“It’s still stories—and the authors who create them—that make publishing important, not the format.” This comment from Baroness Gail Rebuck, Chairman of Penguin Random House UK, echoed the theme prevalent throughout the Quantum: Publishing & So Much More conference that preceded the London Book Fair, not to mention the fair itself.
There we were, four MS in Publishing: Digital and Print Media students, taking it all in. Stephanie Conte, Courtney Jordan, Hallie Tibbetts, and I had arrived bleary eyed the night before, tired but determined to learn as much as we possibly could about the global publishing market.
At the Quantum conference, we loved listening to Jo Henry, Vice President of Insight and Analytics at Nielsen, who reported on the industry’s data-driven future, including all the ways Nielsen follows and studies how consumers buy books outside the US and the UK. We learned that trends in UK publishing, such as adult coloring books, female-led thrillers, and other genres closely mirror the trends we’ve seen in the US.
The Quantum conference felt like being at the epicenter of change in the publishing industry. While many publishers discussed how sales and initiatives were impacted by “digital disruption,” other companies such as Wattpad were introducing exciting new ways that technology has opened doors in the industry.
The next day we were immediately swallowed up by the excitement and bustle of the fair itself. “The sheer size of the fair is amazing,” Courtney recalled. “You can feel the energy the second you walk through the door. I’ve never seen an event of this magnitude” Publishers’ booths ranged from small and inclusive to hulking, and beautifully designed—proudly displaying each company’s latest books and products. We immediately starting circling all the booths and attending panels and presentations. We took a special interest in comparing UK to US covers. Most of us found that we liked the UK covers better. The Manhattan skyline found on the UK edition of Three Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell trumped the abstract patterns of the US cover. The simple image of a girl in a forest on the UK cover of In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware was much more pleasing to the eye than the black and white branch-like imagery and clunky typography on the US version.
We also had the chance to meet some influential players in publishing, including Liate Stehlik, Senior Vice President and Publisher of the William Morrow division at HarperCollins, and Carrie Thornton, Editorial Director of the Dey Street imprint, who spoke to us about the rise of YouTube books and the importance of deals made at the London Book Fair. They even advised us that the best way to make a splash at this fair is to negotiate an exciting deal before you get there. “That way, everyone is buzzing about it you when you arrive,” noted Stehlik.
In the International Rights Center, we witnessed these deals going down first hand. Described to us as “the Wall Street of Publishing,” the IRC proved to be a world of its own. Agents and editors rushed frantically from meeting to meeting. Coffee was delivered by traveling concession cart for those without a minute to spare. Publishers and agents sold rights to their books in a room that was huge but nevertheless, packed. And in such a crowded space, who should we meet but NYU MS in Publishing: Digital and Print Media professor and literary agent extraordinaire, Josh Getzler. He discussed with us the importance of the rights center at this fair and some differences between the US and UK publishing industries, including a big emphasis in the UK on literary scouts (agents who help international publishers and film companies get advance looks at hot manuscripts.)
At other times during the fair, we participated in various events and talks. One of the most exciting moments was when Courtney and I helped with an event held in honor of Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. Surrounded by press, we held a ribbon for Fellowes to cut, celebrating the launch of his new digital-first, serialized book-meets-app product, Belgravia.
Later that evening, the four of us were lucky enough to make it to an event where Fellowes spoke about Belgravia, historic London, and the importance of a reading community. By creating the book as an app, Fellowes said he will be including additional content outside the storyline to allow readers to interact with and experience his content in new ways. Belgravia will also be released chapter by chapter, much like serials in the 19th century when his book is set. In this way, Fellowes said, he is excited to create “what Americans call ‘a water cooler moment’” where readers can later discuss what they’ve been reading.
On the last two days of the fair, we assisted people in navigating the busy International Rights Center and directed those looking for booths at The Club at the Ivy, a replica of a well-known exclusive London club, frequented by artists and publishing professionals, which served at the fair as a private meeting space for agents and publishers to discuss business.
In between all this, we also fit in time to participate in some discussions around new publishing endeavors. One such event was a presentation by Jason Hovey, Vice President of Development at Booktracks, a company that provides synced musical soundtracks for digital books. “We aren’t trying to take the place of any existing platforms that currently exist,” Hovey said. “But we’re here to be that next thing and engage readers that might otherwise not be a customer at all.”
The London Book Fair brought into focus the differences between traditional and contemporary publishing and how some publishers are embracing the new, some are hesitant about it, and many are finding a way to merge the two. Overall, there was a hopeful attitude towards the future of publishing felt throughout the fair. Ultimately, after days spent running around exhibition halls, directing confused fair attendees, and attending various talks and seminars, we all felt our experience and our belief in the future of the publishing industry could be summarized by something said on our first day by Baroness Rebuk: “What matters is that readers are still discovering and buying books, no matter the form of delivery.”
“When people say ‘books are dying’ they clearly haven’t seen the London Book Fair,” Stephanie remarked.
With the experience of the fair under our belts, we still weren’t ready to stop exploring. We continued our cultural tour of London, visiting The British Library and the Saatchi Gallery. At the library, we viewed some of the most famous manuscripts in history: from the Magna Carta to the Gutenburg Bible to Shakespeare’s notebooks to the music sheets of the Beatles.
“It was incredible to see such rich and diverse history all in one room,” noted Stephanie Conte. Hallie Tibbetts agreed, calling it “heaven for a book nerd.”
We also visited the library’s current Alice in Wonderland exhibit, viewing the transformation from Lewis Carroll’s original manuscript through the modern day interpretations.
The Saatchi Gallery was our last stop before going home, and we all greatly enjoyed seeing the large exhibit dedicated to the music and cultural influence of the Rolling Stones. Satisfaction, anyone? London exuded it.
by Megan A. ZimLich