Trade publishing update

April 2024 


The IPG’s trade publishing correspondent Will Atkinson reflects on The London Book Fair and some lessons learned on the power of connections, marketing and audio

So why was The London Book Fair so jolly, given that the UK was going back into recession and the world news is so grim? Had the queue to retrieve coats been reduced to only half an hour? Were the ladies’ loos now fit for purpose? Had they sorted the lighting / carpet combo in the rights centre, so as not to get a migraine each time you went in? Was it the weather? 

No. Given that there was a better than half chance of not getting Covid, the traditionally cautious Americans were back in force, there were more Europeans, an increasing presence from the Middle East and a good cohort from Asia. Many hadn’t attended for a while, so they came, making it busier than before Covid. 

Why does meeting up matter so much when most of the business is conducted remotely? Well, it’s the people, stupid. The headlines at the fair seemed to be all about big book acquisitions and not much else. I was having a drink with an editor at a large corporate, still in their twenties, who casually dropped into conversation that they had lost an auction by £83,000, having offered £250,000. Big, obvious non-fiction properties are beyond the reach of us independents. Corporates will, for serious amounts of money, buy writers who have a platform—because they’re either a celebrity or have a track record or huge social media following. The bigger the platform, the bigger the money. On the fiction side, novels that tick all the boxes in the current market go for eye watering sums of money too. It is the price of certainty. 

For independents, securing copyrights is a different game. We buy our books on laughably little knowledge. We scramble together an empirical argument with things like BookScan comparisons, sales in other countries and previous books, which isn’t usually much to go on. So you are then down to passion, experience and gut. 

But if you have good global relationships, you are better placed.  A strong friendship with a foreign publisher is a short cut into another’s bestsellers, taste, market and address book. It ameliorates the under-connection we all face as small publishers into the well-connected, giving rise to opportunities. Philip Gwyn Jones bought Gut for Scribe on the back of his German connections; sales are now approaching a million. Carol Janeway at Knopf ‘saved’ the Oppenheimer biography American Prometheus for Ravi Mirchandani, so it could be his first acquisition at Atlantic; sales are heading towards 150,000. These relationships were forged in person, in and out of offices, at fairs, at parties. Not on Zoom, email or phone. 

The pros and cons of homeworking 

Arguably, dealing with foreign publishers was the first type of hybrid working in publishing, working both in person and online / phone / fax / post. It has been going on since the Frankfurt Book Fair began in 1949, and in London since the mid-1970s. Ironically, we have been trying to work this through in our own offices over the past four years. Judging by conversations at LBF, two or three days in the office now seems the norm in the UK, and publishers in the US are struggling to get people in at all. 

People see the homeworking mentality as a generational awkwardness, which is pretty much true, but this ignores the hierarchical issue. Publishing relies on a vast array of overworked middle managers accomplishing relatively intricate tasks. What better way to get through those than at home, unbothered by anyone in the office? As a CEO or leader, you are responsible for the culture and the brand, and for bosses at any level the job is to develop your books, people and company. I would argue that it is nigh on impossible to do this effectively without regular physical congregation of some kind. The publishers of the previous century worked out that they would have better businesses by meeting their international counterparts regularly, and that can be applied to today’s internal office relationships with colleagues.

Modern marketing and publicity

Big brands—and, now, authors with big platforms—do take a good majority of the publicity oxygen, which is fair enough. During lockdown, there was a golden moment when publicity for an author sold books. There has never been a linear relationship between publicity and sales, but according to the corridor chat at LBF, this was at something of an all time low. This moved on to serious discussions about what exactly are the drivers for selling books right now if you don’t have a brand, platform or TikTok and face cautious retailers and shrinking PR opportunities. 

The price for freelance PR seems to have skyrocketed, and given the timing of the above, this seems counterintuitive. In the Noughties, as social media companies started, marketing and publicity folk had their heads banged together and were now going to be called Comms. This was the way of addressing the murky world of digital communication either by author or publisher. I think that they are two different skills and mentalities, with overlap in the social media space. Now that you have to do meaningful marketing for each book, the marketeers are talking to the authors a lot more than they used to, and must show decent author care. They can always do something, whilst the publicist, having done their pitching, sometimes just has to wait for good, bad or no news.  

More growth for audio

Elsewhere at LBF, there was a quiet sense of satisfaction around the growth of audio from established partners and new entrants. Swedish Spotify is already number two in the market with plenty of room to grow. Currently it is mostly selling music related and celebrity titles. There still seems to be some pulling and pushing around the financial models: a la carte versus the subscription model is becoming an old battlefield but no less important for that. Some of this is complicated and needs working through, so caution around length of deals is advised.  

Clearly, there is plenty of money around the audio business. Some books have a narrative cast akin to a blockbuster Netflix series. As the Bookseller pointed out in its review of 2023, celebs on their own will not necessarily make the cut these days:  they must have a life lesson, trauma, redemption or ideally all three. If not, they are narrating audio or ‘writing’ all manner of novels, lifestyle, health, cookery books. You name it. Why? It’s that damned platform again.  

I literally bumped into Chris Bryant, fresh from his turn at the IPG’s Spring Conference. He looked terrified when I said hello. The culture secretary also turned up. It seems a low bar when I feel reassured that these two are taking an interest in books. Promisingly, Rachel Reeves, our likely next Chancellor, said in a speech last month that “The creative industries contribute so much, not just to our national identity but to economic growth. With Labour, creative skills won’t be treated as a luxury, but as a necessity—we'll make sure the sector thrives.” Books tend to be asked to look after themselves by government when the chips are really down, but I live in hope. Given that books are providing so much content for the noisier neighbours of TV and film, a new government may well take more notice and give more support. Book-to-film agents were very prominent at LBF, and this is a positive trend for the book industry that isn’t going away any time soon. 

Awards and AI

Last week, I spent an afternoon judging the publisher sections of the British Book Awards. (I am hoping for a promotion to the Independent Publishing Awards next year). OK, so it was the best performers who had bothered to enter, but given that caveat, it was absolutely thrilling. The bigger companies only get better at what they do and are on the whole world-class. I saw spectacular work being done in the academic sector; the children’s section was joyful; and the independent and small press sections were again outstanding, displaying extreme expertise and deftness.  One of the entries brought me to tears. I saw no ‘diversity fatigue’, only good intentions well executed. That afternoon, I was especially proud to be a part of the industry. 

Nearly finally. My favourite law of the year so far is from the European parliament, which has enacted the Artificial Intelligence Act.  As reported by BookBrunch, the Federation of European Publishers said: 'The EU now has rules that will be a model for the rest of the world… The AI Act recalls basic but fundamental principles that AI companies must respect. They must respect EU copyright law and actively ensure that they do… They will finally have to be transparent on the data used to train their AI, which, to their own admission, relies on the use of copyright protected content.’ Ricardo Franco Levi, President of the FEP, added: 'AI as a technology has great potential, including for our industry, but its original sin could not be overlooked, and the EU has now ensured that it can be corrected.’

Oh goodness, I miss the EU. Not only for the pastoral attitude to their cultural industries, or the whiff of technophobia, but the self-belief and self-seriousness to be tackling and correcting original sin. 

Finally, every publisher knows that April is one of the crueler months along with March, September and October. Conferences, seasonal presentations, fairs, prizes and big publications to pull off. I always reckoned I had eight months of the year to run the company and just had to get through the other four, emerging blinking into the light of May / November. Seven weeks to go. Keep taking the tablets.