Ideas
Great Expectations
Three days at the London Book Fair would drive anyone to drink.



   

Monday       

There is a romantic notion that much of the literary world exists apart from the rest of mankind. Authors will appear at a festival or two and say things like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, because I have not owned a television in 30 years.” They talk about their time living in the woods, getting in touch with their inner Thoreau, spending three days thinking about the word “blue.” When readers think of the magical process of writing, publishers would prefer the image to be Tolstoy scratching out Anna Karenina in a wintry Russian landscape and not someone staying up all night on Ritalin to cut and paste together a biography of Heath Ledger immediately after his death.

All of the romanticism and art is cut away from publishing at the London Book Fair. There are no authors here, and hardly even a bookseller. These are the business people of publishing, the agents and rights specialists and digital directors in their suits, pulling wheeled suitcases that they will gleefully roll over your toes if you get in the way. They have very important meetings to get to, and they are already five minutes late because no one can seem to find the International Rights Center.

The London Book Fair does not much resemble the madcap atmosphere of Book Expo America, where booksellers pummel each other for the free, limited edition Maisy Mouse bag they will stuff with galleys that will be thrown away, unread. If Book Expo America is a carnival — full of people desperately trying to draw attention to themselves with costumes, sway, and the occasional barely dressed woman — then the London Book Fair has all the atmosphere of an accountancy seminar. We are here at Earl’s Court to make deals and sell product, with brief breaks to discuss why we are not selling much product anymore.

After fighting through the crowds — past the booth of remaindered books with a banner yelling TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE WEAK AMERICAN DOLLAR — and making a brief stop at the Mills & Boon booth to swipe a few pieces of candy, I sit down at the PEN Literary Café. It’s less a café and more just a few tables and chairs arranged between overpriced coffee and a booth of books in Polish. A posted schedule lists authors who will be trotted out to talk about imprisoned writers, state-sponsored censorship, and fatwas. After all, Beirut has been named the World Book Capital for 2009. Lad lit writer Tony Parsons is scheduled to be at the café, ostensibly not to talk about his own books, as no one would ban a perfectly harmless writer as himself. (“Oh, I don’t know,” a journalist later tells me over a bottle of wine. “Someone probably should have banned him when he was writing his column about the break-up of his marriage to another columnist, who was also writing about the break-up. But I doubt even PEN would have helped him.”)

At the moment, the PEN Café is filled with men and women with their backs turned to PEN president Lisa Apiganessi. “When writers get together, it’s mostly to ask what your agent is doing for you, what’s your publisher doing for you, and then lots of griping,” she says. But there are no writers here, so the audience uses the tables to conduct the meetings the writers will later use as fodder for their griping. I start gathering my things when the name Salman Rushdie is tossed around on stage. I lost sympathy for him when he married a model 24 years his junior and then expressed surprise when she left. Ten a.m. might seem like it’s too early to hit the champagne bar on the other side of the room, but I can’t imagine attending today’s panel on the state of American publishing sober.

On my way there I’m distracted by the second display of books about Jeff Buckley that I’ve seen today. Two separate publishers, two different books on the hot, dead singer. No wonder everyone wants to put his face in their booths — he is much prettier than Ian McEwan. This publisher wins, however, by also having a display of Heath Ledger biographies. I try to find a copy of the book in the display, but it’s just a dummy of the cover art.

“Are you a fan?” asks the publisher.

“Not really,” I say. “I’m just trying to find out if the book was written before or after his death.”

“After.” She points to a pile of papers on her table. “I’m editing the final chapter now.” I bite back a response of, “Yeah, that’s kind of gross,” and she asks, “Do you have a card? We can send a copy when it’s available.”

“Not on me, no,” I tell her, then scurry out in the direction of the champagne. I am not the only one queued up for a drink.

Over at the conference center, I pick a seat near the door so I can sneak out easily if the news of the troubled state of American publishing becomes too depressing. I pull out my notebook and pen and slide down in my chair, still wearing my black trench coat in the overly air conditioned room. The program director of Book Expo America, a man I have been avoiding since a panel I chaired for him three years ago degraded into name-calling and raised voices, spots me. “You’re looking awfully sinister over here in the corner,” he says. The last time I saw him was the day after the panel, when he shook his finger at me and said, “I heard about what happened.” I am not ashamed to say I turned and briskly walked away.

“Just call me Scoop,” I tell him. Luckily he is pulled away before our small talk can change from a polite exchange about Midwestern weather to why I will never be invited to chair a panel at Book Expo ever again.

The soft jazz fades away, and Michael Cader from Publisher’s Marketplace begins with an overview of recent problems in the industry. Borders, the giant bookstore chain that forced the closure of countless independent bookstores, is now shutting some of its own stores and might possibly be for sale. Writers are now more loyal to their agents (positive reinforcement) than their editors (negative reinforcement). Harcourt and Houghton Mifflin merged, only to prove that sometimes, in the words of Cader, “one plus one equals somewhat less than one.” He has not even introduced the rest of the panel yet and already I’m wishing for another drink.

After some self-congratulatory talk about how worldly the American market has become, Robert Gottlieb from Trident Media addresses the sad state of American fiction: “Fiction is expensive.” The support for fiction disappeared alongside the independent bookstore because big box bookstores do not generally employ workers who read the books. I think that makes fiction the spotted owl and Borders the Oregon logging companies. With no one sure how to sell fiction anymore, the future looks bleak. Nonfiction is a safe bet because the subject drives the sales. “Publishers tend to do the same thing over and over and over again,” which means the market will be drowning in copycats of current success stories for years to come. Get ready for more I-solved-my-mid-life-crisis-with-yoga-and-international-travel memoirs in the vein of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love and watered-down versions of whatever A New Earth is exactly. I haven’t looked at it because I am too frightened by the author’s facial hair.

Over salmon and cucumber white-bread sandwiches and pints of beer, I expressed my condolences to George Walkley, digital director at Little, Brown, about the death of fiction. He looked puzzled. “I can show you stats from Book Scan that contradict what they just said.” So what fiction is he excited about? “Well, we have a book about a serial killer. It’s a bit like Dexter, but less sympathetic.” And what does the killer do? “He starts killing off everyone involved in reality programming — the stars, the producers…” His eyes sparkle as he tells me this. At the very least, he’ll have a large audience of novelists who will find the killer sympathetic.

Back at the PEN Café — also known as the only place to sit down that isn’t a urine-smelling stairwell — I flip through Publishers Weekly’s report on the first day of the London Book Fair. On a list of interesting books whose rights are up for grabs is the second novel by Marissa Pessl. Look! A white American novelist, who did quite well! Michael Cader was wrong when he said there were no “hot young things” left.

I scan the blurb about her second book and become confused. She’s shopping a book called Night Film, the story of an investigation into an apparent suicide. This is her follow-up to the successful Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a novel about an investigation into an apparent suicide.

Suddenly I don’t care much anymore that fiction is dead


Tuesday


   Party down: The Market Focus  
   Tapas Bar.

We are gathered here together in the conference center at 9:30 a.m. to “start a conversation on how to make publishing sexy.” At least that is how the London Book Fair Daily explains a panel titled “The Publishers Association Keynote: The Value of Publishing to Society.” And when the panelists shuffle in — some government wonks, a physicist, and the head of Random House, the least sexy conglomerate publisher I can think of — it’s clear I should have gone to the panel on the Romanian book market instead.

None of the panelists are younger than 50, and none of them has anything to say about making publishing sexy. Instead they talk about books’ “transformative powers,” followed by a discussion lasting a solid seven minutes on peer-reviewed science journals that seems to have come from Mars. Everyone but the talking physicist is looking around, confused. The panelists avoid eye contact with one another and have taken a sudden interest in the ceiling tiles. Finally, after uttering the sentence, “1642 is my favorite year of our nation’s history,” University of Bristol’s Emeritus Professor of Physics Sir John Enderby stops talking, and the rest of the panel goes back to this question of how to get more people to read. Talking about books in the same language one would describe the benefits of a daily multivitamin is maybe not the best way to sex up the industry.

I’m left wondering — again — why publishing has to have such low self-esteem all the time. No one is out there thinking, “Hrm, how we do make filmgoing sexy?” I tune out the man telling us why the Internet is evil (They give things away there! For free!) and start listing out the people who can help us with this dilemma of unsexiness. There was that one publisher who had touched my arm that morning — in a “hello, please get out of the way” way — making me all fluttery for a second. Cloud Atlas novelist David Mitchell is sexy, in that adorably awkward kind of way. Someone could make Neil Gaiman the official ambassador of sexy reading and send him around the States. Or just set up a 900 number and have him read naughty bedtime stories in that accent of his.

I’m brought back to consciousness by the words “National Year of Reading.” This is the second time in two days I’ve heard the British government’s declaration that reading is a solution to the problem of a dwindling audience for literature. Of course, the National Endowment of the Arts and other such organizations that declare reading at risk always have a narrow view of what “reading” actually is. It tends not to include comics, anything online, or biographies of hot, dead young men. Their idea of reading, according to Gail Rebuck from Random House, are only those things that lead people to “becoming active citizens.” And what was last year anyway, the National Year of Eating Your Vegetables?

While trying to scam free books from Kate Chaillat at the Canongate booth, I ask her opinion on how to make publishing sexy. “Why does publishing have to be sexy?” she says. “We put a naked woman on the cover of the new Alasdair Gray book, and all that does is guarantee it will be closed off to the entire Middle Eastern market.” She pauses. “Besides, I saw some publishers dancing last night, and that was definitely not sexy.”

I decide to skip the translation panel I had planned to attend after lunch. The London Book Fair had declared this year’s market focus the Arab World. This meant two things that I could tell. One, instead of just hideously overpriced stale pizzas and soggy sandwiches, you could also now find hideously overpriced Middle Eastern food. Two, at every panel, some publisher had to himself on the back about the increased sales of works in translation. In reality, however, translated works now make up approximately four percent of books published in the English-speaking world, instead of the previous three percent. Whenever a representative from an Arabic publisher stood up during the Q&A section to ask why, if there’s so much interest in translated literature, more literature is not translated, he is answered with awkward silence. “Translation is expensive,” is a general answer given, once someone on a panel realizes no one is going to volunteer to speak first.

I figure the translation panel will be just an hour-long version of this, and so I head to the convention center to watch Peter Mayer, the former head of Penguin Books and current head of Overlook Press, get a lifetime achievement award in the form of a large pink bowl. At the very least, there is free champagne here, and unidentifiable meat served up in satay form. The room is filled with people who were actually around when Mayer ran Penguin in the ‘70s, and there are a lot of inside jokes I am not getting. Mayer begins quoting Kafka, comparing publishers to Kafka’s man chained to both the heavens and the earth, and saying that clinging to one means being choked by the other. I think he means don’t be a snob, though also don’t just publish trash to satisfy profit margins, but I just downed two glasses of champagne in quick succession before remembering I haven’t eaten yet today. My verbal comprehension skills could be impaired. Two tiny little bacon tartlets aren’t going to absorb much of the alcohol, so I start for the elevators.

The stairs are blocked off, so there is only one tiny elevator to get back to the exhibition hall. A large group of us stand around awkwardly, waiting for the next one. A woman there stares at my name badge. Each group is given a different colored badge — the wholesalers, the agents, the exhibitors. Mine is yellow for press, and it also has a large USA across the bottom, which I find obnoxious. So does hers, but her badge reads “Independent Bookseller.” “This is not like BEA,” she says to me. “There are no books here!” She is a little bewildered by the goings on in London. Independent booksellers seem so pure of heart, selling books because they love them, and not because the publishers paid exorbitant amounts to display wares on the front tables of their stores.

“No, it’s not like BEA,” I say, beginning to wobble a bit. And thank god for that, I think. At BEA, authors, booksellers, press, agents, publicists, publishers, and aspiring hopefuls clutching unpublished manuscripts cram into an exhibition hall and attempt to woo one another. Publishers try to woo booksellers into placing large orders with free T-shirts, a jaunty pitch, and all the books they can carry. Authors try to woo the press with drinks and dinners, and on and on. It’s all very unsavory. Besides, if this were BEA, after two very full glasses of champagne I’d probably be off to make out with a married man in an alley instead of in search of something to stabilize my blood sugar. Although, honestly, I’m beginning to miss the unhealthy atmosphere there.

As the crowd around the elevator door grow, she introduces me to the rest of the American booksellers that the London Book Fair brought over for unexplained reasons. (“I don’t know, just to show us around, I guess!”) They’re being taken from one meal to another, with brief stops to see old, retired publishing guys honored with large, pink bowls. One bookseller looks at me and says, “Oh yes, Bookslut. I’ve seen your site.” He does not say this in a friendly tone. I help the group find the exit and I look for a place to collapse in front of a steak and ale pie.


Wednesday

On Wednesday morning, the center is dead. No more rushing about with trolleys filled with importance, no more hour-long lines for bacon sandwiches (roll, bacon, ketchup). Everyone is either too hungover from industry cocktail parties the night before, or decided they had just had enough.


A Fair panel — "Digitize of Die: What
is the future of the author?"

I peek my head inside the classroom for “Harnessing the Power of Social Media,” where people who just figured out how to hit “reply” instead of “reply all” in their e-mail programs are being taught about Twitter. It looks like their managers saw the marketing team sipping coffee and staring at their shoes, asked “Do we need a blog?” and demanded that everyone attend some classes on the Internet.

There is an Irish woman at the front of the classroom saying something along the lines of, “We found out there’s this thing called Facebook. You should probably join it.” There’s a pie chart in her PowerPoint presentation, showing that people really do like the Internet, even more than they like the radio. I stay to listen for a while, but I get the feeling that the wrong people are in the audience. As I heard a publisher breathlessly say the day before, “Platform is everything!” The success stories being told here involve the publishers latching onto writers with online presences and building on their existing audience. She really seems to believe that qualifies as a marketing strategy. There should be writers here instead, learning how screwed they are if they’re not building an online audience while working on their manuscripts.

It’s been a mystery throughout the fair why publishers are so frightened and bewildered by the Internet. I heard MP Tony Baldry connect the Internet with the collapse of the publishing industry. (It went something like, someone puts up recipes for free on a Web site, people just use the free recipes instead of buying the cookbook, publisher decides to stop publishing cookbooks, full collapse.) Even hip, independent publishers that produce innovative works of literature seem to have admitted defeat with their Web sites. Their sites are out of date, hard on the eyes, difficult to navigate, and generally only list a few blurbs and the price of the book.

I retreat from Earl’s Court to find a cup of coffee for less than four pounds and decide to take a look at the revamped Granta Web site that went live the day before. I remember the previous version, and I remember shielding my eyes from the sheer ugliness. I also remember cursing under my breath when a link that looks like it will bring me an essay instead brings a page that only says, “Buy this issue!” The redesign is not bad. They have some exclusively online content, a few archives made available to non-subscribers. Granta also publishes books, an aspect hidden from visitors to their previous website. In fact, some of the books that had been displayed in their Book Fair booth looked really interesting. I click on the “Granta Books” link on the front page.

“Granta Books will launch a new website later this year.”

How many years that message will remain on their Web site is anybody’s guess. As I sit in the sun and finish my coffee, I try to think of a reason to head back to the convention center. I fail. I pull a James Schuyler novel out of my bag, shut down my computer, and happily get back to the real business of books. • 18 April 2008



Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. Her column appears here every other week. She currently resides in Chicago.



Photos courtesy of the London Book Fair and by ricoeurian via Flickr (Creative Commons).



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The 2008 London Book Fair
Not the carnival of Book Expo America; more like an accountancy seminar.
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