Publishers go on spending spree ahead of London Book Fair

The London Book Fair kicks off today with six-figure sums having already been spent on books ranging from the new Ian McEwan to a stunning debut from Iranian author Sahar Delijani

Despite gloom on the high street and anxiety about the digital future, the UK's presses have been proving over the last week that their cheque books are still there – for the right titles. A host of high-rolling auctions for big new books have been taking place behind closed doors in the run-up to the book fair, with many stretching into six figures as publishers battle it out for supremacy.

A five-way auction stretching into six figures was also conducted for a trilogy of historical novels by debut novelist Liz Freemantle, with Penguin imprint Michael Joseph set to publish the first, Queen's Gambit, telling the story of Henry VIII's sixth wife Katherine Parr, next summer. And at HarperCollins, publishing director Katie Espiner won another auction with a six-figure bid for Rosie Garland's debut The Palace of Curiosities.

"It's felt like an even busier run-up than usual to LBF this year – there seems to have been a new auction running every other day," said Espiner. "We'd just won an 11-publisher auction for another debut, Nathan Filer's Where the Moon Isn't, when Rosie's novel came in. As Jonny Geller observed on Twitter, "accusing an agent of 'hype' just before London book fair is like complaining that the Pope should not be such a stickler for tradition". The pitch for The Palace of Curiosities made it sound so amazing – a new Angela Carter – that I worried it couldn't possibly live up to it. I was so wrong. It has one of the best opening scenes I've read for years. I was so hooked that I ended up finishing it on my phone, and it was still wonderful – clever, dark, funny and utterly heartbreaking. It's incredibly special and has what we're all looking for, that rare combination of truly brilliant storytelling with characters you really care about."

Geller said the rights market "seems much more vibrant than last year – publishers have woken up". Wood agreed. "The money is there for the right books and publishers are keen to spend their money on the right books," he said. "People are spending more per title, but buying less overall, which is why auctions are going into overdrive."

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