London Book Fair rivals Frankfurt

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The Independent Online
IT HAS taken nearly 30 years but at long last Britain has conquered the publishing world. London's International Book Fair has emerged as a serious rival to Frankfurt.

Jubilant publishers, agents and writers are celebrating record business at last week's Olympia fair which closed on Wednesday after attracting nearly 13,000 visitors from 100 countries. Most significantly, the exhibition has now established itself as a required date in the diaries of publishers, literary agents and booksellers.

American publishers appearing for the first time in the international rights centre (IRC), where publishing rights are bought and sold, included the Hearst Book Group, HarperCollins US, Grove Atlantic and Random House.

Phyllis Grann, the president of Penguin Putnam, was among the powerful publishing figures making a rare public appearance in the UK.

On the trade floor, 45 countries were represented at nearly 1,500 publishers' stands advertising the cream of their new publications, attracting 11 per cent more British booksellers than last year.

Although the London show is dwarfed by the vast size of the October Frankfurt show, many visitors last week claimed the three-day British fair was now as important for doing business as its better-known rival.

Just as at Frankfurt, the discussions which lead to new novelists becoming rich overnight and securing lucrative deals for established names are done behind the scenes at the IRC.

There, 30-minute meetings are held back-to-back from morning to night, and an extra half-day was added to satisfy demand after the main fair closed on Tuesday.

Helen Shiers, the coordinator, said: "People don't measure the fair in terms of size. They measure it by the success of their business and the hubbub.

"In the rights centre, they did more business in the first two days than they did last year in Frankfurt (which is two days longer). Serious buyers are coming to London." Though the floor space for the trade stands is a sixth of Frankfurt, the smaller size is seen as an advantage, she said. Frankfurt is also open to the public, which London is not.

"Frankfurt is massive, with a lot of different halls. The London Book Fair is under one roof and people can get around." Ms Shiers said registered visitors rose 6 per cent this year on last, with a near 8 per cent increase in the number of people from overseas. The numbers of agents and publishers at the international rights centre had increased by more than 7 per cent to 357, including a sizeable new contingent of Americans.

Ireland, Israel and New Zealand were among the countries represented in the IRC for the first time and a clutch of pounds 100,000-plus deals adds up to millions of pounds worth of business, although most participants were wary of giving details.

Carole Blake, a literary agent with Blake Friedmann, said: "You do more business when you're sitting face to face."

Linda Shaughnessy, foreign rights director of AP Watt, said the London fair had been particularly well organised and many of the foreign publishers preferred it to Frankfurt.

"It's got better each year and this one was particularly good," she said. "It's seen as the important book fair in the spring throughout the world."

Ms Shaughnessy had 60 appointments during the fair. "My schedule is completely full by the middle of February. There are foreign publishers who have come here for the first time who didn't bother with the London Book Fair before."

Sara Fisher, foreign rights director of AM Heath, said London had a real buzz. "It's been really seriously a two-pole year (between Frankfurt and London) for the past two or three years. The great horror is we'll get people asking for appointments before Christmas. We get appointments for Frankfurt in June."

London had also benefited from a glut in talent. "Many European publishers are telling me and my colleagues that there's much more interesting stuff coming out of London at the moment," said Ms Fisher.

There were even stories of scouts, who keep publishers in touch with what is happening, telephoning all the New York publishers anxiously because they feared they were missing something only to find they were not. "There was so little buzz in America," added Ms Fisher.

That excitement meant that, as with Frankfurt, agents found themselves busy organising appointments even in the weeks leading up to the book fair, as some companies tried hard to get in first.

Ms Fisher sold a "major non-fiction project" about the history and future of the geisha just before London opened.

But London does have some way to go before it can possibly outshine Frankfurt in one quarter. "Frankfurt is a business city and it revolves around the fair," she said."It runs incredibly smoothly. In London people were having to wait an hour for a cab because (at night) Olympia is deserted."

HOPE FOR THE BOOKSHOP YET, DESPITE RISE IN INTERNET SALES

BRITISH READERS are browsing virtual bookstores on the internet but still prefer to buy their books on the high street, according to new figures.

As Ottakar's became the latest book chain to announce it was going online, research by an established shop on the net revealed customers remain cautious about new-technology shopping.

Two-fifths of visitors to The Book Pl@ce website said they used it to research new titles and backlists, but chose to buy in a bookshop. Half said they thought they could buy books cheaper elsewhere, even though companies such as market leaders Amazon.com offer heavy discounting on the net. Around 40 per cent said they did not want to wait for delivery. And three-quarters of those questioned by BookEnds, Book Pl@ce's online magazine, said postage charges were too high and they did not trust internet security.

The fears emerged as a pamphlet published by the Fabian Society warned that the Government needed to ensure internet consumers were properly protected against fraud.

Yet much of the industry remains confident consumer confidence can be won. Waterstone's last week joined forces with the Yahoo! internet provider offering free access to its online bookstore and to the whole net. WH Smith has done likewise, selling CDs as well as books.

James Heneage, managing director of Ottakar's, who plans to be online by summer, said Britain would emulate the US boom once customers saw they could trust internet sales.

"Nobody is going to make any money [in the UK] probably for the next year and possibly two," he said. "But in the fullness of time it's going to be a very exciting market."

Simon Murdoch, managing director of the five-month-old British subsidiary of Amazon, said: "If we get it right, we think it will be big."

At present, internet sales account for just 1 per cent of the 320 million books sold in Britain each year. But the figure is expected to rise to 5 per cent within four years.

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