The London Book Fair: Many Tote Bags but Few Industry Solutions

April 21, 2014 | 7 8 min read


I have been at the London Book Fair for approximately eight minutes when I officially decide that I am not meant to be at the London Book Fair.

Don’t worry: I haven’t snuck in or anything. Well, it is a little iffy — at the entrance, I manage to bypass some sort of elaborate form-filling-out process when they ask for my press card and I say, almost by way of a challenge, “I’m American?” as though Americans do not have press cards. (Obviously it’s just this particular irresponsible American who doesn’t have a press card.) Miraculously, the helpful woman behind the desk nods, takes my letter of intent, and whips off a press pass. I stride blithely into the main hall at Earls Court Exhibition Centre and stop short.

It’s not the books — there are, admittedly, a lot of books, but I expected that. If anything, I expected way more books. Every stall has some sort of display of new titles, lined up and facing outward, and the big fancy stalls of the big fancy publishers have enormous images of dust jackets and headshots of celebrity authors lining their walls. There is a whole other enormous room, I learn later, and a corner of it is devoted to wholesalers and remainders and they’ve got plenty of books. I’m not exactly sure why, because I presume they have warehouses stocked with millions of them somewhere; a few-odd hundred on display strikes me as strange. But who knows — I don’t actually know much about book fairs. That much becomes abundantly clear.

What’s most noticeable in the main hall are the little tables — hundreds (thousands?) of small square tables populated by groups of two or three, heads bent close together, scribbling in notebooks. (I have never seen so many notebooks in my life, at least not in the past five years.) The conversations all look so serious, and so intimate — though the collective sound of a thousand intimate conversations is deafening. I feel adrift amongst all of this, utterly out-of-my-depth, so when I see the escalator in the center of the hall, I make a beeline for it. But it’s the second level that seals my fate: row upon row of long rectangular tables, with the names of literary agents and agencies printed above each row, and hundreds of people sitting face-to-face in deep conversation. It looks like a massive speed-dating event, except everyone has a whole lot of papers strewn around them, and they appear to actually want to talk to each other. I walk up and down the rows too quickly — no, I don’t have an appointment! — and then I do the sort of quick retreat of the overly paranoid as I rush back towards the down escalator.

I’d come to Earls Court to observe the book industry, and here it was, very “industry”-like — I am eventually given the full run-down, that the London Book Fair is specifically a rights fair, for things like international publishing rights to be orchestrated or, in the case of some of the big books of the week, for previously negotiated rights to be announced. There are author events, but not terribly many; this is primarily about business, for people who create and sell books, not for regular consumers. I’m in some sort of weird liminal space here: mostly a consumer, but a critic, of books and of the industry that makes them more broadly. Perhaps my sense of unease comes down to the fact that this isn’t the ideal place from which to do any of this criticism.

The special guest is the Korean publishing industry, and they have a huge, slick set-up in the international section, sort of like what a first-class lounge at an airport looks like in my mind, all futuristic white furniture and elegant stemware. The Sultanate of Oman has a kind of Arabian castle structure; Russia’s got this really aggressive looming thing that looks like propaganda, written in red: READ.DEEP. READ.SMART. READ.MOSCOW. I feel like I am at Epcot, but there are no rides, not even educational ones. “This is an especially large fair, right?” I ask one man. He looks a little weary as he sighs and tells me that Frankfurt is by far the biggest, twice as long as this three-day affair. All around me, I see books as pure product, and it’s a little startling. In the café, my friend and I are flanked by people making business deals while they eat lunch. “We’ll take 3,000, then,” the man to our left says to his negotiating partner, and they both make neat marks in their notebooks. On the other side, a man swipes through something on an iPad, a children’s book, maybe, or some kind of interactive platform. (There are gaming people here, too, partly because digital storytelling is blurring the lines between traditional books and games.)

The occasional appearance of an iPad — and eventually learning that in that second enormous room, there’s a whole area devoted to literally all things to do with technology, from Nook and Kindle and Kobo to metadata management platforms to print-on-demand and ebook production outsourcing services — reminds me that I’d come to the London Book Fair with a bit of an agenda: I want to figure out exactly what was going on with tech in the book industry.

Because back in October, I’d attended a day-long conference in Oxford for young people in the publishing industry, once again as more of an observer than anything else. It was illuminating to look at books from somewhere other than my usual perch, but I was more than a little alarmed by the way most people were talking about digital things. “It’s time to admit that we have to adapt,” the general line went throughout the day, which I found, frankly, shocking: the time to admit such a thing must have been a decade ago, at least. I sat and fumed when one presenter urged publishers to “try to get on Facebook and Twitter.” (Pinterest and Tumblr? Too “experimental”.) At the end-of-day reception, I interrogated the circle of people sipping wine around me. “I get the sense,” I said slowly, “that you guys actively fear incorporating technology of any kind into your working lives.” I expected an argument, but people were nodding. One woman admitted to me, “I think that we’re all hoping someone else will come along and do that work for us.”

This doesn’t make book publishing unique, by any means. But it’s strange for me, after most of the past decade embedded in the growing pains of magazines’ difficult transition to digital. The equation there seemed simpler, at least on the surface: old revenue models failed, new ones were tested, publications shuttered and others adapted — in the end, it’s all just another way to share the same information, the physical page or the tweet on a smartphone. I’m deeply biased when it comes to digital publishing, but then, I spent the past five years in a magazine department that regularly got as excited about digital design as print — perhaps more so, where design and great functionality intersected. (One of the biggest losers in the shift-to-digital magazine equation is, of course, me the writer, not me the digital production editor: when the models changed, they made room for more of our words for less of their money. But that’s another issue entirely.)

With books, the endless debate about the medium, the cheap and dirty ebook versus the august printed page, always seemed to obscure the book publishing industry’s somewhat shaky revenue models to begin with: attempts at changing the industry, the bare-minimum embrace of technology, look like weak computerized bandages on older, deeper wounds. At the conference last fall, Amazon loomed like a specter over literally every panel and talk, but it wasn’t just anger and resentment — there was a sense of real regret, too, that a company could understand the digital realities of selling books so well and still appear to actually hate books themselves.

(It’s worth noting, too, how both the LBF and the Oxford conference really hammered home what a tiny fraction of the book industry my colleagues and I interact with — publishing includes every type of book, far beyond literary fiction and what we broadly call “genre,” and there are travel books and books about dogs and sticker books and comic books and tie-in merchandise and whole enormous structures that only an industry analyst could really tackle. So it’s all well and good that I choose to buy my literary fiction at independent bookstores, but I am the tiniest fraction of a tiny fraction; there are millions of books that are being sold every year through channels that hurt writers and publishers, and, in the long run, readers, too.)

Worrying about how we’re going to read books feels like more of a distraction than anything else, the debate of an industry that sees change as something to fear, and nothing more — and I’d kind of hoped we were moving past it. But in the weeks before the London Book Fair, Tim Waterstone, the founder of the eponymous bookstore chain — one of Britain’s largest, even as outlets continue to be shuttered — made news by smugly declaring that ebook revenues were dropping and that print books were returning to exclusive dominance. “I think you read and hear more garbage about the strength of the ebook revolution than anything else I’ve known,” Waterstone told the Oxford Literary Festival. Later, he asserted that, “Anyone who tells you they know the future is telling you the most grotesque lie, because none of us do.”

In The Guardian, Nick Harkaway managed to gently chide Waterstone with a relatively even-handed response. “Digital will continue to grow for a while at least, and continue to exist, because it is becoming part of the world we inhabit at a level below our notice, no more remarkable than roads or supermarkets. Ebooks are here to stay because digital is, and quite shortly we’ll stop having this debate about paper vs. ebooks because it will no longer make a lot of sense.” The conversation that develops in the comments (I can’t believe I’m complimenting a Guardian comment thread here) is full of thoughtful, cogent points — and someone brings up Stephen Fry’s remark that, “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.”

I’d argue that Harkaway’s “quite shortly” should be right now — this debate makes zero sense to me, and I’m not some sort of technocrat — I do prefer reading a book on the printed page. (I read books both ways, simultaneously, and I mostly don’t think about it much. If a book is mailed to me or is sitting on a shelf in front of me, then paper; if I’m sent a digital galley or I don’t feel like leaving the house and need something ASAP, ebook it is.) But this old, sad debate talks about print and digital books as if they weren’t two sides of the same coin. Worry about book sales dropping more broadly, and start to think about the real ways that digital can reshape books. The sorts of things that were written and printed have always evolved with technological advances in printing and distribution. I want to hear more conversations about breaking structures as they exist now — the size and shape of works that get published, or connecting writers and readers in webs rather than long, bulky, top-down chains, or using technology to make the industry as efficient as possible — to free up everyone to simply publish the very best writers.

It’s easy for me to say. And I don’t actually have any concrete ideas, just some sort of utopian vision of the future of publishing. At my second day at the LBF, I attend a panel on digital copyright, and they, too, see the problems and abstract solutions — but no clear way to implement them, at least not yet. At the “digital hub,” there are some dispiriting presentations, one of which appears to be a woman showing images of her imprint’s print and digital books, side by side, and that’s about it. But there are innovative gamblers from tech companies all over the world, too, pitching new ideas that work to break down the old structures. Some of them seem gimmicky, but some seem like things we might actually need. We just need to get everyone interested in considering breaking the mold a bit — shucking off Band-Aids for a shift in perspective.

The biggest takeaway from the London Book Fair? The free tote bags. Yes, you heard it here first. There are pens, too, but the totes are where it’s at. I collect four on the first day, even though I own duplicates of two already — one from Granta, one from Foyles. It’s near the end of the second day that I see a spate of official LBF totes hanging on peoples’ shoulders — with my seasoned tote-bag eye, I can tell by their stiffness that they have just been removed from a box and distributed within the past half hour, maybe even less. I assault a woman carrying one in her hand, and she points me to the information desk. “It looks like there’s one left,” the woman there says, pointing to a rack maybe thirty feet away. “You might have to —” I break into a sprint.

Image courtesy the author

is a staff writer for The Millions and writes a regular column about fan culture for the New Statesman. She recently completed an MA in the digital humanities at University College London. She's gotten much better at Twitter in the past year, but she still spends most of her time (/life) on Tumblr. She lives in Brooklyn.


  1. I agree, the ebook vs. print debate seems absurd at this point. Personally, I strongly prefer to do my reading in print, because my feeling is that I spend enough of my life staring at a screen as it is; but it seems obvious at this point that the enemy isn’t digital, the enemy is indifference to literature.

  2. “Anyone who tells you they know the future is telling you the most grotesque lie, because none of us do.”

    “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.”

    Two excellent quotations rather more enlightening than the rest of the article.

    The very best writers are already being published or publishing themselves, thank you very much.

  3. Why not try to get to Oxford for one of the evening sessions run by the Oxford Publishing Society (OPuS). No tote bags but many thoughtful sessions on some of the more innovative areas of the publishing world. Next event is on 13 May at Oxford Brookes University on reference publishing; the previous two on transmedia publishing (ebooks, apps, games and interactive fiction) and corporate and environmental responsibility each had over 100 participants. An antidote to Book Fairs.

  4. Robert, thanks so much for the recommendation. I’m overdue for another trip to Oxford, so I just might join you, because that sounds very interesting.

    And I thought I’d add that none of this is meant to malign anyone working with books and tech, because I know there are some people doing absolutely extraordinary work in this realm here in the UK and back home in the US, and plenty of them were at the LBF! I’m about to start doing some work for The Literary Platform, for example, within the next few weeks, and I’ve just begun researching the books/digital intersection for my dissertation. It just often feels to me that these voices get drowned out by people, say, moaning about ebooks, or publishers thinking Tumblr is “experimental” (I clearly took that one pretty hard).

  5. You sound as if you haven’t been to a trade show before (free tote bags!). So it might have been more relevant to write something about your experience of your first trade show instead of trying to draw sweeping conclusions about the state of an industry — although I agree it’s dismaying to hear someone say, in 2014, “I guess we have to adapt.”

    Also, please stop saying “you guys” and stop using it in print. I’m not a guy and I don’t like to feel subtly excluded from your conversation. I recognize it’s casual use, but it’s unnecessary. “You” is plural without “guys.” When you say “you guys” and follow it by a quote from a woman, I think you prove how useless and inappropriate a verbal tic it is.

  6. Elizabeth, I really wish you had considered letting the Society of Young Publishers know you were wanting to attend the annual conference last November.

    As the lead organizer of the conference, I curated the event, invited the speakers, and considered the sessions with careful detail; by all accounts it was a massive success with a sell-out crowd and super really positive feedback. I don’t mean to offer those results up as a defense, but I feel you missed the point of what the aim of the conference was.

    Take, for instance the term ‘young publisher’. While there is no age-limit many of the delegates would have been early-career professionals or post-graduate students looking for their first entry into the industry. The SYP’s mission is to provide a platform for young professionals to meet and engage with some of the more well-known personalities.

    Plus, we really would have rolled out the welcome wagon for you!

    The annual conference has been around for quite sometime, each presenting a different theme on the industry while offering a core set of seminars on recruitment, networking, CV writing and interviewing tips, and if I can say ‘finding your own path’.

    I would agree with Robert above that you would find out more about how technology isn’t a second-thought in many parts of publishing. It is facilitating a needed change, particularly in the Book Production and Operation Sectors.

    Would be happy to chat more, please reach out over Twitter – I’m @canadiancat

    Best wishes….

  7. I enjoyed reading this but noticed there was no mention of iBooks Author – an agent of tremendous change potential. At the risk of contradicting others whose business it is to know certain things, I know exactly where publishing is heading: MultiTouch Fiction. It is a very exciting new genre of literature that will expand readership across all demographics.

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