London on the Ether - part 1

Oh, the sceptred squalor of Earls Court. I’m not throwing stones. Earls Court is to be matched in a few weeks by the heaving grace of our Javits Center in New York for BookExpo America.

At home or abroad, these trade shows are far from what readers must imagine when they hear so happy a phrase as “London Book Fair”.

But there you are, and here we are, and good God are we here, we are so very here, the gas just keeps expanding. Huddled at these little tables everywhere, we’re here, and how can we still have that WILD poster up? The hiking boot untied ‘round the world. Seems like that thing came out about four years ago. Only last year? Cheryl has Strayed too long on the trail.

And look up. It’s the glowing face of Hilary the Contest Killer at HarperCollins, looking very proud of herself—as well she might. She’s not far from the escalator to International Rights Heaven (awful lot of berets going up that thing, nobody coming down). Everyone’s agog at the RH mini-palace, you know, set off at a stately and discreet distance from the igloo village of Penguin.

Left to their own devices and asking each other about wi-fi, the People of Publishing are hunkered in every corner, even as I write. They’re having those cordial, capable, business-card-and-pamphlet exchanges that signify the comforts of the Old World. Stations of the cross. Hachette’s sign is glowing fondly, Frenchly, in the distance.
But look at the dailies! Here’s The Bookseller on Day One of the fair with Tim Godfray of the so-Booksellers Association proclaiming: “Amazon Can Destroy Book Trade.” Run for your life, industry! The industry(!) is teetering on the precipice of the Pizza Express just under the Amazon CreateSpace sign over on the northerly side of the compound . . . wait, are we lost again?

So what does a Legitimate Journalist (not a bloggerational aspirational, damn it) do to properly navigate the L, the B, and the F? One stalks Curtis Brown’s Jonny Geller, of course.

And man, can those agents move. I can’t tell you what running away from authors waving manuscripts does to one’s quads and hamstrings, but it’s Geller the Gazelle on the big trade floor, one literary blur on the hoof, tweeting vital, book-industry saving snippets as he goes:

I pick him up in EC1, the grand drag, as it were, and tail him on a trot toward EC2, where a large sector of the Turkish population is ensconced. He doesn’t bat an eye at Switzerland, pauses to ask a guard for guidance, then he’s off again. Another stop at the Foyles booth—Bookshop of the Future, you know - and those colours are looking more German by the day. And then he pulls up at the PEN Literary Café for William Boyd in conversation with the Times literary editor Erica Wagner.

I feel the need for some altitude, so I dash off (my training is in running from editors, not authors) and after 14 wrong turns jump onto the elevator to The Great Debate that our buddies at Bowker are sponsoring, because the proposition of the day is:

Amazon is a positive influence on today’s book industry

Who could miss hearing the Bezosian Beelzebub debated?

And did we know that Eric Heller of Unglue.it would make a fine church usher? He’s getting around with a ballot box so people can vote on the proposition—my ministerial father would be proud.

Michael Healy of the Copyright Clearance Centre is chairing the fray (being tweeted on hashtag #pubpt), and if when I write “Healy, you ignorant slut”, you gasp, then it means you haven’t yet read “Ether for Authors: A Mighty Metaphor is Our Industry”, based on the perceptive conference-going of the editor of this very mighty organ, Philip Jones. It’s available to read over at publishingperspectives.com.

When Healy isn’t sounding his ram’s horn of a honker to cut off a debater, he’s pretty charming, and brings up the proposition defender Eoin Purcell first. He gets a huge round of applause by cleverly ending his eight minutes on a note no one will deny:

Amazon has captured the best methods and delivered the best service to the only people who pay the bills in publishing at the end of the day: the reader.

Oh, good God, the reader. Remember the reader? Well, no, of course we don’t, this is LBF. Next up to speak is Tim Godfray, and we know what he thinks about Amazon because we all read The Bookseller, right?

I’ll tell you in tomorrow’s Ether how it went after the debate. Stay tuned.

Porter Anderson is a journalist and speaker. He tweets at @Porter_Anderson