As book fairs go, London '17 will rank as the one that fell before the fall. Betwixt the Brexit vote and the reality of the exit: a kind of phoney fair where everyone carried on as if nothing had happened, rightly focused on business as usual, despite the unusualness of the times.
As a venue, Olympia worked again. There were overseas visitors aplenty, rights trading was brisk (with deals for Jarvis Cocker and Swedish début In the Mire the picks) and the mood music was positive—if sombre, given the memorials for agents Carole Blake and David Miller that took place before the fair. But it lacked a big book, with publishers saying that the March date had meant fewer submissions (and less reading time). The Bookseller reported more than 60 rights deals over the three days—a figure no doubt dwarfed by deals agreed and still waiting for announcement.
In truth, the most signficant moves happened before the fair. Penguin Random House’s $60m capture of a book each from Barack and Michelle Obama, and its announcement of a worldwide co-ordinated publishing strategy, were signs of confidence in the market and the politicisation of publishing. It also signalled that it, like HarperCollins, is now thinking globally and across multiple languages, with the Obama books to be published by PRH (or Bertelsmann) companies in five different languages across 18 different territories (HC can publish in 17 languages in 18 countries). Such global publishing arrangements remain rare, of course, but the direction of travel is clear.
Hachette’s acquisition of Bookouture (a week before LBF) also looks pivotal. The e-book specialist’s 45% royalty will reopen a discussion about how best to reward authors; the purchase also shows how the bigger publishers will look again at the digital market. Despite all of the noise, new publishing, including self-publishing, has done little to change big publishing, but that does not mean the bigger publishers won’t change anyway. Amazon Publishing took a stand for the first time this LBF, while I heard from a few different publishers that e-book sales were rising again. It was also notable that Bonnier AB, through its Bonnier Book Ventures arm, launched self-publishing unit Type & Tell on the eve of the fair and soft-launched its audiobook streaming site BookBeat. Digital remains a change agent in publishing, even if it is no longer the dominant meme.
For now digital has been displaced by Brexit as the underlying current that will move us in different directions, with DK c.e.o. Ian Hudson’s speech on the implications for EU nationals of the exit a stand-out moment that presages the struggle ahead. That LBF is so international has become one of its biggest strengths, a timely affirmation that bringing us together still works.