Welcome to the London Book Fair, Where Everyone Knows Their Place

Everybody knows that the publishing industry is a rigorously stratified world, characterized by a reverence for hierarchy and a near-fanatical observance of ritual. Or maybe we suspect as much — but for those who would like to have those beliefs starkly confirmed, I would recommend a visit to the London Book Fair, which took place in the city’s Kensington district this week.

The fair, which this year had over 1,000 exhibitors and something like 30,000 visitors, is one of the biggest events of the international publishing calendar. For three days, agents, editors, publishers, scouts and many other people whose jobs are harder to explain gather in a frenzied fashion, primarily to sell and buy foreign rights for English-language books, but also to take temperatures, observe prevailing winds and scheme.

For those who weren’t there to close deals, the fair offered the opportunity to map out the minutely graded power structure of the publishing industry.

Just inside the doors of the cavernous Olympia exhibition space, the Penguin Random House stand was on the right, its entrance staffed by a row of tightly smiling assistants. The HarperCollins stand was on the left, with assistants gently standing guard over the editors inside, who were taking one meeting after another at little white tables, standing up every half an hour to greet another delegation of international publishers, smiles unflagging, notebooks poised.

For three days, agents, editors, publishers, scouts and others gather with the primary task of buying and selling foreign rights for English-language books.Credit…Sam Bush for The New York Times
Over 1,000 exhibitors from around the world hawked their wares.Credit…Sam Bush for The New York Times
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