There was a lack of change in the air at this month’s London Book Fair, but for once this may not have been a bad thing. Settled is not the same as content but 2014 appeared to be the year too-often acrimonious parts found their place alongside each other.
Going back five years or so, authors were as close to locked out as possible – they could buy a ticket but no one wanted to talk to them. In fact, an agent friend once played a trick on me that involved setting me up for an author to come and pitch their book to me, considered a nightmare, which illustrates how authors were thought of.
Technology, well I think we might have been talking about those book expresso machines (in fact I think they may still be there, a model of persistence at least). Ebooks had yet to go boom, Amazon still saw the need to be there for publishers and author services were spat out with the word ‘vanity’.
Going back a couple of years, the scene had changed dramatically. Earl’s Court 1 and 2 appeared to be a new Millennium parody of East and West Berlin, albeit involving books and a lot less historical importance.
In Earl’s Court 1 you had the traditional publishing industry, publishers downstairs, agents upstairs (like a new Millennium Upstairs, Downstairs but where everyone’s posh). In Earl’s Court 2 you had the author centre and the revolving door technology companies, which I ‘ll come back to briefly later.
The job of those in Earl’s Court 1 was to get on with business - an increasingly tough task as the market started to squeeze while being simultaneously choked – and also pretending Earl’s Court 2 didn’t exist. For the authors, they were tasked with heading straight to Earl’s Court 2, to at least once look back in contempt at those looking increasingly stressed across the divide.
If the two sides did speak to each other in summary it would be: authors: “we don’t need you anymore,” publishers: “we can’t see you,” authors: “well, we don’t like you,” publishers: “we can’t see you.”
And coming to the tech companies, each year they seemed to come en masse with a theme: ebook conversion, ebook distribution, print-on-demand, sales solutions, and so on. Each wave contained roughly 397 claims to be world’s best and each next year three of the companies returned and the theme changed.
But onto this year and we were aided in our vantage point by being up high having a fantastic booth for IPR License in the Ivy Pop-Up stand, luxurious and with table service (a double-edged sword for me personally). And it was a hugely successful fair for us and, back to the point, it was clear that none of the aforementioned friction was in the air and everyone seemed to have settled into set places.
Earl’s Court 1 was quieter but those there were getting down to business, some even dropping into Earl’s Court 2 on a break. The author section very much had its clear place and there was a nice buzz around it, aided by a number of events (though there was an element of Groundhog Day seeing the panels). The tech part seemed to have settled into various themes of author services with some ebook stuff thrown in around the edges.
This is not to paint a utopian picture – there was no spontaneously sing-song or game of football in the entrance between the two halls, no conga (that I saw) or holding of hands across the divide. What there seemed to be was an acceptance of this is where we are and these are the parties involved.
Publishing has undergone a rapid period of evolution over the last decade and while not finished it at least appears the fighting against it has faltered, as well as the misdirected bitterness. And as an aside, with the book fair moving next year, it will be interesting to see how this new acceptance is represented at Olympia.
To conclude, there are big challenges currently and even larger ones coming up for everyone involved but if people have given up looking over the garden fence and are focused on the future they now see happening then that is a big positive. London Book Fair 2014 wasn’t about change but about challenges, and that is a step in the right direction.
Happy to hear your comments as always - @Tom_Chalmers