Tuesday, 17 April 2012
A writer's survival guide to the London Book Fair
I haven't visit Earls Court since my childhood and was totally unprepared for the size of the venue. It is ENORMOUS. I pre-registered and printed my ticket from home (£30 for 3 days is not bad value, £45 to register from 16 April), which meant I could just walk in. Arriving after eleven was good tactics as there was no queuing involved, and the entrance hall was remarkably subdued at that time. Inside I quickly located the floor layout map detailing all the exhibitors and where to find them. I don't usually cope well with maps, but the design and layout of the HUGE exhibition halls made navigating between the aisles a doddle. Just wish I taken my running shoes as I must have walked almost 10km!
Within 10 minutes I felt rather overwhelmed by the event and after 20 minutes started to wonder what I was actually doing there. Despite the premise that this is a BOOK FAIR it's not really the place for writers and I spotted very few of the species on my walkabout. But I had been pre-warned that the LBF is place where deals are made and publishing professionals come to do business. It's not a writer friendly venue, but the experience of the event is worth sampling even for one day.
It was fun to wander amidst the mainstream publisher's stands and check out what's new for the rest of the year. Some of the big names had massive stands. You could have mistaken Hachette's for a small town, particularly as it had a staircase leading up to a tiny viewing platform (probably a venue for broking those really BIG deals). Most had their own seating areas, some looked as if they had their own coffee bars (I did spot some fridges stacked with beers etc), and one even had fake grass. These seating areas were packed with suits 'doing business'. All very impressive, but quite intimidating for a simple writer on a fact finding mission.
So why was I there? Well I'd managed to secure a 5 minute slot with a publisher to pitch my children's novel (The Wereboy of Bartoncoombe, for ages 8-12 years ... see what I did there?). My appointment wasn't until just before 4pm so I had several hours to check out the rest of the fair beforehand. Top of my list was to first find the stand for my appointment. Thankfully this was on the main avenue and easy to locate. Next goal was to search out the Writers' Advice Centre, who'd identified this opportunity, and thank them for the contact.
It was almost a relief to enter the Children's Zone of the fair. Suddenly the stands became brightly coloured, adorned with puppets, games and an incredible rainbow of books in all shapes and sizes. I felt quite at home. The Writer's Advice Centre (for children's writing) stand was a calm oasis in the LBF and here I met the very friendly and welcoming Louise Jordan and Cressida Downing. My timing was spot-on as Louise was just opening a bottle of wine to welcome children's writers. This was one of the few, and possibly the only, stands that was genuinely pleased to talk to writers. Louise boosted my confidence and primed me with some excellent advice on what I needed to focus on for the pitch meeting. She also asked if I would return later to let her know how it went.
After lunch I explored Earls Court 2. Here you can find the booksellers, distributors, digital media, self-publishing companies and the author centre, where each day there is an hour long interview with a famous name. Sadly I just missed Peter James - one of my favourite crime writers. You can also sit in on other talks and demonstrations on self-publishing and other topics. China is a significant theme of the fair and there were several exhibitions and stands devoted to Chinese history and publishing. This section also hosts the cookery book stands and ongoing cookery demonstrations throughout the day.
When I asked about Literary Agents and where to find them I was told they rarely leave the International Rights Centre (situated on the floor above), which seems to be the publishing equivalent of the royal enclosure at Ascot. You only get in to the IRC if you have an appointment scheduled. So absolutely no point in turning up with your manuscript and hoping to have a 'quick chat' with someone if you're seeking representation.
The exhibition halls were well supplied for food and drink from a multitude of cafes, bars and restaurants (too numerous to list). Be prepared for London prices!
Okay, so do you want to know how my meeting went? Well, I listened to all the advice I'd been given and got stuck straight in and covered all the points I wanted. I met with the commissioning editor and she was friendly, professional and interested - all the things you'd hope for. As times it felt more like a job interview as she asked several questions about me, as well as my writing. I was prepared for most of the questions but oddly was completely stumped when she asked where I lived (I think this was because of the location/setting of the novel). My mind went blank. Yes, for an instant I forgot where I lived, but my bloodstream caffeine levels were sufficiently high enough to kick-start my brain and I was able to answer her without sounding like a gibbering idiot (that's my version of the story anyway). I had a biog, synopsis and 3 chapters (the usual suspects) all prepared and handed these over. She assured me the material would be read and I'd get a response shortly. I can't tell you how it went until I hear further, but 5 minutes in front of a publisher is an invaluable experience and one to be grabbed.
Would I go again? Probably not to the LBF unless I had a specific appointment to meet someone in the industry. If you are a writer looking for a publishing deal or representation then it's a good learning experience, but treat it purely as reconnaisance and don't expect to come home with a book deal (as my hubby expected). Do take along a business card. I visited as many suitable publishers as I could, politely asking to take away their catalogue and many asked for a business card in return.
If you do go then enjoy the spectacle, wear sensible walking shoes and take along some emergency sugar supplies...