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'A world-class fair?'

27 March 2006

So what 's the verdict on the London Book Fair? Was it a great leap forward into the future, to a modern convention centre which offers massive space for expansion? Or was it a mistake to move from friendly, crowded Olympia, much more convenient for most and far more atmospheric?

What are books fairs for anyway? This is a question we ask in compiling our list of International Book Fairs each year. The answer presumably has to be that they are for the exhibitors and the important question therefore is whether the new venue is better for the international publishers who flock to London to carry out their global business.

But one should also not forget that book fairs are organised by large companies, in this case Reed Exhibitions, which are in the business of making money. It is vital for them to feel that their customers, the publishers, will come back and take more space next year. Crucially, for the LBF itself, it must continue to attract the international contingent who might otherwise feel that BookExpo, to be held in Washington in May, might be a better place to conduct their business. Washington is not a big draw, but other US cities, most notably New York and Chicago, are.

With this debate in mind, how did London fare? There was a 5.3% increase in visitors, making 24,145 publishing people, and a 22% increase in the space taken by exhibitors. Alistair Burtenshaw, Director of LBF, said: 'We firmly believe that the choice we jointly made to move to ExCel so as to deliver a world-class Fair is the very best option for the long-term future of the event.'

On the negative side, there were lots of complaints. The aisles were too crowded and badly signposted. There were huge queues for food in particular and the beauticians' gathering across the hall made for any uneasy mix. The record number of agents using the International Rights Centre found it uncomfortable and chilly, and a cosy rival to next year's fair has been set up at the Arts Club in Mayfair.

But, as the Bookseller commented, 'the big picture is that the ExCel move gives the LBF the potential to double in size and become by far the biggest English-speaking event in the world.' Its editorial was headed 'The heart says Olympia, the head says ExCel.' Global publishing will no doubt back the practical dictates of the head. This suggests that publishers are likely to be making their way to Docklands every spring for many years to come.