The ever-resourceful Book Brunch struck a chord when it suggested, in its final London Book Fair giveaway, that the book trade needs to remember its past.
As a publisher who has been engaged, on and off, with the LBF since its first appearance on trestle tables at the Grosvenor House (with free admission for booksellers), it strikes me that it may be useful to ponder on what this ludicrously expensive mini-Frankfurt clone at Earl’s Court is really needed for; especially after the volcano-doomed fiasco that it turned into last week.
We will soon come to notice, after the fuss and inconvenience about last week’s disaster have faded, that no important deals were missed, no worthwhile projects destroyed nor any real opportunities denied. It is true there may be some delay in process, but in a few weeks’ time the publishing world will be back to ‘normal’.
Like the pleasure domes of Kublai Khan, the absurdly extravagant palaces of the multinationals, where no books are even to be seen, let alone touched, will have no need to have been constructed in the first place.
There was always an underlying notion that London might be made to subvert Frankfurt, where London, let us be honest, has better restaurants, more theatre, more everything, and constitutes a better venue for expense-account publishers from around the world to engage in their trade over a pleasant few days.
But the London fair’s original purpose was to allow a chance for small, independent publishers to show their wares alongside the high and mighty on equal terms in preparation for the upcoming, ever important autumn and Christmas sales season.
In those halcyon days there were no agents, no video presentations of questionable electronic piracy, no appearances by celebrity cooks – just books and galleys, and gossip by publishing artisans to anyone keen enough to listen to them. A fair proportion of the interested public also drifted through. It was an atmosphere that fostered eccentricity alongside serendipity. I well remember discovering the work of Alifa Rifaat, an Egyptian writer whose stories were being hustled around by a Middle Eastern publisher, clutching his wares produced from a plastic carrier bag.
Meanwhile debt-driven expansion, buy-outs and other financial chicaneries have plagued our expectations and brought Western capitalism to its knees, and the book trade, ever the mirror image of the world it serves, has followed suit. The late Anthony Blond, publisher extraordinaire, maintained that you always knew when a publisher was going bust, for that was when it produced its most extravagant full-colour catalogue ever. He should have known, as he made rather a habit of it. I once took him in for a while as a scout for Quartet at a time when he lacked a publishing company of his own as an outlet.
Like the French publishers who challenged the costs of Reed’s Paris extravaganza, now is the time both to honour the traditions of the Frankfurt Fair (mostly owned, an important point surely, by the German book trade, and run to perfection) and return London’s annual event to what it originally attempted to be – lots of books and talk.
In other words, a proper mini-messe.
In the long run, out of collapse come fresh opportunities. Who can forget the Eastern Europeans and Russians a decade or so ago, roaming the Frankfurt halls in their first tentative explorations to regenerate their once thriving publishing trade?
And next year, in London or Frankfurt, who knows from where around the world, there may be another wheelie bag seeking to yield up another precious work.
One lives in hope.