Toddlin' Along the Thames

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By Chuck and Dee Robinson

At first glance, the London Book Fair (LBF) appears, though considerably smaller, much like BookExpo America. A closer examination, however, reveals something that most U.S. booksellers would find a little odd -- there aren't many books. The London Fair has for years been largely a rights fair. So much so that the Booksellers Association of Great Britain holds its annual convention at a different time and venue, and many British booksellers don't attend the fair. Much of the business around rights sales is not for existing books, but for forthcoming books. Many of which, our U.S. publishing friends tell us, aren't even finished manuscripts yet.

L to R: Barbara Hoenselaar, Patti Pattee, Chuck Robinson, Dee Robinson, and Christin Evans, with St. Paul's Cathedral in the background and the Millennium Bridge across the Thames.
Photo by Praveen Madan.

So, you may ask, why were we and 15 other U.S. booksellers in London for the fair anyway? The folks from LBF approached us at BEA nearly a year ago to see if we might recruit a group of booksellers who would make their way across the big pond and attend the fair this year. Being inveterate travelers and insatiably curious about bookselling and publishing in its many and sundry forms, we jumped at the opportunity. And, none of us who made the trek regrets it. The group included a widespread and diverse array of booksellers: Barbara Morrow from Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont; Carla Cohen of Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C.; Neil Van Uum from the Joseph-Beth stores, based in Cincinnati; Roni Devlin of Literary Life Bookstore in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Roberta Rubin of The Bookstall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, Illinois; Tony and Catherine Weller from Sam Weller's Bookstore in Salt Lake City, Utah; Melony Vance, recently of Latitude 33 Bookstore in Laguna Beach, California; Kerry Slattery from Skylight Books in Los Angeles; Amy Thomas of Pegasus and Pendragon Books in Berkeley; Praveen Madan and Christin Evans of The Booksmith in San Francisco; Morley Horder of Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge Island, Washington; and Patti Pattee and Barbara Hoenselaar of Watermark Book Company in Anacortes, Washington.

If there weren't many books, how did we spend our time? Most of us had arrived in London by Friday, and the fair didn't open until Monday. But, the entire adventure began on Friday evening with a welcoming dinner with folks from the Booksellers Association, the London Book Fair, and a group of British booksellers. Put a group of booksellers together in a room, and you know you're in for something good. The conversation was rich, and we all felt most welcomed.

The next day, we were hosted by Phaidon Publishing to a tour of both the Tate Britain, including a special showing of Peter Doig's work (Phaidon has published a beautiful Doig monograph), and the Tate Modern, with a special exhibit entitled "Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia," and to a wonderful lunch. That evening the folks from BEA hosted us at the Cittie of York pub and presented a literary walking tour of the Bloomsbury, Soho neighborhoods. On Sunday, Time-Out Publishers provided a tour of the Globe Theatre, and we visited Stanfords, a wondrous three-level travel and map store that has been in the Charing Cross, Covent Garden area for more than 150 years.

We began our first day at the London Book Fair with an informal breakfast with a group of authors, including Ali Smith, Claire Tomalin, Deborah Moggach, Lisa Appignanesi, and Gillian Slovo. Unlike BEA breakfasts where authors speak to a large audience, this get-together was both small and intimate. Authors moved from one small table to another, introducing themselves and engaging in conversation with the attending booksellers. Most of our group spent the morning wandering about the show, while Chuck was a presenter in a well-attended seminar on green publishing.

Having lunch with Sebastian Faulks -- the LBF "author of the day" -- was a real treat. As he mingled with our group and a clutch of reporters, Faulks told us that later in the afternoon he would be interviewing a very famous person, but he could not tell us who it was. When we attended the session, we were shocked to find it was British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who held his own in a decidedly literary conversation. We wrapped up Monday evening with a lovely dinner hosted by Carolyn Reidy, president and CEO of Simon & Schuster, and Ian Chapman, managing director of Simon & Schuster, U.K. Again, British booksellers were in attendance, and the international exchanges continued.

Tuesday at the fair began with a breakfast announcement of the shortlist for the Orange Prize. During the day, we encountered a number of U.S. publishing friends on the floor, including Michael Jacobs, president and CEO of Abrams; Morgan Entriken, president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic; John Ingram, chairman of Ingram Book Group; and George Gibson, publisher of Walker & Company. It was fascinating to learn more about their side of the business on the other side of the Atlantic.

Several of the seminars at the fair were oriented to booksellers. One we attended was excellent! Jeff Clark, window and display designer for Foyles, a venerable London bookseller, presented very useful window display techniques illustrated with slides. It was a particular pleasure to see Peter Mayer, long-time head of Penguin and currently publisher of his own Overlook Press, presented with the LBF/Trilogy Lifetime Achievement Award. At lunch in a nearby pub, which is helping redefine "pub grub," we learned more about the British Heritage publishers, and later that afternoon a grand reception at Kensington Roof Gardens, hosted by LBF and the British Council, honored the Arab World, the market focus of this year's fair.

We wrapped up our visit to the fair on Wednesday with meetings with U.K. independent publishers in what fair organizers refer to as "speed dating" sessions. Several of us spent an hour hearing from U.K. indies in four 15-minute segments that began a bit like sales calls, but ended up being much more like cultural exchange meetings. The value of the pound versus the dollar, the cost of freight, and the cultural specificity of some of the books precluded most sales.

So, what was the value of the trip? Dee and I discovered a couple of potential vendors and placed an order for a book holder that many of the U.S. attendees saw and liked. We saw some magnificent bookstores and took home several pages of notes. We exchanged ideas with our U.K. counterparts, met some favorite authors, and ate some pretty good food. Most of all, however, the time spent with our colleagues was invaluable. The ideas we shared, and the therapy we provided each other, was well worth the trip. And, of course, there was London. As Samuel Johnson said, in conversation with Boswell, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."

(To read more about booksellers' experiences at the London Book Fair, and for more photos and videos, check out the LitMind Blog of Christin Evans and Praveen Madan, owners of San Francisco's The Booksmith.)

Chuck and Dee Robinson are the owners of Village Books in Bellingham, Washington. Chuck Robinson is a former president of the American Booksellers Association. He and Dee have presented ABA education sessions at both the Winter Institute and at BEA.