. The venue is huge, and abuzz with meetings and chatter.

More than 1,500 organisations are represented, from publishers and agents, to companies who specialise in graphic design, digital publishing and, quaintly, bookmarks. Even the smallest stands have chairs and tables, due to the huge number of meetings that take place here. The “Big Six” publishers (Simon Schuster, Hachette, Random House, Penguin, Macmillan and Harper Collins) are situated in the centre of the hall, boasting vast stands, which resemble sizeable coffee shops. Hachette’s stand has a balcony with more tables, accessed by a glass spiral staircase. One publisher tells me that a Hachette contact delights in the view “because we can look down and see who Harper Collins are meeting with”.

“I prefer London to Frankfurt because everyone is in one place,” says John Freeman, editor at Granta. “This is a ‘right’s fair’, so everyone comes here either to find something, or offer something. It’s also nice that in a world where we communicate virtually in an ever-present time zone, that it makes a huge difference to see people face to face.”

Trish Todd, vice-president and executive editor at Simon Schuster in the US, echoes those sentiments. She has been coming to the LBF for several years and for her, meeting people in person is crucial. “Publishing is all about communication and relationships. It’s very important to actually sit down and have a proper discussion about what you’re both looking for. It’s also how you build a relationship with agents. By meeting in person, agents get to know what kind of books you’re looking for, and you come to trust their recommendations.”

Email, Skype and conference calls are poor substitutes for an actual conversation in person. What becomes very clear at the fair is that the possibility of chance encounters and serendipity play a big role. If you’re not in the room, you might just miss a big opportunity. Conversely, the ease with which we can stay in touch globally means deals are often done in advance of the fair and merely copperfastened in London.

Francesca Main is editorial director at Picador, and feels that rights deals don’t rely on book fairs as much as they once did. “The biggest books – at least, those in the English language – are usually sold in the run-up to the fair; so in the case of books from the UK or US, the fair is more important for announcing deals than striking them – and for building the buzz and generating subsequent deals in translation.”

Last year, more than 28,000 professionals attended, with the bulk from the UK, and Europe, followed by the US and southeast Asia. This year’s numbers are up, and there are representatives from as far away as Abu Dhabi, Poland, Russia and South America.

Ireland has a collective stand, which is home to publishers such as New Island, Mercier Press and O’Brien Press. The latter’s Ivan O’Brien first came to LBF 20 years ago when “it was a tiny event at the Barbican. It’s essential for us to be here, because Ireland is too small a market to survive in. The way for publishers to survive is to internationalise. When the recession arrived in Ireland, book sales took a dramatic hit, but it just so happened that we had our three best years for international-rights sales, and volume sales and it saw us through.”

As well as energetic wheeling and dealing, there are countless events. Young-adult bestseller Patrick Ness is here to talk about his work, and there is a diversity of seminars on digital publishing in Saudi Arabia, the importance of children’s non-fiction, emerging e-reader markets and young female writers in Russia. Under the vast umbrella of people connected with books – publishers, marketeers, editors – there are also people who work in film and television, keen to find the next adaptable project.

One such is Tom Leggett, who is UK based, but works for Ireland’s Element Pictures and has a close relationship with Film Four. “I’m here to meet literary agents to talk to them about properties they represent that may translate to film or television. It’s useful for me to build relationships with editors. They can give a strong sense of exciting new writers and what’s out there.”

Leggett admits it can be a lengthy process from optioning a book to seeing it on the screen, and says he reads a lot of great books, but some just won’t translate well into film or television projects. Has he found anything interesting so far at the fair?

“Yes, I’m really excited about a debut novel, which is a Great Gatsby-type story set at the end of the second World War. It’s by a writer who also happens to be the great granddaughter of Herman Melville, and Picador has picked it. I’m usually familiar with established writers, so we’re interested in those debut novelists, or lesser-known authors who might have written a sensational book.”

Jonathan Freeman is here to meet with publishers in countries where Granta’s literary magazine doesn’t have a translated edition. Yesterday, he agreed a deal to launch a Swedish version. “It can be hard to explain what each foreign edition of the magazine actually does, and it can take years to set up, but because of an event like the London Book Fair, it just takes one conversation.”

Out on the floor, rumours circulate of a seven-figure deal for a non-fiction book – it turns out to be true, with Crown publishing group thought to have paid more than $1m (€760,000) after winning an auction involving 10 publishers for Dataclysm by Christian Rudder, one of the founders of

These big deals make good newspaper splashes, but foreign rights are the lynchpin of the fair. They are especially crucial for the survival of smaller, independent publishers. O’Brien Press’s foreign-rights list is substantial – it has even sold 60,000 copies of Brendan O’Carroll’s The Mammy in Italian.

“We do a lot of translated work,” says Ivan O’Brien, “some of our books are in 20 territories, and Judi Curtin has just been published in Australia. I met with a Russian book importer who has been buying our books. Paul Howard’s Ross O’Carroll-Kelly sells solidly in Russia – but rugby has to be changed to soccer.”

There is a degree of organisation and planning involved in coming to the LBF as a publisher, but it’s important to leave room for the unexpected, says Jonathan Freeman. “The fun thing about publishing is that you’re constantly looking for something you don’t know exists, and there’s always the possibility that you’ll find it at something like this.”