Skip to Content

Under the volcano/Historian trashes rivals

26 April 2010

It’s been a rather surreal week in the publishing world, as the suspension of flights destroyed what was to have been the best London Book Fair ever.

The timing couldn’t have been worse, as the ash from the Icelandic volcano descended just as international publishers were leaving for the airport to get to London for the Fair on Monday to Wednesday of last week. Some publishers reported longer meetings with those who did make it, but most agreed that it was a disaster. Morgan Entrekin of Grove Atlantic, who was stranded in New York for the duration of the fair, said: ‘Mail, phone and fax have made our work easier but there is nothing like being together personally. It's so important to create word of mouth.’

Marco Schneiders, editorial director at German publisher Lübbe, said: ‘Digital developments make a lot of things redundant that we are used to. But there will always be the need for book fairs because the personal contact is a factor that shouldn't be underestimated’.

Some publishers were already looking to Book Expo America at the end of May and to Frankfurt in October to carry out their business, but Faber chief executive Stephen Page said: ‘Frankfurt will have a bigger role in maintaining these relationships’, but he did not regard BEABookExpo America, commonly referred to within the book publishing industry as BEA. The largest annual book trade fair in the United States as ‘a credible alternative’. Simon & Schuster publisher Suzanne Baboneau agreed with this, saying: ‘BEA is a very different kind of's more about booksellers. It's not a rights fair, it's not a substitute for London or Frankfurt.’

Historian trashes rivals

The second half of the week has been enlivened by the extraordinary story of Orlando Figes, distinguished historian known for his books on Russia. Poisonous reviews of his rivals’ books had been posted anonymously on Amazon, but using the pen-name ‘Historian’ aka Orlando-Birkbeck’.

One of the books trashed by the anonymous reviewer was Comrades by Professor Robert Service (regarded by many as the other big wheel in the field of Russian history studies), which was condemned on Amazon as ‘an awful book’, whilst Service’s biography of Stalin was said to be ‘rather dull’.

At first Figes said that his wife, by all accounts a blameless lawyer at Cambridge, had been responsible for the unpleasant reviews, but then finally he confessed yesterday that he was personally to blame. It is hard to see how the historian could have thought he would get away with this. The world of academia is notably back-stabbing, but this takes things to a new level of vituperation. And how on earth would Orlando-Birkbeck not have been traced back to Figes? Amazon has often been blamed for its practice of allowing anonymous reviews which mean that its reviews are vulnerable to this sort of hijacking, but the whole story shows great naivety as well as spite on Figes’ part.