Historically, the London Book Fair at Earls Court hasn’t been aimed at authors, but with over 1,800 exhibitors listed in its directory and 250 seminars and events, it’s now an opportunity too big to miss. There’s a huge amount going on over the three days and a lot of people to meet, so it’s easy to fill your diary with presentations and conversations. But there’s an unresolved tension at the heart of the fair.
The London Book Fair has always primarily been a commercial event, “the global marketplace for rights negotiation and the sale and distribution of content across print, audio, TV, film and digital channels”, as its website says. All the major publishers have large stands on the main floor, crammed with tables or desks occupied by people deep in conversation. Literary agents are hidden up in the International Rights Centre at gallery level, where they negotiate and close deals in relative private.
Despite the show’s main aim of serving the publishing industry, the schedule now includes events for authors and self-publishers. There’s also a dedicated Author Lounge hosting regular talks, with additional seminars held in the various conference rooms.
I was told by those who’d attended last year that the Author Lounge had then been tucked away upstairs and much too small, so this year’s move to the main floor was clearly a step up. But it was still too small with space for only about 60 people seated, and perhaps 80 or 90 when crammed in, standing, at the back. Almost every time I walked past, people were overflowing into the aisle and I can only imagine that there will be even greater demand from authors next year.
But several people I spoke to felt that the addition of unpublished or self-published authors to the mix created an awkward undercurrent. One literary agent I spoke to told me that she was there essentially incognito as she didn’t want to be pitched at all the time. And an editor at a major publisher explained how awkward it could be deal with authors wanting to pitch, not least because most publishers’ time has been fully booked with pre-arranged meetings.
The London Book Fair isn’t, in its current form, a brilliant place for authors looking for literary agents or publishers for their book. Some people do manage it, but anyone who turns up without having made contact beforehand is likely to be disappointed. Even though I was there not as an author but as a consultant and journalist, the only people I had substantive meetings with were those whom I’d already arranged to see or knew personally. And that’s the pattern of the fair: If you don’t have an appointment you can leave your business card and hope that someone calls you, but it’s unlikely to happen given how solidly booked everyone is.
I think that next year, the London Book Fair would do well to carefully consider how they expect authors and industry to interact. Some of the authors I spoke to felt under served by the existing set-up because although they could easily meet their peers or go to seminars, there was little opportunity for them to talk to people from the industry.
The elephant in the exhibition hall is, of course, the desire of some authors — though definitely not all — to sell their books and their inability to do anything much about it. Although there was a pitching session, it was an opportunity limited in scope.
One option for next year might be to have a pre-submission process where authors who have bought tickets can electronically submit their manuscript in advance to a limited number of publishers or agents, who can then request a meeting if they want to. Or maybe an author-agent/publisher speed dating event where the author gets five minutes to make an impression.
Another idea came from the literary agent I chatted to, who suggested that perhaps it might be interesting to create a fringe event for authors to provide a better environment in which to talk to agents, editors and publishers. I don’t think that it would be smart to separate authors off completely from the main fair — I found it very helpful to just wander round, look at the different stalls and get a feel for the publishing landscape. But I think there does need to be more space devoted to authors and more opportunity for conversations not just with each other but with people from the industry.
As the industry continues its transition to digital, and as self-publishing becomes an increasingly powerful force, it makes sense to find ways to facilitate conversations that will meet the needs of both authors and agents/publishers, without swamping either with unrealistic demands. An unmediated casting call for new talent would drown agents and publishers in slush, of which they have enough already. But leaving authors to simply chat amongst themselves does them a disservice, as many of those who make the effort to attend are exactly the sort of highly-motivated, entrepreneurial authors that the industry needs.
- London Book Fair 2013 (ukpublishingtoday.wordpress.com)
- The London Book Fair: A Brief History (goddingsltdblog.wordpress.com)
- An Author’s Guide to the London Book Fair (offtheshelfbookpromotions.wordpress.com)
- London Book Fair pins high hopes on debut novelists (guardian.co.uk)