Sunday, April 29, 2012

Books, Earls and Olympia

Earls' Court: The London Book Fair

24,802 visitors spent three days recently in the great run-down echoing space that is Earl’s Court Convention Centre for the world’s largest Book Fair. Who were they?  Well, there were literary agents and scouts, publishers, domestic booksellers, foreign booksellers, library and information professionals, and production, distribution, technical and creative professionals from the UK and overseas. Oh, and a couple of content providers. You know - authors. And me.

Wandering around the hundreds of exhibits, dropping in on short presentations and more pithy seminars, I learnt that “authors” - that lowest life on the book-making chain - are now “content providers”. That “reading” is “the time of content access”, and putting books into categories like “fiction” and “children's” is “mapping content to existing taxonomies”.

Mapping existing taxonomies...
I also learnt another very interesting thing: “self-publishing”, once derided as “vanity publishing”, is no longer a dirty word. We don’t have to adopt new monikers for it like “going indie”. People have figured out how to make money out of authors who want to self publish - I never realised there were so many willing to sell the indie author some editing, design and digital publishing services and let the author do all the marketing. But really, the advent of digital publishing, whether its through ebooks or producing traditional hard copies through print-on-demand, has finally had a salutary effect on the closed shop that is the publishing world. The blokes with the fly-away grey hair, tweed jackets and a glass of alcohol in hand are no longer the only ones offering the reader what they consider is “quality”.

As Patrick Barkham said in the Guardian: the main hall of Earl's Court, hundreds of publishers gathered for the 41st London Book Fair have been showing stands of lovely new books as editors meet agents and foreign publishers keen to buy unpublished books, sell foreign rights, and relentlessly talk up their new titles.
In this comfortable world the digital crisis has passed. Every publisher has a digital division, everyone is delighted with ebooks, and the genteel industry that variously describes itself as "quirky" and "a triumph of hope over expectation" bumbles on like before – only with slightly less booze and book fair japes... The view from the fair's digital zone in the smaller second hall, however, is very different. Here, the physical book trade is dismissed as "legacy publishing" – a pejorative term.

In the heart of the business...

Not many authors come to the book fair. As someone said, “It’d be like bringing a cow to stroll around a meat market.” However, tucked away in the back lot was a small “Author’s Lounge”. It was peopled by companies selling self-publishing options. Traditional publishers probably didn’t know it was there. I did find a well-attended seminar upstairs entitled “Has anyone spoken to the author?” where four authors and a new-idea publisher debated being an author in this brave new world. What do I mean by new-idea publisher? Check out Unbound Publishing, where would-be authors pitch their ideas to the web community and funding is crowd-sourced.

It seems to me that having dragged itself as far as finding methods for authors to indie-publish, the next step for the “publishing industry” is to figure out how to help indie authors to improve their content. Perhaps crowd-sourcing is one way. There is also the on-line community review process as set up by Autharium.

As to the 'International' aspect of the Fair, it was indeed fascinating to wander the exhibits from such places as Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria, Oman... This year's 'industry focus' was on China, which meant several large pavilions, many polite speeches, and some political protest.

You can read more about the book fair, the exhibitors and the seminars - the topic titles alone make interesting reading - at the Book Fair home page.

Finding a way...
Meanwhile, what of Earl’s Court Convention Centre? If you take the District Line on the tube you are deposited right at the door of the big old complex. Although rather run down, for a space to house 25,000 visitors to 1500 exhibits and 400 seminars and events, it works pretty well. There are numerous well-located toilets, and you can get a cup of bad coffee every few metres. A map of the place is more or less useless - your orienteering skills need to be brought into action - ah, Aisle H, here’s a hint: if you want to visit the Evil Empire’s stand (a.k.a. Amazon), it’s the one in the far back corner of the secondary hall, with the great crowd of wannabe “content providers” clustered around it.

Upstairs in the seminar rooms Earl’s Court descends into surrealism. You need a sturdy compass, or perhaps Gandalf and his magic staff, to find the particular numbered room for the seminar you are seeking. But Earl’s Court has solved this by providing dozens and dozens of uniformed people to direct you. One cannot help but think that better design and signage might have been cheaper, but in the end, the place is surprisingly usable.

Let the seminar begin...

The history of the Earl’s Court Centre, and its older neighbour ‘Olympia’, is interesting - I’m sure there’s a book in it. You can check it out here. An excerpt:

‘Olympia’ is the oldest venue, having opened its doors to the public on Boxing Day 1886 when people flocked to see the Hippodrome Circus – some 400 performers, 300 horses and six ‘funny’ elephants. 
‘Earl’s Court One’ opened for business in 1937 with the Chocolate and Confectionery Exhibition, and was joined in 1991 by ‘Earl’s Court Two’ which still boasts Europe’s biggest unsupported roof span.

'Earl's Court Two': Europe's biggest unsupported roof span.

Earl’s Court One and Two together with Olympia have a total 97,000 square metres of event space and, such is the venues’ flexibility, we can accommodate shows requiring 600 or 60,000 square metres of space. 
Over the years, the venues have welcomed visitors to shows such as the London Boat Show, the British Motor Show, the Ideal Home Show, the London Book Fair, the Great British Beer Festival and the Good Food Show. 
The halls have resounded to performances by world-famous artists such as Madonna, Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden, George Michael, Elton John, Kylie, Rod Stewart, Queen and the Rolling Stones. 
We’ve hosted the BRIT Awards, the International Horse Show and sporting events such as boxing and wrestling contests, and some of the country’s largest companies have held conferences, training sessions and massive staff parties in our venues.

This year Earls’ Court is one of the 2012 Olympic venues. Quite apart from visiting the Book Fair itself, it was interesting to see the massive venue. Here's a full history with some great archival photographs.

And why is the venue - and the area - called ‘Earl’s Court’? Because:

For over 500 years the land, part of the ancient manor of Kensington, was under the lordship of the Vere family, Earls of Oxford and descendants of Aubrey de Vere I...The earls held their manorial court where Old Manor Yard is now, just by the London Underground station.

Welcome to Olympia...looks a bit desolate....

As to Olympia, I’ve not yet ventured that far, though it is claimed that one in every two Londoners visits one of the two venues every year. Olympia has its own tube line off-shoot. Its full history is here.

It was commissioned in 1884 and opened in 1886 with these ideals:

‘To provide healthy amusement and reinvigorate by brilliant demonstrations the national love of athletic exercises and contests of skill; to raise the tone of popular taste by entertainments and displays which shall be of the purest and highest character; to educate the masses, aye, and even the ‘classes’ by exhibitions of art, science and industry.’

It started life as the “National Agricultural Hall” but with such lofty ideals, the name ‘Olympia’ seemed more appropriate.

I must find a reason to visit Olympia. How about the London International Horse Show?

Old Olympia

There is book all about the two venues:

Earls Court and Olympia - Buffalo Bill to the 'Brits' by John Glanfield, © Earls Court & Olympia Group Ltd, 2003. You can buy it here.

I just knew there was a book in it....

It's all about books.

Some images from:

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