LBF: Assessing the risks

<p>Avoiding the &ldquo;Londonstani effect&rdquo; is how some agents and publishers describe it. At the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2005, all the buzz was centred on one book: Gautam Malkani&rsquo;s Hounslow-set novel, <i>Londonstani</i>. Fourth Estate publishing director Nicholas Pearson paid around &pound;380,000 for the book and a follow-up, fighting off heated rivalry from fellow-publishers after several rounds of bidding.</p>
<p>&ldquo;It catapults you into a world you&rsquo;ve never read about in fiction before,&rdquo; Pearson said at the time. &ldquo;It is the best d&eacute;but novel I&rsquo;ve seen in a very, very long time.&rdquo;</p>
<p>But the hype and excitement surrounding the book didn&rsquo;t play to its advantage. Reviews on publication made sniping mentions of the size of the advance, and poked fun at the frenzy into which the book trade had worked itself.</p>
<p>&ldquo;The hype is unwarranted and artistically does the author no favours,&rdquo; wrote Suhayl Saadi in the Independent. &ldquo;Myths of masculinity give shape, if not depth, to Gautam Malkani&rsquo;s much-hyped d&eacute;but, <i>Londonstani</i>,&rdquo; said Kamila Shamsie in the <i>Guardian</i>.</p>
<p>Two-and-a-half years on, the novel has sold a distinctly average 15,000 copies. Pearson, who struck the deal for <i>Londonstani</i>, says he has always tried to avoid doing deals at book fairs, but adds: &ldquo;I just loved the book.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He continues: &ldquo;A lot of books don&rsquo;t earn their advances back, whether they have been bought at the London Book Fair, the Frankfurt Book Fair or six months away from either of them. That is the challenge and the name of the game&mdash;we take risks, sometimes financial risks. It&rsquo;s not a science, it is about finding writers you really care about, and everyone here cared completely about that book when they first read it and they still care about it now.&rdquo;</p>
<p><b>Big cat fight</b></p>
<p>William Morris agent Cathryn Summerhayes had a similar situation at last year&rsquo;s London Book Fair, when she was inundated with interest in Aravind Adiga&rsquo;s Bangalore-set d&eacute;but <i>The White Tiger</i>, resulting in an eight-publisher auction.</p>
<p>Ravi Mirchandani, newly arrived at Atlantic, ended up acquiring the book just after the fair. He convinced Summerhayes to go with him after delivering a letter, addressed to &ldquo;President Summerhayes&rdquo;, and some rupees to the William Morris offices.</p>
<p><i>The</i> <i>White Tiger </i>was published at the beginning of March, and has sold just 342 copies to date. But with its place on Waterstone&rsquo;s New Voices list, hopes for it are still high.</p>
<p>&ldquo;The good thing about the <i>White Tiger </i>deal is that although it was substantial, and one of Atlantic&rsquo;s biggest advances for fiction, everyone is still so terrified by the Londonstani effect that people don&rsquo;t go crazy,&rdquo; says Summerhayes. &ldquo;The pre-emptive culture is not rife in the UK.&rdquo; The high-profile nature of the deal has helped her make a name for herself, she adds. &ldquo;I think it&rsquo;s what&rsquo;s brilliant about the London Book Fair. When you&rsquo;re a young agent, if you&rsquo;ve got a hot book, everyone wants to know you.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Curtis Brown books m.d. Jonny Geller (a veteran of many an LBF auction, including &pound;1.25m for Hari Kunzru&rsquo;s <i>The Impressionist </i>in 2001 and &pound;400,000 for Kathleen Tessaro&rsquo;s first two novels in 2002) agrees. &ldquo;The book fair does lend an extra bit of excitement to deals, and it is a heightened atmosphere in which to sell rights,&rdquo; he says. &ldquo;This has been less the case in recent years, but it is more down to the lack of the right books coming up for sale around fair time. You need a big &lsquo;event&rsquo; kind of book for the really big deals at fairs.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The furore over <i>The Impressionist</i> in 2001 was justified, Geller feels (the novel has sold almost 80,000 copies to date). &ldquo;It happens very rarely, but sometimes you get a book you just know is going to be really good,&rdquo; he says. &ldquo;The LBF sale was a real event for a first novel.&rdquo;</p>
<p><b>Talk is expensive</b></p>
<p>Summerhayes warns about making a big deal about a book. &ldquo;It can be damaging if you&rsquo;ve got a hot book and nobody ends up buying it.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Also at last year&rsquo;s LBF, literary agent Ali Gunn talked up two novels written jointly by a pair of publishing insiders. Today, she has sold US rights for the titles&mdash;Ego and Greed&mdash;but news about a UK deal is still forthcoming.</p>
<p>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s an interesting question&mdash;to what degree do you talk up your books?&rdquo; asks Canongate m.d. Jamie Byng. He admits that he never knowingly undersells a title. Past raptures include <i>Harry, Revised</i>, or &ldquo;the hottest d&eacute;but novel on the planet&rdquo; (December 2007); the &ldquo;magnificent, wildly ambitious love story&rdquo; <i>The Gargoyle</i> (May 2007); and, of course, &ldquo;the most synchronised worldwide multiple submission we have ever done&rdquo; for <i>The Raw Shark Texts</i>, which he described at the time (February 2006) as &ldquo;the most original and daring d&eacute;but I have read in years&rdquo;.</p>
<p><i>The Raw Shark Texts</i> has sold 21,134 copies to date since March last year, and Byng says it has been &ldquo;a brilliant publishing experience&rdquo;, with rights now sold in 29 languages.<br />
&ldquo;There&rsquo;s a danger you can over-hype a book, but if you believe passionately in it, then it is your duty as a publisher, if you have the rights, to make sure all the people who need to know, know,&rdquo; he says. &ldquo;It is a double-edged sword, though, and it can backfire. I&rsquo;ll be very curious to see how <i>Les Bienveillantes</i> does.&rdquo; This Jonathan Littell novel was eventually bought by Chatto after much excitement at Frankfurt 2006 and has yet to be published.</p>
<p><b>Downwards spiral</b></p>
<p>Then there are the books that make a big splash at acquisition, but fail to make much of an impact on publication. Back at LBF 2002, Kate Lyall-Grant at Simon &amp; Schuster made a &ldquo;very high six-figure&rdquo; pre-empt for &ldquo;the biggest d&eacute;but thriller deal of the year to date&rdquo; for Spiral plus a follow-up. The book has sold just over 3,000 copies to date. &ldquo;That was an unfortunate one&mdash;there was a lot of excitement at the time of the deal, but sales were very disappointing,&rdquo; Lyall-Grant admits today. &ldquo;It was a shame that this book didn&rsquo;t do as well as we had hoped&mdash;it is a great thriller and had some great reviews, so it was a bit of a surprise it didn&rsquo;t sell very well. You go away and think, was it the jacket, was it the price?&rdquo;<br />
Publishers and agents agree that in the world of emails and constant contact, there is less and less frequently a &ldquo;book of the fair&rdquo;. &ldquo;Everything is ongoing now, and it&rsquo;s rare that an agent can keep a book under wraps until they announce it at a fair,&rdquo; says S&amp;S publishing director Suzanne Baboneau.</p>
<p>This can, Byng says, be a good thing. &ldquo;You do get people reading books, and the excitement is fuelled by what other people are saying. Things escalate and very quickly get out of control. It can be a mistake to buy books at fairs&mdash;we all buoy each other up about the possibility and brilliance of a book, and you do have to be careful.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He harks back to <i>Londonstani</i>. &ldquo;It would have been a great book to buy for &pound;10,000, but they had to publish it in a big way because of what they paid. Some agents refuse to take books to auction&mdash;a lot of money doesn&rsquo;t always mean good things for the book.&rdquo;</p>
<p><i>For a look back through The Bookseller archives at how we reported some of the most-hyped London Book Fair deals in recent years, read <a href="">Alison Flood's blog here</a>.</i></p>