Tagholm's take - the week in books at 20.3.2017

Roger Tagholm
Opinion - Publishing Monday, 20 March 2017

Roger Tagholm, in association with the London Book Fair, offers his view of the week's news


How does the London Book Fair do this? We all know that its director, Jacks Thomas, is persuasive - but the weather as well? Once again this year, Olympia's splendid glass roof gleamed in the sunshine and added to the distinct mood of optimism in the aisles.

The fair opened with the best of news, courtesy of Nielsen, which reported at the Quantum Conference on the eve of the fair that British consumers bought 360m books in all formats in 2016, up from 353m the previous year.

Beneath that famous curved glass roof, publishers were buoyant, commenting on the crowded aisles and noting the "content-hungry" atmosphere, particularly for books that made sense of troubled times. There was concern over Brexit, with a request for a show of hands from those at a debate on the topic who thought Brexit would be good for publishers producing not a single hand. But overall the mood was upbeat.

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The growth of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime was compared by Hannah Griffiths, head of literary acquisitions at All3Media, to "five major dedicated book chains opening up in Britain tomorrow". These platforms are hungry for material, and publishers are more than happy to provide it.

But was there a worry that writers might bypass publishers and approach this multiplicity of new TV platforms instead? "I don't think that will happen," said Joanna Prior, md of Penguin General. "I think the gatekeepers of that industry are even tougher than they are in the book industry. So you want to write a screenplay - where are you going to start? It's easier - or at least, it seems easier - to write a novel.

"I feel very positive. I think we need books, we need long-form journalism and narrative to help us understand the crazy times we are living in, to give us context. And I think people need a trusted brand, a trusted voice. Books still matter, and as an industry I think we're actually rather good at getting that message across."

At Faber, chief executive Stephen Page was also upbeat. "There is no shortage of excellent copyright being directed at the book world. We are seeing a lot of highly contested auctions, and there are a lot of books that are exciting people. There is a confidence around which you can see from the speed of auctions. People are hungry for material."

As an example, Page cited the swift international interest in Rosamund Young's The Secret Life of Cows, a little gem of rural wisdom quietly mentioned by Alan Bennett in his Diaries and spotted by Faber rep Melanie Tyrrell. "We've sold it in eight territories already, with German and US auctions happening this week," Page reported. "I think that TV has discovered long-form narrative now - and publishers know that it is the antidote to the 140-character tweet."

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At the LBF's International Book Industry Excellence Awards, His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, received the Simon Master Chairman's Award in recognition of his four decades of support for the book industry in the emirate, during which time he established the Sharjah International Book Fair and continues to fund various literacy initiatives.

Editors and publishers from Market Focus country Poland proved delightfully noisy members of the audience at the event, whooping and whistling when Wydawnictwo Czarne and Wydawnictwo Dwie Siostry won the Market Focus Poland awards for Adult Trade Publisher and Children's and Young Adult Trade Publisher respectively.

Ian McEwan presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to his Brazilian publisher, Luiz Schwarcz, founder of Companhia das Letras, and described him as one of a "certain breed of men and women who are their publishing houses - driven, splendidly creative people". Schwarcz was, McEwan added, "a superb specimen of the genus homopublicanus and a driving force in the literary culture of Brazil".

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Back out in the aisles, there was much that was familiar - Hachette's giant tower, for example - but also some nice new touches, like the yellow brick road outside the children's area, and an entertaining corner of the Baltic Countries stand (next year's Market Focus) where Latvia displayed some lovely self-deprecation. A sign read: "We are proud to be introverts. Latvia is one of the world's introverted nations. We often find it difficult to start a conversation…" The irony of course being that this was an extrovert piece of marketing.

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Arguably, stand of the fair surely belonged to Britannia International, the one-man band whose sole member of staff, Robert Woffinden, came to the fair with copies of his own self-published title Inside BCCI, the story of the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Woffinden and a colleague had recreated the office of the bank's founder Agha Hasan Abedi, complete with whisky decanter, rotary phone, cigars, 1970s-style leather sofas, and an attaché case with thousands of fake dollar bills spilling out. It looked like a mini stage set. "We've already have an Arabic edition done, and we're here looking for more translation deals and distribution," he said. Gesturing to the stand, he added: "We spent the last few weeks scouring charity shops to create all of this."

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Of course, the London Book Fair is all about spotting what might be the Next Big Thing. While psychological dramas are still popular, there was also strong interest in young British author Libby Page's debut novel The Lido, which went to Orion in the UK and Simon & Schuster in the States. It tells the story of 26-year-old Kate, who joins forces with 86-year-old widow Rosemary to save the pool at Brockwell Lido in south east London. The start of "lidorature" perhaps?

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