Has India’s love affair with the London Book Fair waned?

In an age of instant communications and 24/7 “virtual” interaction via video-calls and tele- conferences, is there any point in the old-fashioned international gatherings that require people to travel around the world at great expense?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that such events are rapidly losing their allure and organisers are under constant pressure to devise newer gimmicks (“innovation” in management speak) to attract participants. The London Book Fair (LBF) — which came in from nowhere in the 1990s to establish itself as one of Europe’s most important publishing events, next only to the Frankfurt Book Fair — seems to have fallen victim to this trend.

Not so long ago it was de rigueur for Indian publishers to be seen at LBF meeting their U.K. collaborators, buying or selling rights and, if nothing else, picking up cheap remaindered stock that they would later sell in India at marked-up prices. But, slowly, it appears that they have begun to fall out of love with it. This year the Indian turnout was at an all-time low after reaching a peak in 2009 when India was a Guest of Honour. A country that boasts of “over 50,000 publishers in 24 languages” — according to CAPEXIL, India’s official books export body — was represented by barely a dozen — mostly small — publishers. Well-known names and regular visitors, including Rupa, UBS, Katha and Full Circle, were conspicuous by their absence.

A leading Indian publisher who didn’t want to be named said that it was “not worth it” given that there were now so many quicker and cheaper ways of doing business. Publishers were now travelling all the time whereas earlier they met only at conferences and fairs. “Now that the Londoners themselves are here every day, what is the point of going to London?” he quipped.

An Indian bookseller I met at the fair fumed, “It’s a joke. Expensive, badly organised... absolutely meaningless” and claimed that Indian exhibitors had been racially discriminated against and banished to a “dark corner” at the back of the hall where they shared space with “trinket-peddlers”.

Other Indian exhibitors, however, vehemently denied any racial discrimination. They ended up with stalls at the back of the hall because they had booked late. Some blamed CAPEXIL for this but the spokesman claimed credit for making sure that the Indian contingent — grouped together under the “Incredible India” banner — stood out. “It is better to be at one place because it is easier for others to find us. Once they come here, they get to meet more Indian publishers than just the one they were looking for,”he said.

By the way there were no “trinket peddlers”. I checked. Coming back to the fair, I’ve been attending it since its inception and it has never been as subdued as it was this year. Even at the height of the economic crisis three years ago, it didn’t seem so lacklustre. No big literary names; no headline-grabbing deals; no great debates; no controversies.

Curiously, a debate on overt and covert literary censorship in India (“Freedom of Expression: The Challenges for Publishers in India”) organised by PEN was so hush-hush that only insiders were invited. Even the names of participants were shrouded in secrecy. One PEN official said those who took part were not too keen to talk about it.

Organisers insisted the fair had been a success with 25,000 “attendees” from “100 plus” countries. There were many first-time visitors and most seemed impressed. Mateen Ahmad of Goodword Books from India said, “This is my first time here and I found it quite useful.”

One section took the view that the subdued tone was a sign that the fair had come of age and was now more focused on its main objective of buying and selling books. “The glitter was missing but behind the scenes a lot of serious business was done.  Ultimately that’s what matters,” said one publisher from the U.K.

As the fair was closing, I met Pramod Kapoor of Roli Books, who was nostalgic for the “old days”. “We used to run out of catalogues. This year it was a lot quieter.”

But, like most people, he thought gatherings like these were important. Virtual interaction was no substitute for personal one-to-one meetings. True, but given the frightening speed at which machines are replacing their creators I am not so sure.