London Book Fair 2017: Publishers Keep Calm and Carry On
If the narrow hallways of Olympia seemed a little more jammed than usual at the 2017 London Book Fair, they were. Although final attendance has yet to be announced, LBF director Jacks Thomas confirmed that pre-registrations for this year’s fair, which ran March 14–16, were up by a double-digit percentage, likely boosted by a weak pound and two straight years of positive industry sales.
With talk at the fair focused on the record-breaking advance (reported at $65 million) Barack and Michelle Obama earned for a pair of books they will write, no single book emerged as the big one of the fair. As many insiders predicted, the nature of the Obamas’ deal—which was announced a week before the fair and left the industry in shock over the sticker price—was the subject of gossip at the industry meeting. (With Penguin Random House announcing at the start of the fair that it would publish the two books internationally in English, Spanish, and German through its subsidiaries around the globe, some of the biggest foreign deals for the Obama books came from the Netherlands and France. Dutch rights went for a rumored €3 million to Diep; in France, Fayard bought the titles.)
In addition to a lack of big books coming out of London, there also seemed to be a dearth of seven-figure deals. Nonetheless, international publishers and agents reported brisk business. Many said that the political uncertainty in the U.K. and America had infused this year’s fair with energy. “I think it’s a case of hands across the ocean,“ said Will Atkinson, managing director and publisher of the U.K.’s Atlantic Books. “There are bad things happening on both sides [of the Atlantic],” he added, referring to the uncertainty surrounding Brexit in the U.K. and the Trump administration in the U.S. “It’s a group hug.”
Anthony Forbes Watson, managing director at Pan Macmillan, agreed. “The industry is feeding off the chaos in the world outside,” he said, “rather than being depressed by it.”
The fair officially kicked off just one day after a vote in the British Parliament cleared the way for Britain to begin the formal process of exiting the E.U. The vote means a two-year clock will soon start ticking on the U.K.’s trade negotiations with E.U. members.
“The U.K. now has around two years to work out what type of country it wants to be in the future,” said Stephen Lotinga, CEO of the U.K. Publishers Association, at a standing-room-only panel on March 14. “One of the reasons U.K. publishing is so successful is because of the type of country we are—open, diverse, international. How and whether these values are sustained in the future will have enormous consequences for our industry.”
Following Lotinga, DK Publishing CEO Ian Hudson ran down a number of Brexit-related issues facing his company—chief among them, attracting and retaining international talent. Hudson said the government should immediately guarantee the right of international workers to stay in the country, saying it was “inhuman” to use their lives and careers as negotiating chips.
“Talent, diversity, and internationality are crucial to DK, and I would suggest that over the past couple centuries it has been crucial to the U.K. and its development as a highly creative society,” Hudson said, noting that, of the 500 employees in DK’s U.K. office, 81 do not have British passports. “Diversity and creativity go hand in hand. We need to be able to retain our European talent, and we need to be able to recruit European talent, and talent from outside Europe.”
In the q&a period, Charlie Redmayne, CEO of HarperCollins UK, backed up Hudson, saying that international workers in Harper’s Scottish outposts are already “going back home,” as uncertainty looms over whether they will be allowed to stay in the U.K. Hudson also emphasized the importance of free trade principles and finding a way to remain engaged on copyright issues in Europe.
“Copyright, intellectual property, and piracy protection are fundamental, and the loss of our seat at the E.U. table and the ability to influence E.U. copyright decisions is a backward step,” Hudson said. “Over many years we’ve proven to be a voice of reason at the E.U. table that has helped deliver copyright frameworks and intellectual property rights frameworks that we can all work with. We just voted to lose that voice. So we need to find another way of offering influence.”
This year’s fair was held about a month earlier than usual; in 2018 LBF moves back to April, running from April 10 to 12.