Monday, March 04, 2013

The London Book Fair

The London Book Fair this year is from April 15 to 17 at Earl's Court. I'm familiar enough with the city to know where that is, and I've been asked by several people if I'd be going to which I've saying,"No." I used to say the same about Frankfurt until four years ago, but the reasons were different (or at least that's what I tell myself). Those who had been to it would tell me that Frankfurt is an experience not to be missed by anyone in the trade, and it's not that I didn't believe them. It was just that I didn't think I was ready: I didn't have anything worth showing. (Many have gone to such shows and festivals with much less, but that's them, not me.) And when I finally thought I had something, and went to Frankfurt, I was stunned by what I saw. What do I like about it? First, it's a trade fair, not a consumer fair (though the public is allowed in on the last two days of the five-day event), and, second, it's amazing how much publishing there is in the world.

As  for London Book Fair, I'm not that excited. Someone (a Malaysian book-trade person) described it: "It's like Hall 8 in Frankfurt." Hall 8 is where all the American and British publishers are, and where one would find most countries that publish in English. I visited it the first time I was in Frankfurt. It's the only hall where there is a security check, and they look into your bags before you enter. (After three visits, I've still not been able to figure that out. Looking for suicide bombers? Why? Is there a threat?)

After three visits, I'm still kind of underwhelmed by Hall 8. What was I expecting to find, anyway? Surprises? Yes, surprises. While the other six halls are full of small publishers (apart from the big boys) with all sorts of interesting stuff, Hall 8 is predictable and boring (except for the free wine flow on the Friday of the fair), with the usual bestsellers, unimaginative book designs and the suits.

On my first Frankfurt Book Fair, I had the honour of sitting at the same table with Peter Weidhaas, then just retired as Director of the FBF. He asked me how I was enjoying the fair, and I admitted it did exceed my expectation. Then we talked about this and that, and then he told me something about Hall 8, "The Americans and the British only like to sell. I tell them they must also buy, but they only want to sell. For a successful book fair, one must buy and sell."

I have heard many versions of this since. Many UK, US publishers and agents tell you point-blank, "We are not interested in buying." I guess they feel that with so many people simply queuing up for their best-selling stuff, why bother? I've met several literary agents who've been intrigued by Silverfish titles in English and think publishers would be interested, but only if they have exclusive rights to the Malaysia/Singapore market. What good would that do for us? They'd like to buy the book, but want the market that we've taken years to build, as well. Duh?! We'd rather sell to the Europeans, and others. Some say that they only buy non-English books. That's fine.

So, I'm not very excited about the LBF. Maybe, things will change. (Maybe, things already have.) I'll wait until I receive some positive feedback from neutrals like, "You must go to the London Book Fair, it's fantastic!" For now, I'll sit out this year's.

Just for the record; The London Book Fair is little over forty years old. The Frankfurt Book Fair was started about 500 years ago, soon after Johannes Gutenberg developed printing in movable letters in Mainz near Frankfurt, by local booksellers.