London book fair: UK publishers cheerfully splash cash as sales rise

On the eve of the London book fair, publishers were excited by news that sales of physical books were up for the second year in a row – 7% more than in 2015. And, following Waterstones’ return to profit for the first time in years, there was also good news for bricks-and-mortar bookshops, with a 4% rise in purchases across the UK. Meanwhile, ebooks declined by 4%, the second consecutive year digital book sales have fallen.

Is this the start of a trend? While it was too early to tell at this year’s book fair, more than one publisher was whistling a happy tune as they entered the Olympia exhibition centre on Tuesday. With print books having a higher average price point than ebooks, and with a weaker pound benefitting exporters – German publishers in particular bought big this year – the mood among the hundreds of publishers was optimistic. As an industry that works 18 months ahead of the reader, the future of publishing looks bright.

There was a lot to be cheerful about. The boom in celebrity memoirs appears to be over, a shift many publishers spoke of with glee. Despite a slew of deals announced at the fair, the starry names attached to books were rock royalty rather than reality TV or soap stars. The only name familiar to the gossip columns was model-turned-actor-turned-author Cara Delevingne, who has lent her name to a YA novel called Mirror, Mirror (“exploring the themes of identity, sexuality, friendship and betrayal”) that will be co-written with author Rowan Coleman.

After David Walliams, Russell Brand, Frank Lampard and Pharrell Williams, Delevingne is the latest in a long line of celebrities choosing to write children’s books rather than a memoir. However, Jeremy Trevathan, publisher at Pan Macmillan, said this change is recognition that fame alone does not make sales. “These books are still in evidence,” he said, “but there has to be more to them. Longevity or a real connection with readers seems to be the order of the day.”

Famous names with book deals announced at the fair were notable for their connections to 80s and 90s pop music, following the success of autobiographies by Bruce Springsteen and Smiths frontman Morrissey. But, though serious money changed hands for titles by musician and DJ Goldie, Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker and Suede’s Brett Anderson, the advances were “sensible” high five- and six-figure sums, rather than stratospheric seven-figure ones, which may now be a relic of the past.


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