Wednesday, 21 April 2010

London Book Fair

As has been broadcast loudly over Tweetdom and beyond, this year's London Book Fair was blighted by the total shut-down of air traffic into and out of the UK, thanks to dust clouds from the Icelandic Volcano. So for me, an LBF debutant, it was a strange and atypical experience, very different from Bologna, still fresh memory in my memory. The big international publishers were all represented and busy enough, as were of course all the British stands. But spotlights of activity were countered by rows of forlorn empty spaces reserved for overseas publishers that never showed. Saddest was all was the complete no-show of South African publishers, this year's showcased country. This final day was undoubtably the quietest, many publishers seem to have left early, though for me it was a very positive day.

For some the Fair provided unanticipated chances. Some of my subversive quick-thinking writer friends, dubbing themselves Volcano Squatters,  commandeered one of the many empty stands and filled it with books, while editors and art directors, when they could be found, seemed to have a little more time to chat than might otherwise have  been expected. One of my meetings rambled on for a very pleasurable hour. Regrettably I had to leave before 5.00 each evening to collect my daughter, but I hear there were several good networking events. Here's an assessment on the Fair from The Bookseller.

Regarding the children's publishers, on the smaller (mostly British) stands I saw a heavily disproportionate leaning towards commercial mass market titles and comparatively few trade titles aimed at a more sophisticated readership. Perhaps this is just my interpretation, but certainly compared to the broad spectrum on show at Bologna I couldn't find many arty "gems". This supported one of the themes debated at the excellent seminar The Big Picture - The importance of illustrating for older children, where among other things Anthony Browne, Marcia Williams, Martin Brown and Nicolette Jones discussed how British publishing is almost unique in the way children's books are downgraded and closely bracketed as only for kids, how sophisticated works have a limited market. "You don't find this in Europe or anywhere else, only in Britain" observed Anthony Browne. The evidence was plainly seen on the trade floors (though as ever there are exceptions). My experience in Japan, where adults collect children's books, and indeed some picture books are designed for adult readership (poetry with pictures), is unknown in the UK. The fascinating works on show from many nations at Bologna too were greatly missed in London.

Nevertheless it was a thought-provoking Fair. The seminars were excellent and largely packed out, perhaps because people had more time on their hands, or maybe it was the very impressive line-up of speakers. I unfortunately missed some key choices due to clashing meetings, but those handful I did attend were great. Drawing in the World: an International Perspective on Cover Design of Children's Books was hosted by Nicolette Jones and featured Jon Lambert (Templar), Antonia Pelari (Scholastic) and Patrick Insole (Walker). It was an in depth look at the way different markets required different covers and the processes involved, with Lambert displaying some of the covers he's worked on at Templar. Again the difference between the UK and other markets was sharply highlighted. Comparing two versions of a picture book cover, one for France the other for the UK, Pelari mentioned how "The British like huggy covers, France looks for something more sophisticated". Curiously, most agreed that the French cover was much the stronger image.... 

Two other highlights: Author Eoin Colfer at the PEN stand peppered his talk with anecdotes of his family background, reminding me how a writers own childhood experiences are a rich vein to source for material. Yet another author who made me want to stop drawing and start writing.

...and the ipad. First sight of this on demonstration and hands on. What can I say, except - WOW.
Mr Roxburgh, I've seen the light.

I left the Fair with a much stronger perception of the nuances of publishing in this country today. All the years I lived in Japan I thought I had a good idea of the market in the UK, but I realise now that I was so immersed in Japanese culture I had only a selective impression. Some of the sharper lessons of publishing here were missed, it's still true that you really have to be very close to the business in any one country to understand it. These last 2 years back in the UK for me have been highly revealing, as a consequence my approach to children's literature has been greatly focused. For these revelations alone the Fair was worthwhile. The seminars, catching up with fellow creators and publishing staff, and having some very positive meetings added to the depth of the experience.

It's all good.


kathryn evans said...

Very Interesting to get your perspective, and lovely to see you, albeit briefly.

Candy Gourlay said...

very good write-up, john - perceptive and reflective. i did feel a little niggle of dismay when we were talking about the covers tastes of various countries and someone said French covers were more sophisticated. i wonder if it's not that it's sophisticated but uncommercial. there are pluses and minuses for the british book world. the big plus is UK publishing are world leaders at children's books. the big minus is, as nicolette jones said, the books tend to portray a homogenized world.

clare said...

A very similar point about how the publishing industry in the UK restricts illustrated books to young children was also made in the excellent seminar on "New Opportunities: Graphic Novels and Digital".

John said...

Publishers only reflect the market, I think books in the UK rarely have chance to draw the readers towards them unless they have big backing or are by name authors, hence smaller publishers depend more on commercial titles that reach out and grab their market by the throat rather than enticing it with sophistication. There are sophisticated children's books being produced here, of course, but I didn't see them on show very much. Did you notice the bigger corporate publisher stands generally seemed to display their adult titles rather than children's books, Hachette's children's division had a tiny little stand compared to the adult one.

John said...

by "sophisticated" I'm refering of course design and illustration. Sophisticated texts are abundant in the UK. We are, after all, the country of Shakespeare, we have a literary heritage. Whereas our graphic tradition stems from social comment outside the mainstream of culture (Hogarth, Gillray etc).That's why, I feel, graphic arts have always been seen as lower ranking than the "fine arts".

Iban Barrenetxea said...

Very interesting to read about the London Book Fair through the eyes of an author. How I wish I was there too!

Gillian McClure said...

This is a great post - as was the one you did on the Bologna fair.
It's so frustrating that there's such a limited market for picture books for older children and adult collectors. I met one such collector who said there were fewer and fewer of the type of picture book she liked to collect. We shall have to do something to bring them back.