“ARE YOU GOING TO THE LONDON BOOK FAIR?”

If you write books, work in publishing, or find yourself anywhere near people who do, chances are you’re hearing a lot about the London Book Fair right now. This year LBF is at Olympia from April 5 to 7. It’s the first one since 2019 and, as you can imagine, it’ll be a bit different to book fairs held before the pandemic.

For one thing, there are allocated time slots for arrival, so no meeting your mates outside the station and entering en masse, unless they have the same time slot.

LBF has put together their Covid-19 guidelines on this link. I won’t repeat them except to point out that you may need to provide evidence of Covid vaccination. And that’s in the form of the NHS app, not the NHS Covid app or the tatty little card you’ve kept in your wallet for over a year. The NHS app can take a day or so to verify your identity. Best not leave it till the last minute, then.

This year, the market focus is Sharjah and the tagline for the fair is YOU ARE THE STORY. But is it your story if you’re not a publisher?

Dipping into my experience of LBFs past, I can tell you that it’s not a place for readers, though it can be useful for authors as long as they’re realistic. Here are seven mistakes to avoid. I should know. I’ve made them myself.

1 Thrust your manuscript into a publisher’s hands. Don’t even expect to speak to a publisher. The fair is still industry-led, and, unless you have an appointment, you can’t see a publisher.

In the last few years, LBF has become more aware of authors, with the belated recognition of who it is that actually writes books. There’s a small enclave called Author HQ with a range of events relevant to writers. When I say ‘small’, I mean sitting cheek by jowl (yes, this year I’ll be wearing a mask). But LBF is still a trade exhibition, so it you can’t expect it to cater wholly for authors or would-be authors.

2 Try to find an agent. You’re more likely to win the lottery, even if you didn’t buy a ticket. You’ll even be pushed to chat with your own agent, if you have one. Literary agents are usually hard at work in the International Rights Centre, for which an appointment is needed.

3 Expect to buy lots of books. Although it would be magical to shop in a massive bookstore, LBF isn’t one of them.

4 Help yourself to books from the stands. There will be freebies like keyrings, bookmarks, carrier bags, and the like, but the books on the various stands are intended to show visitors a view of a publisher’s range. Stop stuffing your tote bag with glossy new titles.

5 Ask lots of stupid questions. Nobody expects you to know everything, but naivety has limits, and not every speaker is as patient or as courteous as romantic novelist Katie Fforde who, at one of her talks, was asked “How does one start to write a book?”

6 Wear high heels. Comfy shoes are the order of the week. Vertiginous heels will soon become unbearable, and LBF doesn’t sell foot plasters. I know. A gap in the market. Not sure they’ll sell masks either.

7 Expect to sit down. There is some seating here and there, though not much.  A lot of people end up sitting on the floor or perch precariously on an exhibit to eat their over-priced sandwich.

So why attend the fair at all if you’re an author? Mainly for the insights you’ll gain into publishing, the chance to network or make new contacts, attend a few interesting talks, and get new marketing ideas.

For me, there’s also inspiration in hearing celebrated authors like Maggie O’Farrell and Afra Atiq at Author of the Day events. This is how I met Egyptian novelist Alaa’ al-Aswany a few years ago. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of his book The Yacoubian Building. That short conversation with him at LBF encouraged me to write my novel The Girls from Alexandria.

So, are YOU going to the London Book Fair?

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