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The London Book Fair 2023: Focus On Negotiations And Sensitive Content From Ukraine20.05.2023
The London Book Fair, long known as the “gateway to English-language publishing” was back for the first time without Covid-19 restrictions, and became the debut book event for its new director, Gareth Rapley. The focus was on Ukraine, sustainable development, artificial intelligence, and career guidance for emerging publishing professionals. Chytomo visited the London Book Fair to bring you the most important insights.
The publication is supported by the British Council and the Ukrainian Institute as part of the UK/Ukraine Season of Culture.
The last four years have been particularly challenging for the London Book Fair, which was supposed to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2020 but was canceled instead. Then it had a hard time with the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to a leadership change, and three directors came and went over this time. The fair has been heavily criticized: before the pandemic — because of Brexit, and afterward — because of the inflexible Covid-19 policy and attendance costs.
It is still unclear whether the situation will change under Gareth Rapley’s leadership, but the fair has come to life, and this year’s 1000+ participants have proved that it remains one of the key book events in the world.
Rapley’s vision of the future is rather conservative: “I think it’s quite difficult to innovate when you have such an established, well-respected brand,” he said during a meeting with Chytomo.
Five hundred international exhibitors made up almost half of all participants. The rest were publishers from the UK. France was represented by one of the largest and most visible stands, which accommodated eighty publishers. Bilingual Canada was represented by sixteen publishers from both English-speaking and French-speaking provinces. While publishers from Germany, Austria, Belgium, and Switzerland jointly represented German-language literature. According to Jürgen Boos, Director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the tendency to cooperate emerged after the Covid-19 pandemic. “I don’t know if it was driven by the need to cut costs or if we just realized that we were not competing with each other,” he said in an exclusive comment.
The London Book Fair doesn’t have a significant political value, it is “pure business,” and cultural representation means much less here than anywhere else.
Stand design is far from visualizing messages or concepts, and is aimed only at demonstrating the company’s significance or selling specific titles. The illustrator or author of the day chosen by the fair are the names with big contracts with Disney+ and PRH.
The organizers note, however, that the LBF still strives to become a platform for important discussions, as book publishing is a “critical industry” of strategic importance. That’s why the topic of sustainability, curated by the International Publishers Association, appeared on the agenda. The discussion, triggered by specific problems, such as optimizing business during the paper shortage, the impact of war, the economic crisis, and Brexit on supply chains and distribution, turned into one of the central topics of the fair and took up a separate space.
Rachel Martin, the Global Director of Sustainability at Elsevier, said that the interest in the topic was caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced people to reevaluate not only the book industry but also their lifestyle. Then there was the impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine, which brought changes to the supply chain and energy security. However, these are not the only crises for the industry and the world.
“The EU’s climate goals are under threat, and last year was the first year when we invested big chunks of our budget into renewables because we wanted to have energy security,” she noted.
The IPA emphasized the importance of achieving all seventeen sustainability indicators. “This is critical because they are very interconnected. Progress in one area means that progress has to be made in a few other ones as well,” Rachel explained.
Things are going well in the UK market: the LBF director, referring to the Nielsen BookScan Data, reported a 13% increase in sales compared to 2020, 50% growth in the segment of audiobooks (compared to 2018), and £2.5 billion pounds spent by Britons on books in 2022, with one in four consumers saying they had watched TikTok’s BookTok during the year.
The UK is a model of balanced sales: children’s literature and nonfiction sell equally well (35% each), while fiction accounts for the rest of the sales (30%). There are virtually no other categories in sales.
The royal family has recently had a big impact on the book selection on the local market. There are books about the coronation of Charles III for every taste, ranging from his biographies to stories about the coronation and Peppa Pig. New books about Prince Harry keep appearing as well, although not as often because the world bestseller has already been published and is well-known: according to the Nielsen BookData, 1.2 million copies of Spare have been sold (excluding the sales in the US market). Colin Hoover was named the best-selling author in 7 out of 12 countries.
Children’s literature comprises the biggest part of book sales in Australia and Aotearoa, where it makes up half of the market, while the sales of books for children and teenagers are the lowest — only 20% — in Italy. By the way, Italian readers have grown very fond of manga, and this is a separate a very commercial trend in this market.
The situation is very different only in Poland, where only local authors became bestselling, in particular, Olga Tokarczuk with her book Empuzjon (Wydawnictwo Literackie), her first novel after winning the Nobel Prize.
Publishers are still discussing Brexit. Almost none of the British exhibitors at the fair spoke positively about the consequences of leaving the EU: the prices have gone up, exports have become difficult, and so has doing business. Ireland became the only winner in this situation: it has become very difficult for UK publishers to supply English-language books there, and many have simply abandoned this market.
Experts continue to argue that the “growth” in the number of translated titles on the English-language market is a statistical error, and it is unlikely that their share is bigger than 3%. Even though panelists at the Centre for Literary Translation stand voiced a bigger figure, 6%, even the nature of the discussion made it clear that translation from other languages is driven by the passion of translators and some small publishers, and not by the demand from British readers.
This figure is made possible only due to translation grants, residencies, and friendships with local authors and publishers. In the English-language market (as opposed to, for instance, the Spanish-language market), translators play the role of literary scouts and generally influence the choice of titles to be published.
Rachel Stevens, Director Literature at the British Council, marked the growth in the number of translated titles over the last decades, “A lot has changed in the last 20–30 years: the number of fiction books translated from other languages and published in the UK is growing. This is nothing compared to other European markets. Small independent publishers are really playing a big role in this, taking risks and paving the way.”
Rachel Stevens at the British Council stand at the London Book Fair
The British Council tries to mitigate these risks by researching new markets, and helping to establish connections with foreign publishers, mentorships, and other programs.
The results of this work have a rather long-lasting effect. British expert Emma Shercliff, after conducting thorough research of the Ukrainian book market, opened her own literary agency, which now represents four Ukrainian authors: Victoria Amelina, Artem Chapai, Mstyslav Chernov, and Oleksandr Mykhed. This wonderful side effect became a more significant development for Ukraine than the research itself.
Negotiations As The Main Format
And, of course, private informal parties. But you will be invited there only if you succeed in the former. This year, the LBF has slightly expanded the rights trading area — now there are 500 (+50) tables for agents and scouts in two zones. William Crona, an agent from the Swedish literary agency Albatros, specializing in the rights for Swedish thrillers and their film adaptations, remarked that for his agency, such arrangements make perfect sense. After the fair, he showed his calendar with all the planned meetings, which included about 30 appointments over the course of three days. Making contacts online is less effective, he added: “It’s possible, but face-to-face meetings carry more weight.”
Awards and honors. The London Book Fair is where the Booker Prize shortlists are announced, and where the ceremonies for the Trailblazer Awards for emerging publishing professionals and International Excellence Awards are held. This year, Bloomsbury Publishing (UK) won the Initiative Award, Minoa (Turkey) received Bookstore of the Year Award, Macmillan Audio (US) was named Audiobook Publisher of the Year, and Bonnier Books (UK) once again received the Inclusivity in Publishing Award. Klaus Flugge, the founder of the iconic Andersen Press (UK), became the recipient of this year’s LBF Lifetime Achievement Award.
Headhunting sessions and meetings with schoolchildren. Beginners and those who would like to try their hand at book publishing comprise a big part of those who come to the London Book Fair. For them, there are separate slots to have meetings with employers, which were apparent by queues of excited students and beginners in the industry. For schoolchildren who have just begun to think about their professional future, the fair, in cooperation with the National Literacy Trust, set up a separate program.
The industry must continue to attract young people, said Jürgen Boos, who also encourages cooperation with university students.
The new director of the London Book Fair is sure that the programs involving schoolchildren and students will become a mainstay: “We are getting old, no one lives forever. So we have to give young people the opportunity to explore the industry and what it can give them,” Gareth Rapley said.
“Usually it’s the seasoned professionals who attend the fair. But the younger generation is as important to us as experienced publishers,” he added.
Book pitching sessions are another format that attracts interest from big and small publishers. The pitching sessions are open to all members of the publishers’ association, and the 5-minute presentation is aimed only at stimulating retailers, i.e. booksellers who can choose which books will make a worthy addition to their selection.
Ukraine: “Sensitive Content”
This year, Ukraine was represented with a national stand and also became the Spotlight Country of the Year. This included the opening event of the fair and a series of discussions dedicated to Ukraine. Almost all Ukrainian events took place in the English PEN Literary Salon, which, in cooperation with PEN Ukraine, gave a very distinctive voice to the themes of literature during war, decolonization, and freedom. Meanwhile, the stand was prepared thanks to the cooperation of a number of partners, with the main organizer being the Ukrainian Book Institute, for whom this fair was the third major international event this year.
The concept of the stand, which took up almost fifty square meters, “Sensitive content,” was very much in line with Ukrainian and global reality — not everyone is ready to make the extra step to get more information. The most visible part of the stand was the installation by Daria Bila and Sofia Hupalovska called “A Destroyed Library,” which consisted of real furniture from Ukrainian libraries destroyed by Russians. The authors wanted to highlight the need to “blur the reality” in order to live on, and this left an impression on the stand visitors. Sensitive content is hard to sell, but it attracts attention.
More than 20 publishers presented their books at the stand. Those of them who had already been to the London Book Fair, participated in mentorships and fellowships from the British Council Ukraine, or had extensive international experience clearly had an advantage. By the way, many publishers had built up this experience during the war. According to the Ukrainian Book Institute, even without a translation support program, which didn’t receive funding in 2022, the number of translations from Ukrainian doubled (120 licenses were sold in 2021 and 230 were sold in 2022). Even those publishers who considered the foreign rights’ sale “unprofitable,” are now actively trying to enter the foreign market. This opportunity is not only about business development but also about the need to talk about what’s happening in Ukraine.
The Old Lion Publishing participated in the London Book Fair with the goal of acquiring rights and finding publishers for works by Ukrainian authors in translation. According to Olha Besarab, rights manager at the Old Lion Publishing, “Selling rights is always a difficult task, especially in markets with fewer translations, such as the UK. This year’s participation has so far resulted in new good contacts and a confirmed sale of rights for Sofia Andrukhovych’s Amadoca to France and an interest from Spain.”
Another positive development was the fact that more and more publishers started diversifying their work: they had meetings with distributors, translators, and separate bookstores, and not only with agents.
Negotiations at the Ukrainian stand
Also, it became clear that agents and publishers who come to the Ukrainian stand have an increasingly sophisticated idea of Ukrainian literature: “Last year, they asked for Zelenskyi’s speeches, and this year they inquired about specific Ukrainian authors,” Olha Mukha, co-organizer of Ukraine’s participation in the LBF, noted.
“On the one hand, the London Book Fair impressed me with its smaller size, compared to the Frankfurt Book Fair, and its professionalism, on the other hand. Here I had the opportunity to make a personal connection with heads of publishing houses. As for the sale of rights, this level of representation allows us to get better and faster results. For instance, we managed to sell the rights for War through the Eyes of Children, the book we created jointly with the Children’s Voices Foundation, to a major American publisher, and now we are finalizing this agreement in writing. We also hope that other meetings will bring real results in the form of signed agreements. For example, we have seen interest in books by Kateryna Babkina, Tamara Horikha-Zernia, Pavlo Matiusha, and Valentyn Pospielov,” Victoria Ma, executive director of the OVO Literary Agency, commented.
Many of the publishers were not sure whether they would be able to attend the fair: Ukraine is at war, and this imposes significant restrictions, on planning as well. Artem Braichenko, a co-founder of the їzhak publishing house, came to the fair even though it was impossible to plan the trip in advance: “Some might say that this is wrong in terms of planning processes, but I call it flexibility. These short meetings brought excellent results for us. In particular, we are now one step closer to signing two agreements to sell the rights to one of our publications. We also have an agreement with a new foreign partner to jointly create a British-Ukrainian book project.”
Even though the їzhak publishing house came to London “unprepared,” the interest in their publications was quite significant, and according to Artem, they even had to turn down some offers: “There was a publisher interested in acquiring the English rights for our book Ukraine. Food and History, but I had to pass. The reason is quite simple. It will be difficult for us to compete with a foreign publisher when it comes to selling our own edition, printed in Ukraine during the Russian invasion, which we are now selling abroad through Amazon. But I’m happy to see the interest of foreign publishers in our publications and projects.”
“War and Writing: Stories from Ukraine” discussion with Victoria Amelina, Oleksandr Mykhed (online), and Luke Harding. Moderated by Uilleam Blacker
According to the fair’s director, the Guest Spotlight program and some other presentation opportunities for international participants will remain in the plans of the London Book Fair in the coming years.
Translated by Tetiana Savchynska
This publication is sponsored by the Chytomo’s Patreon community
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