Optimism thrives at the 2016 London Book Fair

Quill & Quire, April 14, 2016

While in London this week, I dropped by the London Book Fair to see how my former publishing colleagues, friends, and industry newcomers were doing. I am pleased to report they all seemed very pleased with the past year and excited about the future. Publishing Perspectives declared, “All’s right with the book world.” During her speech at the fair’s Quantum Conference, Baroness Gail Rebuck, chair of Penguin Random House U.K., said that “while the incredible revolutions we have lived through in the last 20 years may seem to have changed everything, when you really get down to it, nothing has changed at the core of our industry – it’s still the stories and the people who create those stories, the authors, that underpin everything.”

The Baroness, whom I have known as just Gail since she teamed up with Antony Cheetham to start Century, credited new technologies with opening up new markets, yet was confident that the story and its “transformative power” will remain a hallmark of our civilization, no matter what format readers may choose. Gail’s well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award, presented on the first day of the fair, was a measure of her peers’ appreciation for someone for whom publishing was never just a job, but a vocation. It was also some encouragement for the thousands of young editors labouring away for risible salaries in the deep salt mines of the book business.

Ingram’s new CEO Shawn Morin and its chair, John Ingram, were so optimistic about the future, they had just finalized the multi-million-dollar purchase of Perseus’s distribution arm, a firm with 600 publisher clients (including Toronto’s ECW Press). Morin talked of the increased publisher services Ingram could now offer, and of the potential growth in its print-on-demand business, Lightning Source. The company is already producing 30 million books a year but could easily double its numbers and reduce costs thanks to the recent acquisition of a German company that is using robotics for an even more automated version of the current print-on-demand service.

“We have embraced change,” Ingram said, “as others have to do to if the industry is going to thrive.” Thrive, seems to be Ingram’s key word for the year 2016.

Since this year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the fair honoured the Bard in a variety of ways, including Hogarth’s Tales from Shakespeare, a series of Shakespeare-inspired stories by famous writers. Margaret Atwood’s Hagseed was one of the featured titles. In the Canadian section – a not altogether brilliant arrangement of back-to-back booths – the irrepressible Margie Wolfe of Second Story Press introduced me to the new U.K. publisher of Rosemary McCarney’s Every Day is Malala Day, which is an international bestseller in 13 languages and counting. McCarney is Canada’s ambassador and permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, and the author of five other books. Her latest, Because I Am a Boy, comes out in September.

I was delighted to see my old friend Philip Cercone, executive director of McGill-Queen’s University Press, signing international deals for Laure Dennett’s An American Princess: The Remarkable Life of Marguerite Chapin Caetani. Philip’s editorial talents are perfectly matched with this large wartime story set in three countries, two continents, and in a beautiful garden among the ruins of a medieval town that had offered refuge from fascism.

Greystone Books publisher Rob Sanders – always ebullient about his new titles – was almost levitating at the success of Hidden Life of Trees: What They Fell, How They Communicate, by Peter Wohlleben, with a translation by Jane Billinghurst. I loved the excerpt he was handing out at the fair.

One disappointing note: Canada will not be the Frankfurt Book Fair’s selected nation in 2017, as we had hoped (that honour has been given to Poland). Negotiations with our government are still ongoing, according to Frankfurt’s London rep, but the earliest we can now hope for is 2020.