Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Hong Kong Book Fair Report

In this, the first Chinese international bookfair, (though not the first in Hong Kong, which I understand was some 5 years ago) there was a real pioneering spirit of expectation and adventure. The fair was massively oversubscribed, with 64 booksellers, 15 of which were from the UK. This meant that the venue was not ideal, with the booksellers spread over three rooms. However, this did not deter visitors, of which there were approximately 1500. These were mostly Asian, both private and institutional: there was a noticeable lack of ex-pats, which many were expecting, but with ever present budgetary constraints, it was deemed wise to make the push for the Asian market. It was certainly well covered in the press, radio and television both before and during the fair. Sales were, overall, extremely good with, I gather, as much as US 2 million sold. Sadly not all with us: but there was enough money sloshing around for even the most unsuccessful to feel positively about the fair and its potential. This achievement is due in no small part to the magnificent dedication and hard work of the core team of Paul Feain, Mr. Mitsuo Nitta, Chris Li, Ellie Aroney, and Fang Ling Jong.

It has to be said, the Chinese do things differently. Of course, as booksellers, we’re not above a haggle, but 50% discount straight off the bat was startling. Also, my near neighbours Robert Frew and Barbara Grigor-Taylor did the majority of their business in, literally, the last 20 minutes of the fair. There was a real down-and-dirty market mentality that was thrilling to watch. The naivetes of the questions were also curiously refreshing and showed real interest. One customer asked if he could perhaps buy a copy that hadn’t been read; another faced with the two copies of an identical title, one signed and one unsigned, priced accordingly, asked “why didn’t he sign that one”?

There was great interest in the concept of book buying and collecting that cut through the usual bookfair ennui, though there was, unsurprisingly, an insularity that meant that the dealers with Chinese, Chinese/Western material attracted the most sales. It would be good to combine the next fair perhaps with some sort of symposium/lecture/workshop on book collecting: it would appeal, could inspire, and certainly build on fledgling interest.
The Western booksellers had made a real effort, with many providing parallel descriptions in Mandarin. John Randall’s impressive catalogue in rich imperial yellow was particularly enticing, with books priced from £15.00 to £75,000. One bookseller, rather waspishly, declared that this was a “Chino-Japanese fair to which we’ve been invited to defray costs”, but this wasn’t a general view. Most people seem happy to be there and optimistic about future sales. Where there collectors there? Certainly. Could it create a new generation of collectors? Judging by the amount of teenagers that I saw floating around on all three days (some faces repeatedly), with bags, with books in them (as opposed to catalogues) it could be a real possibility. Which after all, is what it’s all about.

Dorothea Rota

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