5 Questions with Jacks Thomas, Director, London Book Fair

Jacks ThomasJacks Thomas is the director of the London Book Fair, a position she has held since January 2013. This year’s fair features a wide array of speakers and panels, as well as the re-branded digital conference now called Quantum.

The 2016 London Book Fair takes place April 12-14.

I recently spoke with Thomas about how she handled taking over the Fair a few years ago, what she’s looking forward to most about this year’s, and more.

What have you tried to change since you took the position?

The London Book Fair has been a very successful Fair throughout its 45 year history. It remains a leading international publishing business to business event with the largest rights center in the world.

We all know brilliant content in publishing can cross platforms, cross aligned creative industries and cross borders. The London Book Fair has traditionally been really good at the crossing borders part of this, with 130 countries represented, hosting an important translation rights market, but I wanted to ensure we were equally known as a place to help publishers content cross formats as well.

It’s an area I have been keen to foster, in terms of attendance and deal making at the Fair. We have had considerable success bringing people from the aligned creative industries—film, gaming, TV, etc.—into the book fair, particularly by establishing partnerships with BAFTA and UKIE (gaming), among others. I want the book fair to be a one-stop shop for publishers to make deals. This includes bringing in the Children’s Media Conference (the top TV rights conference) to do cross-media rights trading in the children’s arena. Over 150 television and film professionals coming in to LBF on Thursday specifically to rights trade with publishers.

We’ve also tried to recognize some of the changing opportunities in reaching consumers, including introducing a brand licensing area to LBF, as well as a dedicated area for video gaming publishers and creators into the book fair, in partnership with Ukie. Last year, we brought in a dedicated research and scholarly conference that is running again this year, alongside a dedicated show floor theatre, for academic STM publishing, The Faculty.

Last year, we launched London Book & Screen Week around the London Book Fair. London Book & Screen Week is the capital’s seven-day, city-wide celebration of books and the films, TV programs and virtual worlds they inspire, taking place April 11-17. The Festival, which we produce to coincide with LBF, offers general public all over London the chance to experience the vibrancy and excitement about books and content that is always generated at the Fair—something previously kept for the publishing community only within the B2B Fair. Now it is part of city-wide program of events including discussions, debates, parties and special film showings. With publishing now worth an estimated £4.3bn to the UK economy, the festival draws the spotlight on the critical role books play in our creative industries and the breadth of inspiration they spark.

What was the most difficult challenge when you took over?

When Earls Court (our previous exhibition home) closed just less than two years ago, we consulted with the industry as to where they wanted to go. In consultation, we choose Olympia London and last year was our first year in our new home.

Changing venue for a show as big as LBF is a huge amount of work—making sure that everybody knows about the new venue, then has a good experience when they get there.

But over and above the logistics, the challenge was to ensure that we did not allow changing venues to block all of the innovation that we wanted to deliver so we are constantly improving the Book Fair. It was a tight schedule, but we decided we had to introduce some of the new things in 2014, prior to the disruption of the venue change in 2015.

So I think that managing all aspects of the move and keeping the Book Fair innovative was a huge challenge in my first two year. Let’s just say it was mind-focusing!

What about the 2016 London Book Fair are you most looking forward to?

I always look forward to the authors of the day, and we’ve got fantastic ones this year from Marian Keyes, to Nick Bostrom, Howard Jacobsen, Tracey Chevalier, Jeanette Wintersen to Judith Kerr.

On Wednesday at the Fair, we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, something we are calling the LBF “Shakesperience.” Shakespeare is an amazing ambassador for what we do at the Book Fair: he’s translated into at least 80, and probably 100 languages. His brand would be worth over £1billion if it were commercially owned.

LBF Shakesperience will include a mini Globe Theatre where we’re going to have performances of sonnets in seven languages every day, three times a day. We’ve got Polish, Hindi, Maltese, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and English.

Another big highlight for me is the fact that Julian Fellowes, creator of “Downton Abbey,” has chosen to launch his cross-format, next creative project at the London Book Fair. It’s an app that is taking his work back to episodic publishing, so it’s a chapter a week released via the Belgravia app, and culminates in a hardback if you choose to read it that way at the end of June. I just think that’s exactly what we’re talking about at the London Book Fair is all of this choice, all of these opportunities. You can either get your chapter a week, or you can wait for the hardback. That’s the beauty of narrative these days.

I’m looking forward to our conference program, highlights of which have got to be the fact that we’ve got the 31st International Publishers Congress in London, for the second time only in its history. It has an amazing program.

Part of that is also, of course, our Quantum conference on Monday before the Book Fair. Professor Nick Bostrom, a hugely innovative thinker on artificial intelligence, is our author of the day and giving a keynote at the conference. An academic from Oxford seems a million miles away from the day-to-day business of rights trading, but in actual fact it just encapsulates what books are about. Great books share great ideas, and all those ideas trickle into publishing eventually.

Quantum used to be called Publishing for Digital Minds. Why did you decide to rebrand it, and are their any major differences in either the format or the agenda?

Quantum physics is such a familiar term but last autumn I heard a really interesting—if not granular—discussion about how quantum physics underpins so much that we do and see and almost all the technology we us: from mobiles phones to medical lasers to the colors of the rainbow. Indeed a growing body of people believe that this period in human history may be dubbed “the Quantum Age.”

I was inspired to draw a connection between the physics and life-enhancing technology being discussed, and our own industry—far-fetched though that may sound. From “smart” bookshops making suggestions to customers’ mobiles as they browse, to reader participation storylines, there is a world of innovation enabled by the discoveries of the quantum world.

In this context, we felt that the previous name of our opening conference, Publishing for Digital Minds, was simply too narrow, given that we are living in a post-digital world. Coders and Google analysts are as commonplace as editors and sales directors. The new name, The Quantum Conference, seeks to embrace this new world.

Highlight events of Quantum include keynote speakers Nick Bostrom, Future for Humanity Institute, and Dame Gail Rebuck, Penguin Random House UK. A no doubt fascinating “In Conversation” session between James Daunt, Waterstones, and Stephen Page, Faber and Faber. A case study on the partnerships that made the Mog Christmas campaign a success and fresh industry insights from Nielsen presented by Jo Henry.

In your view, what do you believe are the most challenging issues in book publishing today?

I think if I were a publisher, I would absolutely love all the opportunities that the Quantum Age delivers, in terms of understanding and insight into readers as well as growth of formats that rely, at their route, on creative content. Something publishers and authors are very well placed to fulfill.

That said, I can see huge complexity for publishers in trying to decide where you put your resources, what you focus on and how you keep your staff skilled in the next digital trends.

How do you capture all of those opportunities while also keeping your eye on the fact that many people still want to read their books in print? You need to be producing those books in print while keeping absolutely current about all the other opportunities that are around.

That’s why events like London Book Fair and our Quantum Conference are actually more important in a digital age. It is a chance for staff training, for senior leaders to find out what is going on around the world, talk to international colleagues and learn about how other markets are changing.

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