Rumour has it that if you stay in the book industry long enough, events have a habit of turning full circle. By moving back to Earls Court in 2007, the London Book Fair will be returning to its first home in London, where it was opened by the Queen in 1965.
Many publishers and agents have warmly welcomed the London Book Fair's move back to central London, after what proved to be a hugely unpopular relocation to ExCeL in Docklands, east London, in March this year. Richard Charkin, Macmillan c.e.o. summed up the mood, saying: "I'm delighted that the fair will take place in central London, and this reflects the views of most of my colleagues at Macmillan and of publishers in general."
The 2007 show, run by Reed Exhibitions, will run from 16th to 18th April 2007, at Earls Court One in Kensington and Chelsea, near what was until recently its long-standing home in Olympia.
Earls Court One is spread over over two floors and comprises 42,000 sq metres of exhibition space. There is a Business Centre and separate Club Lounge, seminar and breakout rooms, strong technical and communications infrastructure, a range of catering options for lunch, LED and plasma screen advertising opportunities, banqueting facilities, and on-site parking for 1,630 cars. For those travelling by public transport, the site is served by the District and Piccadilly Tube lines, and Silverlink and Southern overground trains. Most importantly, it isn't in east London.
Victoria Barnsley, HarperCollins chief executive, also welcomes the switch from ExCeL. "The prime objective of a move to a central London location for LBF has been achieved, and I'm delighted. We look forward to having the details of Reed's service commitments and, assuming that they are satisfactory, HC will be at Earls Court next April."
BA Conference drama
But the setting for next year's fair was less clear cut even as recently as last week, when delegates at the Booksellers Association annual conference in Bournemouth were being courted by a rival fair organiser: the Borsenverein. The German trade body that runs the mighty Frankfurt Book Fair appeared to have staged a spectacular coup by launching its own London book fair event against Reed Exhibitions. Scheduled to take place from 16th to 18th April at Earls Court, Frankfurt's show in London was being put forward as an alternative to Reed's offer, which was scheduled to run from 5th to 7th March for its second year at ExCeL; this was despite a barrage of bitter complaints from publishers about the Docklands venue.
The Frankfurt team, led by Jüergen Boos, FBF chief executive, hosted a drinks reception for publishers and booksellers at the Bournemouth International Centre (BIC) last Monday, and set up camp for the duration of the BA conference in the coffee bar in the foyer of BIC.
Reed, apparently sensing its hold on the London show slipping, called in its top guns to support Alistair Burtenshaw, LBF group exhibition director, and Emma House, exhibition manager; Alastair Gornall, Reed Exhibitions c.e.o., and Justin Tadman, divisional m.d., took a conference room at the Royal Bath Hotel, the official BA conference hotel.
Both teams, flanked by their PR advisors from Colman Getty (Borsenverein) and Midas (Reed) were lobbying publishers hard. Martin Neild, Hodder Headline consumer m.d, describes the two feuding camps as "like the Montagues and the Capulets".
As the conference closed on Tuesday, the team from Reed appeared to be on the back foot as leading publishers Hachette Livre, Random House, HarperCollins, Penguin and Macmillan all threw their weight behind Frankfurt's proposal.
The drama at the BA conference has its roots in LBF's move to ExCeL, which was widely criticised by publishers and agents who had a bad experience at the fair's new Docklands home. Problems encountered included delays on public transport, hitches with car parking, complaints about the layout and temperature in the Literary Agents Centre and the main exhibitors hall, and long queues for food and lavatories.
Caroline Michel, William Morris Agency m.d., says: "London has to have a rights fair, and up to this point it was going from strength to strength. But there was a big hitch with the fair this year."
Hachette chief executive Tim Hely Hutchinson spells it out: "Not only were there long and tiresome journeys to get there, not only were the lavatories not clean (although that was disgraceful enough), but they were badly constructed, with cracked tiles--and this is a relatively new building; the heating and air conditioning system didn't work properly; and the staff employed at ExCeL were not well briefed."
Overseas visitors in particular were unimpressed with the local area of Docklands, which has less of the excitement of central London. "A lot of our visitors from overseas--agents and publishers--were unhappy," Hely Hutchinson says. "It was partly the individual problems and partly the awkward journey, and partly the venue itself. It's not near theatres and restaurants."
Michel believes any venue that is unappealing to overseas publishers and agents is a bad fit for the London Book Fair. "Ours is an industry that works on relationships," she says. "The more you see publishers and build relationships, and understand what they're looking for, the more fluidity there is in the business."
The idea for the Borsenverein to step in and stage its own spring book fair in central London was first mooted by Andrew Nurnberg, who specialises in the sale of translation rights to publishers worldwide. "We clearly had everybody complaining during the ExCeL show from all over the world. And then Reed sent out a self-congratulatory 'round robin' extolling their successes. This amazed me because I felt they had completely missed the point," Nurnberg says.
Agent Stella Kane was equally unhappy with the event at ExCeL, and began collecting names for her Salon de Refus, a gathering of agents who hoped to meet instead at the Arts Club in Mayfair. "I could see this becoming very messy," Nurnberg says. "The only successful book fair is one where everyone is under the same roof, and where the services and amenities are perfect." In mid-April, Nurnberg called Boos to suggest that Frankfurt might consider hosting a London fair at Earls Court as an alternative to ExCeL.
Calls to several London publishers established that there was strong support for such a venture. Nurnberg then stepped back from the discussions and the Borsenverein began talks with Earls Court & Olympia Ventures (EC&O), owner of the central London exhibition centres.
A press release about the new London Book Fair was agreed by Frankfurt and EC&O, and was duly released just before the BA conference. Frankfurt publicised its prices for those wishing to book exhibition space, based on a deal that was agreed with EC&O. Boos says: "We had brought lawyers in and had agreed a contract. We were running through a second draft on Thursday last week."
But any negotiations were called off abruptly on Thursday afternoon, when Reed announced that it would run the only book fair at Earls Court on 16th to 18th April 2007. Reed, with its huge power in the exhibitions market, had snatched the venue from under Frankfurt's nose, hours before it signed on the dotted line.
Such aggressive tactics are deplored by Nurnberg, who says: "As far as I know, all principal elements of the contract between Frankfurt and EC&O were agreed and therefore binding, even if the document itself was not signed. If I sell a book to a publisher, it is sold, irrespective of any subsequent approaches. This is a fundamental tenet of business--of all our businesses." The Borsenverein's lawyers are now looking at the option of suing EC&O for compensation.
Reed pulls it off
Burtenshaw explains his coup thus: "A tenancy was available, so we booked it." As a result, Reed is now in the position of promoting the venue it had previously dismissed as too small to allow for future growth of the fair, and as available only on inconvenient dates.
"Earls Court is extremely well known, in a central location with access from Heathrow, and good event and seminar rooms," Burtenshaw says. "Its size enables us to make all the improvements that were already planned, including wider aisles and a greater selection of catering." Reed has dropped its prices to match those being offered by Frankfurt at Earls Court (see box).
Room for improvement
Earls Court One has 42,000 sq metres of exhibition space over two floors; adding Earls Court Two takes the total space to 59,000. At ExCeL, the North Hall (used this year) provides 32,000 sq metres of exhibition space; adding the South Hall takes the total available space to 65,000 sq metres.
Clashes with other book shows are also a consideration: the new dates are a week ahead of the Bologna Children's Book Fair, due to run from 23rd to 27th April 2007; BookExpo America runs in New York from 31st May to 3rd June 2007; and publishers, agents and authors who attend the biennial Adelaide Festival in March will now be free for its Writers' Week 2008, scheduled to run from 2nd to 7th March.
Reed has received verbal commitments from all the leading publishers that earlier had expressed support for a show at Earls Court run by Frankfurt.
Hely Hutchinson says: "We're pleased. The issue from our point of view was always the venue rather than the people. I'm sorry Frankfurt got burned." Charkin agrees: "I feel sympathy for the people from Frankfurt who showed such initiative. But equally, I'm pleased that the good team at Reed will now be running a show in a central London location."
Stella Kane, who is waiting to hear from her band of rebel agents whether to proceed with Salon de Refus, adds: "Reed has been dragged to Earls Court by publishers, and this is their chance to show they can get it right."