Roger Tagholm, in association with the London Book Fair, on pointed comments in Sharjah, and other book trade news
The London Book Fair (LBF) has announced the 12 Indonesian writers who will take part in the Cultural Programme of the LBF Indonesia Market Focus next year. The list includes Dewi Lestari, author of the Supernova series, a fantastical/philosophical six-volume saga that contains as many ideas as the famous 17,000 islands that make up this fascinating country. The programme will take us all on a journey of discovery to these "islands of imagination".
The president-elect of the International Publishers Association, Hugo Setzer, took a swipe at Trump's America in his keynote address at the Sharjah International Book Fair, which wraps up this weekend. "We are facing more restrictions to freedom to publish all around the world," Setzer said. "No country is immune to the potential risk of censorship, even countries which have always been considered beacons of freedom, like the US."
Freedom to publish and copyright are the two pillars of the IPA's work, and on the latter Setzer had a colourful turn of phrase. "Big tech has seized the initiative and to some extent has been able to push us against the ropes. Shiny and new, they preach the Google gospel. A future where everyone has 'access to everything, whenever and wherever they want'. And while that may be all well and good, they also pretend it should be for free, because they make money using a different business model."
The growth of Sharjah's book fair can be measured by the expansion of its famous rights "souk" in the Chamber of Commerce, where match-making sessions between publishers take place. When these sessions first started, they were contained in just one room; now the souk spills out and swirls right around the open plan first floor, occupying some 450 tables. Sharjah deserves praise for what it has achieved - all thanks to His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, who is passionate about books.
From Sharjah back to London, and a question: are they strengthening the ceiling at the Royal Festival Hall? They may need to because the energy there on Monday 3 December could easily lift it off. Penguin Random House UK has announced that on that evening former First Lady Michelle Obama will give her only UK public appearance to promote her forthcoming memoir Becoming (Viking), in conversation with the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In other words, this is the publishing equivalent of a "super-gig", featuring as it does two iconic figures who have transcended their respective fields and now have a kind of global status that allows them to comment on almost anything. They engender the kind of adulation associated with YouTubers or pop stars. All this event needs now is for Lady Gaga to sing in the intermission and Zadie Smith to deliver a TED talk at the close...
Publishers in the US have various theories about why sales of adult fiction in their country have fallen 16% between 2013 and 2017, according to the Association of American Publishers. Chief among them is the decline in physical bookstores, meaning that new novels are less visible. This has been coupled with a reduction in review pages in the mainstream media. Other observers have pointed out that publishers themselves are less likely to stick with an author if a debut novel does not perform well, and are less likely to build authors over several books. Last, there is the broader cultural shift heralded by the arrival of Netflix and similar services. Pegaus Books' deputy publisher Jessica Case told Publishers Weekly: "Maybe the itch people have for addictive storytelling has been scratched to a large degree by TV series binge-watching instead of books in recent years."
So WH Smith was the mystery buyer poised to acquire Barnes & Noble (or should that be Barnes & Ignoble, given the ugly mudslinging and lawsuits?) earlier this year, according to the Washington Post. The retailer has certainly been in the news this week, with lots of stories about its "move" into the US with its acquisition of travel retailer InMotion. Even WHS itself said: "Following the transaction, WHSmith will benefit from InMotion's existing infrastructure and business development capabilities to support the launch of WHSmith's airport format in North America" (my italics).
What the stories should have said, of course, is that the acquisition marks a return to the US for the company and a relaunch of its airport format in the US. WH Smith was in US airports from 1985 to the early 2000s. At Chicago's O'Hare Airport alone it had more than 10 outlets. How do I know this? Because in 1992 I went to O'Hare and was given a tour of the stores by general manager Celeste DiPol. That's not the sort of name you forget in a hurry.