LBF Ahead: University Presses Rally for Trade Shows

In News by Alastair Horne

When you ask leading university press personalities, the phrase you keep hearing about the ‘sheer joy’ of attending trade shows is?—’face-to-face.’

Person-to-person contact under glass. London Book Fair at Olympia London. Image: Porter Anderson

Maybe feeling a bit rushed this year—London Book Fair is a month early, March 14 to 16—many of us are making the usual preparations for publishing’s first major world trade show of the year. And while it’s easy to understand why commercial trade publishers head to Olympia London to gather around the International Rights Center, what’s in it for university presses? ‘Direct interaction,’ is one answer.—Porter Anderson

By Alastair Horne | @pressfuturist

‘Book Fairs Are Good for Business’
[dropcapI[/dropcap]n an increasingly digital business, the annual trip to a book fair might seem an anachronism, a throwback to a time when meeting in person with partners and clients was quicker and cheaper than the endless back-and-forth of letters or costly international phone calls.

Why, in an age of email, Skype—and that consummate pleasure, the intercontinental conference call—do we still need to meet our publishing colleagues face-to-face a few times a year in the halls of London, Frankfurt, and now Sharjah, Beijing, and elsewhere?

The question might seem particularly relevant to university presses, which aren’t known for having cash to splash around.

Anthony Cond

Anthony Cond, managing director of Liverpool University Press, says he asks himself precisely that question.

“So much of the business of publishing can be conducted without ever leaving a screen,” Cond tells Publishing Perspectives, “that you might wonder why book fairs still merit the expense.”

And yet, given that this is the man who organized last year’s University Press Redux conference, the first UK summit specifically for university presses, he also has an answer.

“My view is that there’s no substitute for direct interaction.”

For publishers at university presses, a book fair provides a welcome opportunity to disconnect from the world of WebEx and Dropbox and reconnect in person with both colleagues and competitors.

Lara Speicher

As Lara Speicher, publishing manager at London’s UCL Press, puts it, “It’s great to switch off the email, step away from normal working life, and just talk to publishing folk, especially those from other parts of the world who we don’t get to see that often.”

Kimberley Williams

For Kimberley Williams, international rights director at Princeton University Press, book fairs are “very much the highlight of the publishing calendar, because they give us the opportunity to work face-to-face with some of the best and the brightest in the global publishing industry.”

Williams isn’t the only one to highlight the importance of meeting face-to-face.

Alison Thomson, who manages Cambridge University Press‘ presence at both London Book Fair and Frankfurt Book Fair, talks of a “great opportunity to connect with our industry; to hear about the latest developments, ideas and viewpoints face-to-face.”

Alison Thomson

Such meetings allow for a deeper level of engagement than is possible digitally. As Princeton’s Williams puts it, trade shows ” give us the time and space to get to know our publishing and distribution partners in a way that’s just not possible over email.”

For university presses, book fairs are, as Williams says, “publishing in a microcosm,” and many attend en masse, recognizing that “it’s important that everyone gets to experience this in person.”

Lining Up the Delegations
  • Princeton will have representatives from its UK, US, and China offices at Olympia London, with “sales, rights, editorial, and publicity at the stand, including our junior colleagues as well as senior staff.”
  • Cambridge is sending 40 to 50 members of its sales team, with 30 to 40 people from production, digital, and public relations also spending at least a day at Olympia. The press’ chief, Peter Phillips, is scheduled to attend.
  • UCL Press sends all its staffers, each getting a day on the floor of London Book Fair for appointments, browsing,  and research.

Policy Press and the University of Bristol Press—based just under two hours away in the West Country—have booked an Airbnb apartment, “so that staff can stay as needed.” Here too, there’s an emphasis on allowing a wide range of staff to attend. Director Alison Shaw encourages administrators and assistants to visit the show at least once to gain a sense of the size “of the publishing world and what everyone’s up to.”

University press publishing remains a very collegial world. Shaw, for instance, says she always makes time to meet with staffers from other university presses. She co-chairs the annual Frankfurt dinner for academic members of the IPG. And she catches up with “various other publishing connections/advisors/mentors’.”

That word “mentors” is important: for university presses, book fairs are often about sharing knowledge as much as gaining it. Many won’t only be attending this year’s series of London Book Fair Faculty seminars on scholarly publishing, but also will be contributing to sessions on subjects including copyright, journal sales, and Open Access monographs.

In Thomson’s words, the seminar program “provides a perfect opportunity for our experts to share knowledge and key learnings” and Cambridge is particularly well-represented amongst this year’s seminars, with speakers on three panels. The seminars are certainly popular: both Speicher and Shaw usually make time to attend and, as Williams remarks, “academic publishers are, with few exceptions, addicted to learning stuff.”

‘A Chance To Take the Pulse’

Perhaps what comes across most strongly is the sheer joy many in the university press sector feel for their annual trips to the fairs.

Liverpool’s Cond speaks enthusiastically of the opportunities that fairs provide for “a total immersion in the publishing world,” and “the stimulation of 30+ diverse publishing meetings over three days,” offering “a chance to take the pulse of the industry and by comparison the press, a chance to sift a huge amount of human intelligence and find potential futures.”

In so many ways, as Princeton’s Williams says, “Book fairs are good for business.”

About the Author

Alastair Horne


Alastair Horne has served Cambridge University Press for more than a decade in roles including Innovation Manager and Social Media and Communities Manager. He speaks regularly at industry conferences, and was the author of the 2011 Media Futures report on the Future of Publishing. Outside the office, he is researching a doctorate on novels about novelists and blogs intermittently.