“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?

Janet and John Go to the London Book Fair

Do you like book fairs?

Janet and John do. John is an author. Janet wants to work in publishing.  This is their first time at the London Book Fair.

“Gosh,” Janet says. “It’s very big.”

“That’s what they all say,” John says.

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Olympia is huge. There are 25,000 people here. Exhibitors come from all over the world. This year, the market focus is Indonesia.

John knows all about Indonesia. “It is a country a long way from London,” he tells Janet.

The first stand is Harper Collins. Someone smiles at Janet. So Janet foists her CV onto the person from Harper Collins.

Naughty Janet!

dav

Helpfully, people have their names and their job titles on their conference badges. John examines several people’s chests closely to find one he wants.

John pounces on an unsuspecting woman whose badge says AGENT, and thrusts his lovingly prepared manuscript into her hands.

Ever hopeful, John!

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“I need a coffee and a doughnut,” Janet says.  Janet drags John to the nearest café. 

“But not at those prices,” Janet says.

“Well, I’m going to splash out,” John says.

“See you when you get back from the toilet then,” Janet says.

By the time John returns, Janet has met two friendly people, studied a floorplan, and found out more about the London Book Fair.

“John, come quickly,” Janet says. “You must go to Author HQ.”

Author HQ is on the next level up, a long way from the big shiny stands. It is almost as far as Indonesia.

“My feet hurt,” Janet says.

Today Janet is wearing snazzy heels to make an impression. The only impression they make is on her corns and her hammer toes.

FreeImages.com/Stephan Fleet

Janet and John struggle up to the Writer’s Block on Level One.

“Look,” John says. “There’s a Society of Authors stand. I think I might join.”

Now John is being clever. 

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At Author HQ, there are no seats left. To listen to a talk, John sits on the floor beneath someone eating an egg and cress sandwich.

When the talk finishes, Janet and John meet up again.  

Janet still hasn’t bagged a job, but she is cradling two bulging holdalls. One of them is full of bookmarks, sweeties, and flyers. The other bag is full of shiny new books.

“Where did you buy those?” John asks.

“I helped myself,” Janet says.

“That’s stealing. You must put them back,” John says.

“My feet hurt,” Janet says. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Well, there’s nowhere to sit down,” John says.

“What about that nice big display over there? It looks sturdy,” Janet says.

Bye, bye, beautiful display of children’s books.  

See Janet and John run as fast as they can.

John goes back to Author HQ. The next session is called Turning Yourself into a Brand.

Sam Missingham is a publishing guru,” John whispers to Janet as he scans the carpet for space.

“I know all about branding already,” Janet says. “That’s why I’m taking lots of selfies for Instagram.”

“How does Instagram work?” John asks.

“You take pictures of yourself in front of all the different publishers’ stands, upload them to Insta, and wait for the job offers to roll in,” Janet says.

“I did not know that,” John says. “Besides, the wi-fi is a bit shit here.”

“I have a personal hotspot,” Janet says.

“I know you do,” John says.

LBF day 2

“I want to go home now,” Janet says.

“Are your bunions throbbing?” John asks.

“Yes,” Janet says. “And I have a migraine.”

“Come on then,” John says. “I’ll treat you to something special on the way home.”

dav

Don’t be like Janet and John. Do your homework before you get to the London Book Fair. And take paracetamol with you.

The London Book Fair #LBF16

After three days of the London Book Fair, I’ve unpacked my memories and my bags of freebies. All the usual suspects were there, such as bowls of sweeties on the stands, people in unsuitable footwear, and long queues for overpriced sandwiches.

Olympia is vast, but every corner of every hall was filled.

#LBF16

Can you spot land-locked Switzerland?

Grand Hall, LBF16

Books Are My Bag grows bigger by the year.

Books Are My Bag at LBF16

The PEN Literary Salon was a popular destination, especially when the Julian Fellowes entertained with talk of Downton Abbey, his new venture Belgravia, and the eternal truths of writing (eg ‘The trick of life is to be undisappointing’).

Julian Fellowes at PEN, #LBF16

While there’s always an Author of the Day programme, authors are not the main focus of the book fair, even if publishers would find it hard to create many books without them.

Still, there was a goodly contingent of authors, including many independent authors.

Alison Morton, Helena Halme, Jessica Bell, Jane Davis, Peter Snell, Sue Moorcroft, Karen Inglis, Carol Cooper, Roz Morris,

On Tuesday, Alison Morton launched Insurrectio. If you think I missed off an N, you need to get acquainted with her Roma Nova series. 

Alison Morton launching Insurrectio at LBF16

While authors come in all shapes and sizes, there are sometimes uncanny similarities. 

3 literary sisters

Not literally sisters, but literary sisters. In the middle is Helena Halme who writes The Englishman series. Her latest title, The Finnish Girl, is out today. Children’s author Karen Inglis is on the right.

Author HQ may have been relegated to the back of the venue, but it was as packed as ever.

Audience at Author HQ, LBF16

The fair is now over, the final stragglers shepherded out by tannoy at 5pm on Thursday. But today indie authors can attend the Indie Author Fringe here.

And it’s only 11 months to go till #LBF17.

Why should I go to the London Book Fair?

As I look forward to next week’s London Book Fair, I realize I haven’t got a notebook, my comfy shoes need re-heeling, and I’ve been so busy editing that I haven’t properly checked out what’s on, let alone printed my badge. So I think fellow author Sue Moorcroft’s advice is very timely. Here it is, fresh from her blog with my thanks.

Sue Moorcroft blog

2015-04-14 12.13.44At about this time each year, writers begin to discuss whether they’re going to, or should be going to, the London Book Fair. I’ve been an attendee for years and always enjoy it but if a writer asks if they ‘should’ be going to the Fair I usually say ‘Not unless you want to’.

Here are some of the things that LBF isn’t:

  • a place to pitch to agents and editors (unless you’re an invited finalist a ‘Dragon’s Den’-type competition or an agent or editor has invited you to meet her or him there specifically to pitch. I have never heard of this latter thing happening)
  • a book shop
  • a venue in which to sell copies of your book, unless you’ve paid for a stand in order to do so
  • free to attend (unless you count your publisher/fairy godmother paying for your ticket as ‘free’)
  • a madly comfortable place

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Inside the Dragons’ Den

What happens when aspiring authors have to brave not one but four literary dragons in front of a live audience? 

The London Book Fair (LBF2015 to the cognoscenti) had a demob flavour on its final session of the afternoon, but not in Author HQ where for ten hopefuls the serious stuff was just cranking up.

Seen Dragon’s Den? That’s how The Write Stuff was organized. Ready to breathe fire on the ambitious writers were agents Mark Lucas, Toby Mundy and Lorella Belli, plus non-fiction publisher Alison Jones.

They didn’t look that fierce from where I was sitting. As we waited for the start, I couldn’t tell if Belli and Jones were discussing books, designer shoes, or their team’s chances for the next season, but it all seemed quite jolly.

Alison Jones, left, with Lorella Belli

Alison Jones, left, with Lorella Belli

Then the real business began, with the contestants standing in front of the panel plus a packed Author HQ to sell themselves. Each had just one minute to say who they were, two minutes to pitch their book, and five minutes for questions and comments from the panel, who had already sampled their opening chapters.

This happened a few weeks ago now, but there were lessons that authors should remember for all time.

First up was Lucy Brydon, a young Scottish film-maker who presented a novel set in China where she had worked. While The Boy Who Died Comfortably was redolent of Chinese culture and highly filmic. Toby Mundy wasn’t so sure that, as a foreigner, the author had ‘a place to stand in this story.’

Toby Mundy

Agent Toby Mundy

Characters came under scrutiny when romance writer Catherine Miller pitched her novel Baby Number Two.  The panel was clearly impressed with her perfect title, as well as her blurb, her writing, and her Katie Fforde bursary. AND she’s a mother of twins.

Catherine Miller

Catherine Miller

They weren’t so keen on her characters’ motives, however. Alison Jones also felt she had shoehorned in too many topical subjects.

Caroline James also writes mainly for women. Coffee, Tea, the Caribbean and Me was aimed more at those in their fifties, and drew on her experience in the hospitality industry. ‘Highly relatable,’ thought Mark Lucas, relatable being the buzzword de nos jours.

agent Mark Lucas

Agent Mark Lucas

The authors received all the comments with good grace, though Olga Levancuka was a tad more combative.  There she stood in her full-length orange coat, looking every inch the Skinny Rich Coach (her alias). She responded feistily when the panel questioned her approach and her credentials.

Olga Levancuka, aka Skinny Rich Coach

Olga Levancuka aka Skinny Rich Coach

Mike Rothery had spent decades in the Navy, so no surprise his novel The Waiting-Pool involves an ocean voyage. And a jaunty hat.

Mike Rothery

Mike Rothery

It was a good thriller, thought the panel, but it took a bit too long to get started, and Alison Jones couldn’t bring herself to care that much about the characters. The protagonists had started life in another of Mike’s books, so getting the amount of back-story right may have been an issue. A tip here for anyone writing a series, I think.

Vittorio Vandelli

Vittorio Vandelli

Italian satirist Vittorio Vandelli presented a tub-thumping account of the dystopia of the Berlusconi period. What had happened in Italy was, he claimed, a dire warning to Western democracy everywhere. He soon digressed from his blurb and just gave us his tirade.  As entertaining as it all was, Vittorio and his book came on a little strong. Mark Lucas said he felt he was being smacked over the head with all the things he should be outraged about.

Caroline Mawer is a doctor, globe-trotter, photographer, and author of A Single Girl’s Guide to Modern Iran. The panel thought there wasn’t enough of herself in the work, and the title wasn’t faithful enough to the text.  Wouldn’t Skinny-Dipping in the Spring of Solomon have been more arresting? Maybe literally?

Caroline Mawer

Caroline Mawer

Up stepped Julia Suzuki. Her children’s book The Crystal Genie is, appropriately enough, all about dragons. The panel sat bolt upright. Was it about them? They all claimed to adore dragons. But it is no longer enough, apparently, for dragons to be green. Even the youngest readers must now have them in shades of grey. Alas, Suzuki’s characters were ‘a bit too black and white.’   

Julia Suzuki

Julia Suzuki

Lennox Morrison, an award-winning journalist from Aberdeen, offered a collection of short stories. Although she writes ‘like a dream,’ the consensus was that short stories are very difficult to sell on a grand scale.

The winner was another journalist, Sanjiv Rana, who pitched The Insignificance of Good Intentions. This first person novel is about a 33-year old virgin who’s sent to prison charged with rape. Sexual assault is a big problem in India, though, as the panel said, false accusations of rape aren’t usually the issue, so it’s an original angle. The panel agreed that Rana has a very original voice too. You think that stopped them comparing him to other writers? Think again. 

Sanjiv Rana receives his award

Sanjiv Rana and certificate

Rana won an appointment with Toby Mundy, and a framed certificate for slaying dragons. 

What did the other writers get out of it?  Olga landed herself an agent shortly afterwards, and Caroline Mawer did change the title of her book. Her thought-provoking take on The Write Stuff is well worth a read. It’s on Words With Jam right after my piece.

Meanwhile Catherine has completed her novel, and I for one am dying to read it.

 

Self-Published Authors, eh? What Are They LIKE?

Unless you’ve been in Siberia for the last few years, you’ll know that publishing has changed with the rise of self-publishing.  Indie authors, self-published authors, author-publishers – call them what you will. Their distinguishing feature is that their books bypass mainstream publishing houses.

Some publish themselves in the strict sense of the word, while others use small publishing outfits. What are they like?  ALLi LBF14

A number are hybrids like me: my non-fiction is traditionally published for good reasons. I can’t see a textbook for medical students gaining much traction without the backing of educational big guns like Wiley-Blackwell. On the other hand, I’m very happy self-publishing my fiction like my novel One Night at the Jacaranda.

One thing to make clear: self-publishing is not vanity publishing, where someone is so desperate to appear in print that they exchange a fat cheque and an unreadable MS for a garage full of books nobody wants to buy.   garage full of unsold books

Authors go the indie route for various motives. Most often there’s the desire to have full control over their work: the cover, the blurb, the price, the royalty rate, the timing of publication and so on. As Orna Ross, director of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), says, indie authors “see themselves as the creative director of their books, from inspiration to publication.

Orna at London Book Fair 2014

Orna Ross at London Book Fair 2014

When you read a book by an indie author, you’re getting what the writer intended.  If you’ve never come across a book by an author-publisher, you’re probably thinking “What, typos and all?”

No, of course not. That’s because ‘self-publishing’ is something of a misnomer – it takes a team to make a book the best it can be.

You can self-publish all on your own without spending a cent, but you need a bit more to produce a quality product fit for discerning readers (and your English teacher from college).

If you haven’t come across any of the 18m self-published books bought in the UK last year, you may still be thinking of indie-authored fare as pale imitations of ‘proper’ books.

Like, say, a cut-price Ian McEwan or a downmarket version of a Julian Barnes. Or maybe a Maggie O’Farrell with spelling mistakes. A Ruth Rendell minus the mystery. Gone Girl without any suspense. Perhaps even Jeanette Winterson with random capitals and grocers’ apostrophes. You know the type: potatoe’s, lettuce’s, Orange’s aRE Not The Only FRuit.   farmers' marketAs it happens, more than one commentator describes the indie scene as a literary farmers’ market (see posts by JJ Marsh  and Lynne Pardoe.

Tesco they’re not. These authors are individuals and they provide fare you can’t easily find elsewhere.

So it’s tough to generalise about what they’re like. Indies are poets, thriller writers, romantic novelists, and a lot more, but some things unite them.

Jane Davis' novel 'I Stopped Time'

Jane Davis’ novel ‘I Stopped Time’

  • Their books may defy genre, which is one reason why they may not sit well in a supermarket.  You’ll see what I mean if you check out the work of Dan Holloway, Orna Ross, Rohan Quine or Alison Morton). 
  • Author-publishers relish the control they have over their own work. They may have turned indie after their publisher insisted on changing the title of their book, or made the titling pink and loopy to shoe-horn it onto the chick-lit shelf.
  • They know readers deserve first-rate content and presentation, so they’re increasingly professional. The best author-published books are on a par with high-end products from big publishers.  And many of them have accolades that say so.
  • That’s because they take it on themselves to produce books with care, but they do so with the help of editors, designers, beta-readers and so on. No author, even an indie author, is an island.
  • As you might have guessed by now, they’re not all sitting by the phone waiting for one of the Big Six to call.  But indies aren’t all fed up with traditional publishing either.
  • Most write for love. Indie authorship is not a get-rich-quick scheme, though some have done spectacularly well.

I think all this choice makes it a very exciting time to be a reader.

So, what are indie authors like? Come and see. You’ll find about 40 of them at the Indie Author Fair in Chorleywood, Herts on November 16.

Indie Author Fair 2014

 You may also like to read this informative book from the Alliance of Independent Authors which gives a great overview: Opening Up to Indie Authors.