The London Book Fair gets underway at Earl’s Court today. This is an event I enjoy attending annually to gauge the state of publishing which has been suffering from the twin-pronged approach of economic and technological challenges.

This year the Fair faces another problem: the ash falling over Europe from the Icelandic volcano that has cleared the skies of aircraft. Many people will be unable to attend the Fair due to the air-travel blackout, while others on mainland Europe are changing their air-travel arrangements to ferry, road and Eurostar Rail methods. The result might be a shortage of attendees from the United States and other overseas territories.

As the madness of the Fair arrives in London this week, The Observer’s Robert McCrum spends a day with legendary agent Andrew Wylie in New York:

Today he comes to greet me in the tranquil, overheated hallway of his 12th-floor office as the day closes and the evening light merges into the fluorescent glare of uptown off-Broadway. In person, Wylie is slight, courteous and soft-spoken — as if with his dark suit and formal good manners he can live down his reputation as competitive, self-willed, transgressive and ruthless.

The contrast between his polite self-presentation and his erstwhile reputation as a hell-raiser and “a lizard” makes for an edgy formality. But it doesn’t take long for his sardonic bad-boy self to break through the mask. Wylie’s minimalist office displays several promotional copies of the Nabokov backlist in various foreign editions. When I comment on the number of literary estates (Borges, Mishima, Waugh, Lampedusa and Updike, to name some of the most prominent) controlled by the Wylie Agency, he says, with a mirthless laugh: “People are dying like flies.” It’s at moments like this that you can see why, in the Anglo-American book world, he is known, simply as “the Jackal”.

Once a more than slightly feral predator, however, Wylie has now become something far more menacing in the literary undergrowth. In a business environment where many of the principal publishers, booksellers and rival literary agents are reeling from the remorseless depredations of recession and digitisation (the IT revolution), he can make a good claim to be the most powerfully composed and uniquely global writers’ representative on either side of the Atlantic, a king of the book publishing jungle.

McCrum’s piece is lengthy, interesting and here.

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