Letter from the London Book Fair

I am proud to present a guest post written by Brett Jocelyn (BJ) Epstein, who very recently attended the London Book Fair. Among BJ’s latest literary accomplishments is Northern Lights: Translation in the Nordic Countries, a volume she edited containing essays from a conference she organized. To learn more about this wonderful writer-editor-translator, please visit BJ’s blog and Web site.

The London Book Fair 2009

by BJ Epstein

Ah, books, books, books. Rows of books, books for sale, authors signing books. Books and more books. That’s what the typical bibliophile would excitedly imagine when thinking of a book fair. In fact, although events such as The London Book Fair (LBF) and the Frankfurt Book Fair seem to be about books, they are really about the bottom line.

The LBF is a place where publishers come to show their wares to other publishers, hoping to make foreign sales. People rush around holding notebooks, looking for books they might want to purchase the rights to and then have translated to their own tongue. The major publishers have big stands with lots of small tables where their agents can meet with other agents. An observer can stand at a distance and watch as figures are discussed and hands are shaken. It’s all very serious and pragmatic and it doesn’t seem to be predicated on a love of books. Writers and translators may feel unwelcome amidst all this deal-making.

Nevertheless, for a visitor willing both to accept that and to do a lot of walking, there is plenty to see and enjoy at the LBF. The fair takes place at Earl’s Court, a large convention center in London, and it is very well organized. The huge main room is where publishers from all over the world have their stands. One area has children’s books, another travel books and maps, the religious (primarily Christian) books are in one (fairly small) spot, textbooks are in their own section, and so on. If you go past this room, after, of course, having browsed it to see what is being published these days (gift books seem to be a growing trend), and on into the next, smaller one, the atmosphere is different. This room is where the printers and binders have their stands, where people sell little book lights and other items for the book-lover, and where the various cultural agencies are located.

As a translator from the Scandinavian languages, I spent most of my time flitting between the Swedish Arts Council, the Danish Arts Agency’s Literature Centre, Norwegian Literature Abroad, Finnish Literature Exchange, the Iceland booth (this was the first year the Icelandic publishers and agencies had their own stand). On Monday, April 20, there was a joint Nordic reception, and events like that are excellent for networking, especially for writers, translators, and people from smaller publishing companies.

I also made sure to visit the stands from other countries. Several of them publish an annual or biannual magazine with biographical information and short translated excerpts from their nation’s top writers. This magazine, such as Sweden’s Swedish Book Review or Portugal’s Voices from the South, is meant to tempt publishers, but it is also a wonderful way for curious readers to learn about the kind of literature being published in other places. Because so few works are translated to English, unless you happen to read a particular tongue, you will never know what writers are doing in other parts of the world. I picked up as many of these magazines as I could carry. India was this year’s special focus at the Book Fair, and I had no idea there were so many publishers in that country. It was very interesting to see the way these publishers manage to differentiate themselves; I was slightly surprised by how many seemed to have a distinct niche in spiritual books.

PEN is also at the fair every year, offering readings. And one of my very favourite parts is the Gourmand area, which showcases top cookbooks from every culture imaginable. Even if you can’t read the books, you can salivate over the pictures. A number of chefs give demonstrations of their craft and they always make enough of the dish for the audience to try a bite as well.

In short, then, the LBF can be an enjoyable event, but only if you are prepared for what it can and can not give you. It is not a place to buy books or to connect with other writers. But it is a place to get a deeper understanding of the publishing world and to feel inspired (or overwhelmed) by the sheer number of books published each year.