Who is the book fair for?

By contrast to its outsized cousin, the London Book Fair has always been a gentle affair. Apart from anything else, it is principally about the US and UK (and it’s smaller). Perhaps the most crushing thing about a first visit to the Frankfurt Book Fair is the realisation one is sharing a building with tens of thousands of publishing types. It is a stern test of one’s sense of individuality...

From a business point of view, LBF is pretty much a rights fair—although one should not forget that there is also proper business being done by distributors, printers, warehouses and remainder dealers. There are also some terrific author activities going on. The big question is what the hell are all the publishers doing there? They turn up with their Death Star stands and mill about like wildebeests waiting for a stampede. Everyone looks busy, but almost no real business actually gets done—just a lot of swanking about: self-important bustling of a type that seems to beset all mature industries with too many middle management types trying to justify their jobs.

Of course, much effort is expended on maintaining the fiction: dozens of deals, many of which were concluded as recently as last November, are announced, The Ivy moves in with its very own resident agent, and editors are expected to fill their schedules and show that they are busy, well-connected little worker bees. In general, everyone scuttles about in a positive orgy of unproductiveness.

To me, the biggest mystery are the stands: hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of kit that serves no purpose whatsoever. Back in the day, when there was a vibrant retail sector, when there were regional book chains and a regional sales force, stands made sense—it was about impressing your customers (the retailers), proving you were the hotshot publisher in town. That hasn’t been valid for 20 years. So who are the stands sending their signals to? Other publishers who all have functionally identical stands? Er...

The mystery is even deeper if one considers that the International Rights Centre, where a vast proportion of the business of the fair actually gets done, is stuck out on a limb in a chamber that has all the charm of a 1970s sports hall and the atmosphere of a sweatshop. And it must be said that, however much the organisers claim to have embraced the new, the embrace is still more than a little tentative—and patchy. It’s not just those weird national areas (hello, China!), it’s the noise that gets made about things such as Author HQ (and the Amazon stand) before sticking them way out in the boondocks.

It is hard not to suspect that the organisers are still wary of offending publishers who are paying the big rents for the main hall. Perhaps their view is that if they want to pay all that money in honour of a business model that has been dead for a decade (at least), then let them. This unwillingness to see the wood from the flipping trees is not confined solely to trade fairs. Sales conferences are a brilliant example of the same insularity. Created to service a need (a similar need to book fairs) that no longer exists, they linger on for reasons no one seems quite sure of—all anyone knows is that they were important once and that everyone in management takes them terribly seriously.

And God forbid anyone should question that. One conglomerate I know of made its entire editorial staff— including editors with dozens of sales conferences under their belts—turn up for two solid days of rehearsals. The wastage of people time and the lack of respect shown to senior staff beggars belief: if someone needs training, give them training—don’t keep the whole class back...

It’s not just that it’s frustrating that those responsible for wasting vast sums on these weird displays of self-importance never seem to be the ones who take the fall for poor performance (who, for instance, has been fired for the millions of pounds wasted by British publishing on websites?), it is also that book fairs and sales conferences are crying out for reinvention.

Book fairs should be about rights and distribution and all the nuts and bolts of the business but they should also be about showcasing books and authors to consumers and the whole panoply of people who are part fan and part professional; they are just as much “the trade” as booksellers and distributors. Publishers are expending huge amounts of effort building crime, romance and SFF communities, reaching out to bloggers, book-groups and to superfans. Authors are asked to do ever more marketing and PR on behalf of books and yet, at the showpiece events of the year, all those people are excluded. That doesn’t make sense.

Agent Orange is a UK-based agent. They can be contacted at agorange01@gmail.com