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Frankfurt Forces London Book Fair Back West
Earls Court denies there was a contract
William Pollard (will789)     Print Article 
Published 2006-05-17 07:36 (KST)   
The London Book Fair will next year move back to west London after a disappointing experiment at ExCeL in the east. Organizers of the Frankfurt Bookfair had been asked to set up a rival event at Earls Court, near Olympia where the bookfair had been held previously.

However, when this was announced the London Book Fair decided to cancel the booking at ExCeL and move to Earls Court instead. The Frankfurt organization may take legal action although there was no signed contract. The story raises questions about the United Kingdom publishing scene and the future of exhibitions in London.

Sponsored by the Booksellers Association, the London Bookfair attracted over 23,000 visitors on three days in 2005, over 40 percent from outside the United Kingdom. The Frankfurt Bookfair attracted 284,838 visitors over five days and claims a history going back 500 years. The London Book Fair has been going for 35 years.

The exhibition facilities in west London are showing signs of age. Olympia opened in the 19th century and was originally known as the National Agricultural Hall. In 1923 the New Hall, later renamed the National Hall, was added. Six years later saw the opening of the Empire Hall, which was later renamed Olympia Two. Olympia's exhibition space was completed in 1959, when the West Hall, an extension of the Grand Hall was added. The effect of multiple levels and varied spaces can be useful in creating atmosphere for an event such as a bookfair. The remainders area can be kept separate and the main space reserved for the major publishers.

©2006 ExCeL
ExCeL has used the space in docklands for a new purpose built site that opened in November 2000. The former Royal Victoria Dock covered 100 acres, so there is space for a large building and for hotels and restaurants that have gradually been built over the last six years. Very often, only part of the building has been in use. It has two large spaces on either side of a concourse with places to eat. Unfortunately the occasion when the London Bookfair first moved there coincided with a beauty trade fair on the opposite side. Both sides were effectively full as the only spare space was needed for an additional cloakroom.

This confirmed the worst fears of the publishing professionals who had ventured east with perhaps an open mind, but resentful at leaving behind the pubs and restaurants of the west end. There were endless queues for food and for the toilets. The single open space for the exhibits made the display seem monotonous. Changes in the color of the carpet did not distinguish the variety of sections.

On May 5 the Frankfurt Bookfair announced plans to hold an event at Earl's Court in April 2007, soon after the announced London Bookfair at ExCeL in March. Publishers Weekly in Britain quoted one executive as saying about ExCeL: "I liked to go to the London Book Fair because I liked London, but this is not London."

Clearly this view had support as Frankfurt was approached by a number of literary agents and publishers. The announcement came with support from Faber & Faber, Hachette Livre UK, The Penguin Group and The Random House Group. The press release stated that "positive initial conversations have also taken place with HarperCollins and Macmillan,among others."

Agents were equally supportive. Clare Alexander, President of the Association of Authors' Agents, called The Book Fair Earl's Court, London 2007 "a very exciting and most welcome initiative."

Andrew Nurnberg, Joint Treasurer of the Association of Authors'Agents, commented, "As host nation, our priority must be to serve the best interests of our international partners. Their priority is to be at the center of London's great cultural heritage, while attending a fair that is a pleasurable experience. Our friends from Frankfurt are perfectly placed to meet all our aspirations."

The Bookseller reported that Publishers Association President Stephen Page believed the Earl's Court event was in pole position: "The location feels much better, and it's culturally much more representative of the trade. The show needs to be in London and Earl's Court is ten minutes from the best restaurants and the centre."

However, at that time, Justin Tadman from Reed Exhibitions continued to make a case for ExCeL. "Earl's Court doesn't offer any of the benefits of a world class venue...we want people to hang in there...it will be right for the industry in the long term."

Last week, the Bookseller editorial found it hard to state a preference between "the right hall in the wrong place" or "the wrong hall in the right place."

"Don't rule Reed out just yet. the logic of the move to a massive, purpose built venue is still strong. Earl's Court has some of the problems of the London book Fair's old home, Olympia, such as aging facilities and split floor levels. Meanwhile the transformation of east London continues apace, with extra train capacity coming on stream."

In a surprising move, Reed then decided to drop their support for ExCeL and arrange with Earl's Court to take over the same dates previously allocated to Frankfurt. Monsters and Critics reported that "the organizers of the Frankfurt Book Fair were demanding an explanation Thursday, alleging they had been swindled in a competition for control of a similar book expo in London."

The report was from Frankfurt and may be based on direct conversations.

"The German Boersenverein, a unit of the German booksellers and publishers federation (the official title for the Frankfurt Bookfair organization), had booked Earl's Court for next April and openly said it expected the rival London Book Fair, organized by Reed Exhibitions, to collapse as a result. Scrapping a finalized sale in favour of a higher bidder is common practise in British real-estate trading but is almost unheard of in German business life," the report said.

In an official press release, Juergen Boos, CEO of the Frankfurt Book Fair, stated, "We believed we had an agreement with Earls Court & Olympia Venues which was subsequently broken by them. We are therefore no longer able to pursue The Book Fair, Earl's Court, London 2007. We are currently evaluating with our lawyers whether legal action can be taken. We have been touched by the tremendous support we have had from publishers, agents and booksellers throughout this process and would like to send our heartfelt thanks."

Jeremy Probert, a spokesman for Earls Court, said: "Do you see the words 'signed an agreement' anywhere on the Frankfurt press release? Obviously, we are sorry to disappoint the Germans, but we do have a long-standing relationship with Reed Exhibitions."

This may be a bad precedent for rights deals in London though there could be plenty of work for lawyers.

The problems around transport to ExCeL are likely to reduce over time. London Mayor Ken Livingstone has encouraged a situation where the Oyster card now covers the railway system as well as the underground. ExCeL will host six London Olympic events in 2012: wrestling, table tennis, judo, weight lifting, boxing and taekwondo.

According to the ExCeL Web site there will be a lot more hotel accommodations available by 2008. "New developments include an ibis in Greenwich (due to open in 2006), a Hilton at Canary Wharf (due to open in 2006), and a Hilton in Aldgate (due to open in 2006). These new hotels will provide an extra 5,500 rooms, to add to the 1,500 rooms already available on the ExCeL London campus, and the 7,500 rooms already available within 20 minutes of the venue."

In my opinion, ExCeL has a good chance of establishing itself as the choice for those industries that value the technical resources available. Although cables and Web access could be made available at Olympia, it somehow feels not to be part of the normal environment. There are contrary views about this, especially as a wireless networking show is happening at Olympia this week. ExCeL has a BT wi-fi network installed in the central section. There may be wi-fi at Olympia but it is not as well promoted.

One difficulty with all the discussion about a venue is that this obscures a more pressing problem, the impact of digital technology on book publishing. The BT wi-fi promotion was striking because of the absence of e-books on the main stands. There was an "e-content pavilion," but this was limited to material for academic libraries.

Information World Review reported that "the 'e-content pavilion' failed to live up to the expectations of exhibiting publishers. Last year, the pavilion was one of the show's highlights with a special futuristic looking stand and plasma screens. For 2006, the organisers have pushed e-content suppliers into a dark corner at the back."

It may not be a coincidence that Information World Review is published by VNU, who also organize the Online Information show in November. For the last two years, surveys have shown a growing interest in electronic publishing and a series of presentations have been sponsored by the Bookseller, a trade magazine for the UK book trade.

It is possible that a show about online information could eventually be more of a threat to UK book publishing than a conventional challenge from Frankfurt. There is still confusion over where London exhibitors should concentrate resources. The arguments for ExCeL are not universally accepted. The Online Information event will once again be at Olympia.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter William Pollard

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