Volcanic Ash Casts a Cloud on the Book Publishing World

The London Book Fair, which kicked off today, was described as a ghost town as a result of the Iceland-volcano-related flight cancellations. It's one of many ways the book industry is suffering from the eruption.
The London Book Fair, which kicked off today, was described as a ghost town as a result of the Iceland-volcano-related flight cancellations. It's one of many ways the book industry is suffering from the eruption.

The Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull keeps spewing ash high into the atmosphere, wreaking havoc upon air travel and seriously dampening the global economy. One of the least obvious -- but far from least suffering -- victims of the volcano has been the book publishing industry.

The canceled flights have slashed trade-fair turnout, disrupted author book tours and delayed shipping of books across the Atlantic. Compared to the $200 million-a-day bill racked up by the airline industry and the massive hit taken by industries such as tourism, farming and transportation, the publishing industry's troubles might seem comparatively small.

But so, too, is its profit margin. And in this still-fragile economy, the effect of any drop in sales or extra expenses will ripple up and down the publishing industry's complicated supply chain. The same ash with the power to melt airline engines also has the power to reshape the industry -- both for ill and for good.

London Book Fair 'Like a Ghost Town'

The London Book Fair, one of the industry's largest trade events, may be the most emblematic example of the disaster the volcano has caused in book publishing. The timing couldn't have been worse for the fair, which began Monday, because all the canceled flights have led to massive no-shows. Fair organizers had expected almost 1,700, exhibiting companies to attend the three-day event, up 7% from last year. Instead, first-day attendance declined between 20% and 22% from 2009, according to anecdotal reports.

Attendees reported on Twitter that the normally bustling Earl's Court felt more like a ghost town, with empty stands marked with signs reading "Sorry, we're currently unable to man our stand." Of 87 planned events, 20 ended up being canceled, including a party for former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who got stuck in the Middle East instead of returning to London to meet with his array of publishers.

Representation from South Africa, this year's spotlighted market, was slashed dramatically as well. Many of the country's publishing personnel weren't able to make it out of the country, and only three of the 12 South African authors expected to attend actually arrived. "It's looking really forlorn," Andrew Franklin, managing editor of the U.K. independent publisher Profile, told trade magazine The Bookseller. "It's been very hard to conduct business because there is no [one] here to conduct it with."

Optimism and Surrealism

North American attendance was also particularly anemic as representatives from large publishers like Random House and smaller outfits were stranded at home. Joe Malinowski, president of the American Collective Stand, which represents a number of small publishers at the fair, told the Financial Times that only seven of the 100 publishers, editors and salespeople due to attend with his organization arrived in London. "London is a dead loss," Canadian literary agent Denise Bukowski told Publishers Weekly.

But the prevaling mood seems to be one of optimism tinged with surreality. Because many of the big book deals actually happen before or after the fair, some agents, like Brian DeFiore of U.S.-based agency De Fiore & Company, were able to set aside their disappointment at not being there in the flesh.

And getting stuck at the departure gate might end up being a blessing in disguise for those who couldn't go. Those who did make it to London -- such as Bloomsbury Press publisher Peter Ginna, whose picaresque-like journey involved a flight to Dublin, a train to Belfast, a ferry across to Stranraer, a drive to Edinburgh and a train to London -- might be in for an even trickier time as they return home.

Book Shipping Suspended

The London Book Fair is only one example of the many financial ramifications the volcano has had on book publishing. Distributors also are experiencing serious delays in shipping books across the Atlantic.

The Book Depository, an independent retailer that delivers books all over the world with free shipping, has suspended operations in North America as a result of the volcanic eruption. Not that all book shipping has stopped. Amazon's U.K. website still indicates it will ship books to the U.S. as usual, estimating six to 10 days for "standard" and one to two days for "priority" shipping. Amazon spokespeople didn't respond to requests for comment.

Authors promoting their newest books also have had their book tours disrupted or canceled by the volcano. Geoff Dyer went to Spain over the weekend to promote his new novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varansi, and was due to fly back to London last Friday. Instead, as he recounted to the Guardian on Sunday, Dyer is playing out his version of the movie Groundhog Day: "As long as I keep washing my underwear and shirts, and someone keeps refilling the minibar, I could stay here forever."

Meanwhile, British novelist and Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan is stranded in Toronto, having planned to stay in the city for only a few days for events related to his newest book, Solar. "We're working on figuring out how to get him home," Scott Sellers, vice president director of marketing strategy for Random House Canada, told the National Post. "Still a work in progress."

Fellow Booker Prize winner John Banville never even made it out of Ireland. His week-long American tour for Elegy for April, part of a crime fiction series he writes as Benjamin Black, and a publication party planned in New York for Monday night has been canceled. Alexander McCall Smith, author of the #1 Ladies Detective Agency books, also has canceled his North American tour, while Mary Sharratt, an American novelist who lives in England, finished up a two-week book tour only to be stranded in Minnesota, where she grew up, as a result of the volcano.

"Fingers Crossed"

Should the volcanic ash crisis drag on further, other major literary events around the country could find their programs in jeopardy. Organizers of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books are waiting to find out whether several European authors will be able to attend the event, which begins Saturday.

"We all have our fingers crossed and are constantly hitting refresh on our computers in hope of good news, but who knows?" says Maret Orliss, Senior Event Programmer for the Festival of Books. Many European and Asian authors are also scheduled to participate in the New York-based PEN World Voices festival, which kicks off on Monday. For now, "no one's canceled, and we're moving full steam ahead," event spokesperson Kimberly Burns told DailyFinance, adding that organizers are on alert for potential scheduling changes.

Meanwhile, if the ash dissipates and the skies become friendly to flights once again, some other book fairs could gain as a result of the London's loss. According to industry newsletter Publishers Lunch, Book Expo America, held in New York at the end of May, has already seen an uptick in registrations as a result of the London fair's attendance drop-off.