This year’s London Book Fair took place between 18th and 20th April at Olympia (still my favourite venue of the four I have experienced). Annika and I attended on the first and second days.
We agreed it was one of the most enjoyable and productive LBFs we have been to for several years. It had much more of a buzz than last year’s rather limp, Covid-dominated experience, (which was not improved by periodic musical disruptions from the host country). Under the new director, Gareth Rapley, LBF 2023 seemed to achieve a much better balance between business conducted on the stands / in the rights centre and events than in the several pre-Covid years that culminated with the 2019 fair, when there were so many events taking place that there was barely time to engage in ordinary conversations, let alone negotiate. The rights centre, at which 500 publishers took tables – there wasn’t a spare space anywhere – was particularly vibrant and busy.
Ukraine was this year’s host country. During the course of the fair, Ukrainian publishers, led by Oleksandra Koval, Director of the Ukrainian Book Institute, issued several heartfelt pleas to UK and international publishers to continue to support Ukraine by blocking deals with Russian publishers. Apparently there has been some slippages since last year.
Several academic publishers chose not to pay for stands this year, presumably because LBF 2022 didn’t work very well for them, though most still took tables in the rights centre; and it was noticeable that others (both academic and trade) either paid for smaller stands or compromised by securing their place on one of the co-operative stands. Such moves are perhaps to be applauded in a post-Covid industry that now rates sustainability above ostentation.
To be sustainable implies many things, however, and maybe still first among these is the traditional definition of sustainability meaning ‘to be economically viable’. Several high-profile talks were devoted to the fact that, in real terms, the price of books (which has changed very little in the last ten years) is much lower than it was in 2002 or 2012, because the industry has not believed itself to be robust enough to keep up with inflation. This has had a serious knock-on effect on booksellers and wholesalers (both operating in low-margin industries) as well as publishers themselves. There are signs now that we are managing to loosen the grip of austerity and that book prices are rising modestly, though there is still quite a lot of ground to make up.
Discussions about AI and ChatGPT were prominent, whether at the formal events, informally or covered in the free trade ‘show dailies’ (the Publishers Weekly dailies were excellent for their substance this year, The Bookseller ones also lively but rather more chatty in nature). Various experiments have been conducted by industry luminaries who have concluded that ChatGPT can’t write a sequel to The Waste Land (surprise, surprise) or a decent book review, but would be very useful to a lazy student wishing to churn out an assignment to meet a deadline. Academic publishers, take note! The Charles Clark lecture (which will be covered in more detail in a further post tomorrow) also focused on AI.
To return to sustainability, but now focusing on its more modern incarnation of observing a set of measures designed to preserve the planet and respect human rights – it was the subject of several extremely well-attended seminars during the course of the fair. The one Annika and I attended was presented by Susan Pinkney and Alice Wood, from the Publishers Association, who described the PA’s Carbon Calculator, a tool designed to aid all sectors of the publishing industry in monitoring their carbon footprints. The Calculator can be applied to areas of publishing activity as diverse as travel, materials, packaging, production and distribution. Every publisher who takes advantage of the Calculator can use it to keep a record of their own carbon footprint and monitor improvements. Although only employees of that publisher will be able to contribute, add to and examine their own records, the PA is hoping eventually also to use the Calculator as a benchmarking tool across the industry.
Famous authors and exciting new books were, as always, much in evidence. Granta was doing well with Birnam Wood, the new Eleanor Catton novel; Kathleen Rundell merited a huge book display; Ken Follett and Klaus Flugge were feted for their lifetime achievements; and Dapo Adeola and Ann Cleeves were among the authors of the day.
All in all, it was an excellent fair. Did we have any grouses? The cloakroom system left something to be desired; and there were fewer food outlets than usual (come back, Pizza Express, all is forgiven!). However, in an industry where plain living rarely eclipses high thinking, perhaps in these times of too-low prices and the struggle for sustainable ethics, a little privation was good for us!
[written by Linda Bennett]