The halls of the Olympia exhibition centre were last week buzzing with the polite frenzy of the 2018 London Book Fair.
Sat at hundreds of small tables dotted around more than 2,000 stands, members of the publishing world turned ruthless as they hammered out agreements for territorial and translation rights and negotiated distribution deals for books across TV, film and other formats.
With more than 1,500 exhibiting companies, 120-plus countries represented and 25,000 visitors, it is one of the star events in the sector’s calendar.
The talk of this year’s fair was crime fiction and audiobooks, the current star segments of this thriving industry.
Figures released last week showed that for the first time crime has fought off general and literary fiction to become the most popular consumer book genre in the UK, according to Nielsen BookScan’s TCM. And new data from Nielsen’s 2017 UK Books & Consumer Survey shows spending on audiobooks grew by 15 per cent last year, driven by male listeners between the ages of 25 and 44, in its fourth consecutive year of growth. By contrast, spending on print books dropped by one per cent, while e-book spending fell by seven per cent year-on-year.
Once decried as the enemy of the printed book, e-books have now found a “natural balance”, London Book Fair director Jacks Thomas tells City A.M., with digital sitting alongside traditional print publishing as another format without being a threat to it.
“Probably six or seven years ago everyone was really sounding the death knell for the printed book and everyone was saying why on earth would you continue to read the print book, everyone’s going to read on their Kindles, etc, etc. And if you’ve seen any research then you’ll know that’s simply not the case and print is very stable,” Thomas says.
“Book lovers are like every other consumer: you like to have a choice and with digital innovation you’ve got loads and loads of choice.”
In 2018, it seems, the book comes comfortably in many forms.
An export success story
Although most Brits will only interact with publishing at its final product stage, books in stores or on Kindle, or academic journals during university, the industry is one in which the UK punches significantly above its weight and is one of our lesser-known export success stories.
The sector directly contributed £3.2bn to UK GDP in 2016, according to calculations by Frontier Economics, with book publishing generating £2.2bn and academic journal publishing generating £1bn.
Despite its small size, the UK is the largest exporter of physical books in the world, with a 17 per cent share of global exports, according to UN Comtrade statistics for 2016 (the most recently available data). The UK is also a world leader in academic publishing: with just one per cent of the world’s population, the country has 10 per cent of all academic publishers.
Its success is down to several factors, CEO of sector body the Publishers Association, Stephen Lotinga says.
First, there is the strength of the English language. But the size of the market within the UK also forces companies to look overseas.
“Because our domestic market is smaller than most of the other big publishing powerhouses, so the States, Japan, even Germany, obviously China, our members are almost forced to look overseas for new markets,” he says.
“We’ve also got incredibly strong brands in terms of our university sectors,” he adds.
“So the combination of the strength of the English language, strength of educational academic institutions, respect for the UK education scene, an incredible literary – and long-established – literary canon means that we’re best in many factors that make us suitable to export all over the world.”
For a sector that generates £2.9bn in export revenues, being able to ensure that this continues when the UK leaves the EU is an obvious priority.
Also at the London Book Fair, the Publishers Association launched its 10-part list of Brexit demands.
The industry is at the very least seeking continuity from trade negotiations, such as maintaining access to global talent and supporting the existing gold-standard copyright framework. But there are opportunities too, in the form of policies such as a zero rate of VAT on e-publications, expanding the UK’s network of intellectual property attaches and to lead the way on rights enforcement in future free-trade deals.
The publishing sector is actually less exposed to Europe than other sectors on average, with 70 per cent of publishing exports going outside Europe vs 47 per cent for the UK as a whole. But, as with any industry with a physical product, the worst-case scenario of a “no-deal” Brexit is still one of books piled up in boxes at ports.
Preserving our ability to export everything from Shakespeare to Keats, Zadie Smith to JK Rowling and medical journals may be crucial to the industry, but does Thomas think this is a sector the government is likely to prioritise?
“Given what a massive financial contribution the creative industries as a whole [make], I would say that the government has to listen,” Thomas says.
Beyond the economic arguments, though, there is a less tangible but nonetheless vital power the sector also brings.
“There are always going to be sectors bigger than publishing... but we deliver something fundamentally different,” Lotinga says.
“By portraying everything from British values, British culture, British figures, British landscape, those are installed in the minds of people all across the world and that kind of soft power is huge, absolutely huge, in the influence it has over how the UK is perceived. And so I say, while all of our economic data is great, in reality it’s the cultural influence that we bring which I think is of enormous and underestimated power to the UK.”