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41st London Book Fair: Times Have Changed

UK- London | Apr 19 2012 | (01:06:54 - EDT)

The trays of free wine and boastful talk of six-figure deals struck at dinner parties might seem to some like the last days of decadence for a publishing world in denial about the digital storm clouds gathering overhead.

But in the main hall of Earl's Court, hundreds of publishers gathered for the 41st London Book Fair have been showing stands of lovely new books as editors meet agents and foreign publishers keen to buy unpublished books, sell foreign rights, and relentlessly talk up their new titles.

In this comfortable world the digital crisis has passed. Every publisher has a digital division, everyone is delighted with ebooks, and the genteel industry that variously describes itself as "quirky" and "a triumph of hope over expectation" bumbles on like before – only with slightly less booze and book fair japes such as editors inventing a "hot" new book title and watching it earnestly debated as a literary sensation.

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The view from the fair's digital zone in the smaller second hall, however, is very different. Here, the physical book trade is dismissed as "legacy publishing" – a pejorative term.

According to George Lossius of Publishing Technology, which provides digital portals and sales systems, non-academic publishers still do not understand the digital world.

"It's not because they are not trying to, it's not because they are not open to it. It's because they've been dazzled by Amazon and Apple and Google, rather than thinking what they can do with their digital content," he said. "They've just reproduced the book in a Kindle."

Simon Potter, of Fast-Print Publishing, said: "The book industry – and I think most people in the industry would admit it – is a mess. There's a lot of people stuck in their ways. Maybe they're in denial that the world is changing. Maybe they don't want the world to change."

Potter is not a big player. Fast-Print has self-published 1,400 authors in a decade, including two of his own – Simon Potter Has The Perfect Face For Radio, and Weird And Wonderful Tales From Peterborough – and would once have been derided as vanity publishing.

In the digital age, however, self-publishing is an idea whose time has come.

The consensus among traditional publishers in the main hall is that they had a wakeup call when Waterstones teamed up with Sony to sell its Reader in 2008. For a few heart-stopping years, publishers feared they would be completely bypassed.

Now they get revenue from ebooks, and all the editors and agents are still here, in jackets and horn-rimmed spectacles, sipping wine beside posters of next season's literary gods, Christopher Hitchens, Will Young and J K Rowling.

Business is brisk upstairs at the 584 tables for literary agents who, like speed-daters, try to charm foreign publishers into buying rights to their authors' books in half-hour rendezvous. The fair has become the largest dedicated rights centre in the world.

"We're doing a lot of deals. No one's mentioned the word 'crisis'," said one literary agent. "All the American publishers are here and they're all keen to buy. There are parties, a lot of schmoozing, people get tipsy, talk things up, then people buy something next morning."

Jamie Byng, publisher at Canongate, which snapped up Jo Marchant's book Heal Thyself, in a big-money deal after a dinner party on the eve of the fair, says the industry is in a state of flux.

He said: "What we think of as Canongate is definitely evolving fast but the core is acquiring the best books we can and editing and marketing them as successfully as we can. If we get that right we'll find an audience, whatever the format. A lot is quite exciting – and there are some disturbing trends too."

If pressed, most publishers admit off-the-record that what disturbs them most is not the protests of dissident writers over the fair's "market focus" on China (it offers talks from a range of Chinese writers approved by the Beijing government). What publishers are really fretting about are the two large stands discretely sidelined in the second hall: Amazon Publishing and Kindle.

Every publisher is whispering about the US justice department's lawsuit against Apple and five publishers accused of price fixing (three have settled; Penguin, Macmillan and Apple fight on).

Byng is not one of those badmouthing Amazon but his nickname for Eric Holder, the US attorney general who brought the action, is "Noddy".

Authors, including Salman Rushdie and Scott Turow, have accused the justice department of threatening to destroy the book world.

If the "agency model" that publishers established with Apple, whereby publishers set a book's price and Apple takes a 30% slice, is outlawed, the ebook field would be open to Amazon, which could become both a monopoly and a monopsony (acting as the only buyer).

Amazon welcomed the lawsuit in the US, calling the initial settlement "a big win for Kindle owners". One traditional publisher said: "It's interesting that Amazon says it's a great day for Kindle owners – it was a great day for Amazon."

Amazon's American-based publishing division and its Kindle arm are keeping a low profile at the fair but the company insists its operations coexist "very nicely" with traditional publishers.

"It's a really big industry and there's room for a lot of different people – self-publishing, Amazon publishing, and all the traditional publishing houses," said Sophie Poderoso, PR manager for Kindle. "We work with traditional publishers. We're selling more books than ever on behalf of publishers and on behalf of self-published authors. The vision is to have every book ever written in the Kindle store, available to read within 60 seconds."

Amazon has signalled its determination to acquire content, as well as sell books and Kindles, by purchasing the lucrative rights to the James Bond backlist in north America.

Not many authors visit the book fair. "It'd be like bringing a cow for a stroll around a meat market," said one editor. But 24-year-old Ben Galley is one of a new breed of author-agent-editor-publisher-publicists.

He published his first book two years ago and makes his living selling his fantasy ebooks. He says he never sought an orthodox deal; instead he bought 10 ISBN numbers for £100 (so his book could be sold in shops), crowd-sourced his cover design (created by someone in Sweden for £180), and purchased a domain name for £10. Then he uploaded his ebook to Amazon.

For his second book he crowd-sourced volunteer editors to proofread his work: "I found beta readers, rather like you have beta apps," he said.

He has sold nearly 50,000 copies of his books at 99p each. He receives a 35% royalty.

But authors receive 70% of ebooks priced above £1.59 on Kindle, which is far in excess of the 8%-15% royalties of traditional publishing.

"Publishing houses need to change their business model," said Galley. "They are still going by the slush method, sifting through a pile of manuscripts from authors they know nothing about. If they look around they'll see people like me, with proven track records, fan bases and sales."

Galley thinks publishers will change like record companies, which increasingly look for unsigned bands that have already built up fans online or on the festival circuit.

Rachel Abbott is the epublishing sensation of 2012. The first-time author of the fourth highest selling ebook on Kindle this year retired to Italy after running an interactive media firm. She wrote a thriller. Rejected by one literary agent, who compared her debut, Only the Innocent, to early Minette Walters, Abbott uploaded it to Amazon for £1.99. At Christmas, she wrote a marketing plan, dispatched a "high risk" review request to bloggers, garnered good reviews on Amazon, and raised the book's profile. She has sold nearly 100,000 copies.

In the US there are self-published millionaires. Britain's biggest selling self-published author, Kerry Wilkinson, was snapped up by Pan Macmillan. Does every digital author secretly crave a "proper" book deal? "It would depend on the deal," said Abbott, her eyes narrowing. But she did not think traditional publishing was dead. "I'd love to see my book in a book store. I want to be on the front desk!"

As digital authors turn to print, so print legends go digital. Barbara Cartland's estate has released her backlist as ebooks, eschewing traditional publishers. Meanwhile, Arrow Books has high hopes for Fifty Shades of Grey, which began life as Twilight fan fiction, became an erotic ebook in Australia last summer, and is now a mainstream publishing sensation, having sold 2m copies in three weeks in the US. Middle-aged ladies have been quietly snaffling physical copies from a book fair stand.

Ultimately, according to Dan Franklin, digital publisher at Random House, physical books still bring in about 80% of publishers' revenues. He said: "Anything anyone does in digital immediately gets a lot of noise. We're trying to work out what is genuinely interesting – and what is making money."

[Photograph: Guardian]

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