Behind the scenes

Book fairs are an increasingly interesting phenomenon: a decade ago they looked to be out of fashion and out of time. What price a physical table or stand in a far-flung hall, when so much business could be done cheaply and more efficiently by telephone, Skype or email? Yet over the weekend much of the UK’s children’s publishing sector will decamp to Bologna for the annual romp among the colonnades, while a week later Olympia opens its doors for a second time (in this era) as the home of the London Book Fair, and in May Chicago provides the backdrop for BookExpo America.

One might argue that book fairs have become as immune from the disruptive impact of digitisation as physical books: they have stood their ground, morphed where appropriate and emerged if anything more useful than they once were - if a little drier. They also better reflect the book business, with London and Frankfurt managing particularly well to provide opportunities for authors (independent and traditional) to mix with professional publishers. That London this year opens with the International Publishers Congress is also important: establishing the fair at the centre of an increasingly globalised industry at a moment when boundaries are falling, but older customs remain not just important but also important to understand.

In the UK, publishing is as confident today as I have known it for years - with the TCM up a crazy 11.4% year on year in the first quarter of 2016. After last year’s success with titles such as The Girl on the Train, Animal Kingdom and the How it Works series, publishers are showing their prowess at making bestsellers again, with Joe Wicks’ phenomenal Lean in 15, Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and Lisa Hilton’s Maestra this year’s hotshots. This summer will see David Walliams and James Patterson’s BookShots (£2.49 short reads) as examples of authors and their publishers actively rethinking the rules.

In The Bookseller’s interview with new Publishers Association c.e.o. Stephen Lotinga, the new broom says the publishing industry doesn’t get the credit it deserves. I wonder about that. Publishing’s big problem has never been its ability to deliver the goods, but in convincing the outside world of the role it played in doing so - few publishers are remembered as well as their authors. Bestsellers are dismissed as luck, failures as endemic.

Book fairs are about seeding the market for tomorrow, but where they also now add value is putting the industry on display. Years ago my sense was that some came to fairs such as LBF to peer at the relics from a bygone era. Now they come for a piece of the action.