Last month the London Book Fair cranked up its coverage of comics and graphic novel publishing this year and David Baillie went along for downthetubes to see what was happening... LBF photos by Joel Meadows
The London Book Fair is an annual publishing juggernaut that attracts attendees and exhibitors from all over the world. They usually have a small, but notable, comics presence but this year promised to be the start of a new relationship between the event and the comics medium. Not only had they declared a section of the floor the 'Graphic Novel Pavilion', but the second day (of the four) also featured a schedule of industry-related panel discussions.
I've visited the LBF a couple of times in the past, usually trying to meet new publishers who I can scam for money... Erm... I mean investigate new work opportunities. It's never been the ideal venue for 'cold calling', as one of the main functions of the fair is the selling of foreign rights, but the main selling point of the LBF is the sheer number of industry people it draws together into a single location.
For example, it's certainly possible to schedule four or five meetings with different publishers, and your agent, all in one day. It's a shame, then, that because of the recent volcano chaos, the Earls Court floor was very quiet indeed. Some publishers didn't make it at all and more than one stand had a business card taped to an empty wall alongside a post-it apology.
The Graphic Novel Pavilion was a quite small, with less than a handful of publishers - but certainly those that you'd expect and hope to see at this event - Panini, Titan Books, Self Made Hero and Turnaround. Unfortunately Dark Horse only managed to get a few flyers, posters and business cards to the fair. I think I'm right in saying all of these guys were exhibitors last year - so there wasn't actually any fresh blood per se - but it certainly makes sense grouping them together in one place. There were also a few comics publishers spread around the floor outside of the Pavilion - probably because they publish in a wider variety of media.
The London Book Fair is an expensive event at which to exhibit. This accounts for the shortage of smaller UK publishers you see elsewhere, and even homegrown companies dealing solely in graphic novels. I know that, for example, Sean Azzopardi inquired about attending with a selection of UK Indie comics, but couldn't justify the cost.
The talks were a welcome addition to the programming. My favourite one, and definitely the one with the best sound bites, was supposed to be about the future of publishing for the comics world, particularly with regards to digital distribution and consumption. It featured a diverse cast of experts, some of whom had little or no interest in the proscribed topic, which made it all the more difficult for Self Made Hero's Emma Hayley to moderate. (She did, however, do very well indeed.) Come to think of it, this reluctance the panellists had to do what they were told probably made for a more interesting talk.
Paul Gravett started proceedings by talking about the origins of the graphic novel and the evolution of the medium – concentrating on its relationship with the wider publishing market.
Ian Rankin was next up, and he related how he'd been attracted to working in the medium primarily because the first thing he read was comics. In fact, his initial attempts at writing were probably stick man comics when he was in school. He also bemoaned the lack of weekly and monthly comics available in British newsagents - he said he thought that this 'missing rung in the reading ladder' is largely responsible for the poor literacy rates for teenage boys. Apparently his son had recently begged to be taken to see Macbeth after reading the Manga version, despite previously showing no interest at all in Shakesperare.
David Fickling followed on and he spoke about working on the DFC story John Blake with Philip Pullman (whom he knew before he was at all well-known). Pullman, he said, is a brilliant storyteller, and both of them learned about storytelling from reading comics as youngsters. Apparently Pullman had jumped at the chance to write a comic when Fickling suggested it.
He then told us what a joy it was to 'open the cupboard' and find a wealth of comics talent here in Britain. He explained that children want to read to be entertained, and that if we achieve that we can keep them for life instead of 'pissing readers into the street'.
While everyone on the panel looked forward to the benefits of digital comics (although as Fickling noted, they're all already digital as everything is 'sent down the wire these days') there were some reservations about what might go astray in the transition. Rankin wondered if the double page spread reveal would be entirely lost if you were reading comics on a small device.
Emma said that when she was translating Self Made Hero's Cash GN to an iPhone-readable format, the artist had been hesitant because his page design, which is of course an important part of the storytelling, would disappear as the work was read panel by panel.
When the iPad was mentioned, it was also noted that if Cory Dotcorow had made it across the Atlantic he'd definitely be saying 'down with it' before anyone had a chance to sing its praises. Apart from the censorship and monopolistic issues, Ian Rankin also quipped that it meant an investment of five hundred pounds rather than the 'quid that 2000AD cost a few years ago'. The panel then discussed how, in a purely digital comics world, there would be no more comics swapping, which they mostly agreed was an important part of the reading culture.
In another talk that day Emma Hayley spoke about the beginnings of Self Made Hero - and how she saw a gap in the market back in 2004/2005. It was an article in the Financial Times which sparked her interest initially and she told us how surprised she'd been to go the newsagents two years later and find an article about the successful launch of her new Manga line on the front page of the FT. Self Made Hero now have 14 Manga Shakespeare editions in print, all by UK artists, as well the Eye Classic and Crime Classic lines. Their new Graphic Biography imprint has recently been launched leading with the warmly-received Cash (of course about Johnny Cash).
I didn't get much of a chance to investigate many other publishers on the floor as I had to return to Colchester for my artist residency (and neither did I manage to take advantage of the free back massages on offer!) but it did seem much quieter in general than recent years. There was also a noticeable absence of 'booth babes' (as I believe they're affectionately known in the trade) so I don't know if they're flown in from abroad especially.
All things considered I think this was a successful first outing for the Graphic Novels Pavilion and comics programme at the London Book Fair. Fingers crossed next year for a larger response from publishers and a lack of volcanic eruptions....
• David Baillie was recently artist-in-residence for firstsite, Colchester, supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.