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The International Writers Magazine: Publishing

The London Book Fair 2012
• Sam North
I rarely go to the London Book Fair. It’s not a place for writers. It’s full of suits and dealmakers and yes you can spot the odd forlorn writers - they don’t wear suits but shapeless cardigans and are laden with manuscripts - all trying to get noticed showing their stuff to different publishers with a slight air of desperation.

Book Fair
Mussi One might feel desperate for a reason – stand after stand that has cost thousands per square inch are filled with books – some fabulous books that make one quake in your boots the competition is so great.  (I saw a friend’s upcoming new title (Angel Dust by Sarah Mussi) blown up into a six-foot poster that tells you that they believe they are going to make a fortune from it.  Everywhere you got the impresson that deals were being done and earnest conversations were taking place about rights and other issues.

The big story this year is the coming of the Chinese.  Earls Court 2 (which is huge) was almost all taken up by Chinese publishers.  They have the money and they want to do deals. Big time.  Be ready to be discovering a whole host of Chinese fiction writers such as Ah Yi a former policeman turned author (Cat and Mouse) or Su Tong who wrote the award winning The Madwoman on the Bridge.

One major criticism is the lack of information when you arrive at Earl’s Court.  No map, no guide books to stands.  The actual map is deep inside the building and REALLY hard to navigate.  It’s like staring at a giant Where’s Wally schematic.  If you needed to find someone as I did it took hours to track them down.

I met on small Scottish crime publisher (John Law Media) on his tiny booth (which cost £3000) and agreed to do a review for them.  It’s a real struggle for a small print publisher to get noticed at the Book Fair and I can’t see it is worth it at all for small players (but hope it was).  Not that there might be any small print players in future. Digital start-ups are all the rage of course.  The word is e-books, shrinking booksellers, economic woes.  Of course the likes of major agents and publishers are still doing huge deals with key authors, but how many of these earn out the advance?  How long can that particular party carry on if there won’t be bookshops to sell them in?  Edward Nawotka Editor-in Chief of Publishing Perspectives believes that technology will save publishing and that Apple, Facebook and Google may end up owning the publishing industry. After all that is where the ‘content’ is.  According to Martin Levin in the same journal 20 publishers now control 80% of all publishing revenue in the USA.  But their company values are shrinking and all are vulnerable to the big pockets of Apple etc who seek an opportunity. (Though with Facebook throwing a billion dollars at Instagram you have to wonder at their common sense at paying so much for what may be just a fad.)

The electronic publishing section was huge and with all kinds of people offering digital solutions, making it easier and easier for writers to get their books into digital formats.  Will it matter it we go from print to digital?  It depends.  We have to ask why people don’t value digital books?  Why will they pay $20 bucks for a bottle of wine but only 99 cents for a book that is the sum of great intellectual effort?  If you epub your book you might make more money, but how will people find you? Of course some writers do break through but how many compared to the total out there?

I didn’t really see many stands on how to get noticed in that virtual world however. It’s all very well to have your e-book on Kindle but browsing it – discovering it on-line is tougher than ever.  In a bookshop you can respond to a cover, flip over to the back and if you are lucky read the first lines and make a decision.  Doing that digitally is still clunky and inconvenient.  Serendipity is the key in a bookshop. 

Everyone is bemoaning the death of ‘print’ but ‘popular’ cheap paperbacks have only been around for eighty odd years (thanks to Penguin) and e-books are so much more convenient for storage etc.  Now with Nook, Kindle and iBooks on the iPad the platforms are maturing and easy to use.  But the current business model for publishing is crumbling in the face of digital and authors will be squeezed further until there is little money left for ‘content provision’.  I guess writers will always write, but unless you break through to mass consumption it shouldn’t be a sensible career choice if young.  I note that in China most fiction ‘published’ started life as on-line fiction published chapter by chapter.  I don’t think that works in the West for many, E L James aside with the Fifty Shades of Grey of course.  Getting noticed is harder and the walls are closing in around the Facebook village that few venture out from.

I did delight in checking out the wonderful covers and details on the foreign stands. Let's hope someone translates  ‘Enrolment’ by Chantal Montellier where Caroline enrols in reality at her local town hall with Kafka like consequences, from Actes Sud Junior and L’Oeil Du Témoin (The Eye of the Witness) from Carole Martinez, a reworking of Blow-Up for kids from Rageot which looks promising.

The London Book Fair is still on till tomorrow (18th).  Deals are being made and there is a promise that even if most bookshops do disappear within two to three years (yes really) -  e-books with enhanced content will be the way forward and we can all embrace the future with confidence.  But meanwhile it looks as though copyright might be the casualty and already illegal downloads of books account for 20% of sales.  In fact on Sunday someone showed me exactly how they could download 80% of recent titles on Kindle for nothing.  It was utterly depressing. 

Reading in Publishers Weekly – also at the Fair – they are talking about Safari Books Online which for $300 bucks a year gives you ten titles to read a month on-line or with $473 unlimited access to 17,000 titles and videos.  Subscription might be the way to go instead of owning.  It’s a kind of Netflix for books.   Wonder if something like that might come to the UK?  That said no way I could ten books a month or even want to.

I also see that in the USA in 2011 that e-books sold were worth $473 Million, a 161% change from 2010. That’s out of a total book market worth just over two billion.  (Source: Association of American Publishers)  On that trend it would mean we have one year before it reaches fifty percent of the market… is there a ceiling I wonder?
© Sam North - Editor - April 17th
Author of Diamonds – The Rush of 72 (Print)
DiamondsIPad (iTunes version)
Mean Tide Mean Tide (print)
and e-book on iTunes

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