The London Book Fair: Where Word-of-Mouth Reigns

In Feature Articles by Edward Nawotka

Prior to the opening of the London Book Fair, one must ask why – in the digital age – such events still exist? The answer is easy: word-of-mouth.

Editorial by Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

Edward Nawotka

Edward Nawotka

Much in the same way that a certain breed of writer seems to do little more than go from fellowship to writing retreat to guest lectureship to fellowship, never taking the time to write or publish an actual book, there is a certain type of publishing professional who always seems to be on the road, traveling from book conference to book fair to book festival to — well, when do they go to the office and work? (I admit, you might put me into this camp as well.)

This question can be especially vexing when trying to deal with my continental European colleagues, who enjoy roughly four times as many holidays as my American colleagues. It is not uncommon to get an urgent email from Germany, France or Italy on a Friday trying to tie up some loose-ends only to get the immediate “out of office” bounce-back saying “Hi, I am hiking in the forests of Finland/spritzing in the spas of Greece/vacationing in the vineyards of Sicily until the middle of next month and do not have access to email. Please contact so-and-so with any questions.”

But this week is one of those rare occasions when we all seem to be in the same place, London. It’s the start of the London Book Fair on Tuesday. By time you read this, work will already have begun and, in some cases, completed.  Agents have scrambled for weeks, nay, months to get their lists ready in time for endless rounds of meetings; scouts — who I like to refer to as the “special-ops” of the book business — have been busy prepping their  recommendations, and perhaps of more importance,  compiling lists of books publishers should not buy not matter what the agents might say; and the publishers have take a few spare moments to X-out the non-essential meetings from their agendas in order to preserve enough energy and attention for what really matters . . . drinks and dinner (where, ahem, plenty of consequential work gets done.) And there’s perhaps no better place to sample what the globe has to offer that would be suitable for translation into English that

London, which has become the world’s multi-cultural capital of cacophony. I can think of no other city — no, not even New York — where you can walk down the street and hear voices speaking in a dozen different languages and half-a-dozen different accents in English, in the course of a single city block. Sometimes, even the price tags here  speak three languages: Pounds, Euros and Rubles.

Karl Ove Knausgaard's “My Struggle”What’s more, as a book lover, it is heartening that London still appears to have at least one bookshop in nearly every neighborhood. It might be a Foyles, a Waterstones, an antiquarian store . . . In Chelsea, where I’m staying not far from Earl’s Court, where the LBF is taking place for the last time (RIP Earl’s Court, we will miss you . . . maybe), I stumbled across one of branches of Daunt Books where I was both surprised and delighted to find the front window given over to the first three volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” cycle of novels, and the front table heaved with a selection from Pushkin Press. Go, figure. Barnes & Noble, God bless it all the same, this is not. As an American visiting

London, browsing the bookstores is a treat. To me, it’s like a mirror-world of literature. Many of the titles and authors are the same, but their presentation is slightly different. The Knausgaard, for example, is published in a “big book style” paperback, with a fat bold font and full color photographic covers that suggest they deserve shelf space next to celebrity biographies on the shelves at airports. It’s a distinct difference from the US publication by Archipelago, a publisher we profiled on Friday, which opts for an elevated, aspirational house style. Yes, to an American in London; the London Book Fair is publishing with a different accent. And who isn’t vulnerable to being a least a little seduced by a refined English accent?

It’s easy to overlook that publishing is a form of communication and not, as in this context, primarily a form of business. The book remains to this day that magical medium that facilitates how a writer from the 17th or 18th or 19th centuries can still whisper in the ear of a reader in the 21st.

But why, in the digital age which makes publishing seamless and frictionless and instant, to we need publishing conferences and events? Well, it’s simple: human contact.

These gatherings too too are about connecting people in points of time and the serendipitous or surprising or (even) ineffable things that can happen when you get thousands of like-minded book people together. Humans, even ones passionately devoted to the solitary occupation of reading, still feel the need to meet face-to-face, to talk, discuss, debate, gossip and exchange recommendations.

TshickOnly yesterday, a German colleague shared with me the tragic story of Wolfgang Herrndorf, the German author who on learning he had a terminal brain disease quickly wrote and published several award-winning bestselling novels, including Sand and Tschick. He documented his decline in a widely read blog, Arbeit und Struktur, much of which has also been published, and took his own life last August. It was obvious she was moved by his story. “Someone really should translate the books if they haven’t already.” I had her note down the titles and promised to share them.

After returning to my AirBnB rental, I logged on and went to Amazon to see if any of the books had made their way to English. As it happens, one has: Tshick, which has been translated to English with the entirely unappealing title Why We Took the Car. It was published by Scholastic in the United States this past January 7 — no wonder I missed it, why release a book right after the holidays unless you don’t have any faith in it? And that despite the fact the cover touts “Sold over one million copies…”

I immediately tried to buy an ebook edition, but — natch – was blocked by copyright restrictions. Ugh. I suppose I’ll have to pass by Daunt’s, or else try to remember, amid a flood of other forthcoming recommendations, to buy it when I get back home.

It appears that despite all the (in)conveniences of digital, the truth remains: there’s just no substitute for word-of-mouth.

Tomorrow, April 8, Publishing Perspectives will be offering a special “London Book Fair” print edition of the Publishing Perspectives magazine. You can pick up your free copy at the Frankfurt Book Fair stand at Earls Court 1, Stand F 605 or download it online. 

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.