In April I had the joy of being invited by my publishers (Histria Books) to come to the London Book Fair. I thought it would be helpful to put my thoughts down about the experience.
Firstly I should say, as a Cumbrian author, it is always rather nice to find an excuse to stay in London. I love the pastoral scenes of my beloved county and wouldn’t trade my little village’s ‘rough seas’ and sheep eternally stuck in a fence for any city in the world (though Paris would be reluctantly rejected and does come a close second). But a visit to the big city, with opportunities for eating out in a different restaurant every single time and more sights to see than you can fit in a lifetime, is always a welcome break.
For that reason alone, I would have come to the fair. It was sweetened anyway by the other invitation to meet with Kurt, the director at Histria, for a coffee and a chat the day before. Despite publishing my book and many, many emails having passed back and forth over the process, I’d never had so much as a zoom chat with the man who looked after my baby and so, as Histria is an American company, never seen him. Indeed, I had to google his name to find a photo of him online so I could identify him when we met.
I’m kicking myself now for not getting a selfie in with Kurt at the rather quaint little café in Kensington where we spent the best part of two hours together. It was very nice (he is a very nice man) and he gave me some heads up about what to expect at the fair itself the next day. I was grateful for that. After that, I headed to my hotel in Kings Cross and awaited the next day.
The Olympia, where the LBF took place over three days, is so big you can’t see it. I know that doesn’t make sense but it is true. When you enter the building and shuffle through the security checks, it looks like any medium-sized hall you might find anywhere in London. But what you don’t notice is that it is relatively flat and just keeps going. Built in the late 1800s, it looks like something intended to be either a collection of hangars for aviation purposes or a failed railway station in the manner of St Pancras and the great London stations. In fact, it was neither. Originally conceived as a national agriculture hall, it became what it is today – an exhibition hall. But even that is a misnomer. It’s several exhibition halls all put together – and they all look identical (at least as far as I could tell). Indeed, even after many hours wandering around, I found myself constantly lost with no idea if I’d been in any one part previously. I suspect there many have been a hall I never found.
Within these vast halls was crammed stall after stall after stall of publishers, distributors, technology providers and little conference areas for the numerous talks and lectures going on. I’m not exaggerating when I say ‘crammed’. Looking for a toilet was all but impossible, not because they weren’t there but because stalls were lined up right up to where they were placed. There were occasional food or drinks stalls but mostly this exhibition was all about the books. Even trying to find somewhere to sit was impossible. Nooks and crannies saw endless numbers of us slumped on floors, taking a break.
What was interesting for me, as someone who has both traditionally published and independently self-published, was the surprising number of stalls catering for the author who wishes to self publish or realise their published book in some other way independent of a publishing house – such as audio books. My understanding from those who have attended such fairs for many years was that this is indeed a development of the last few years. It was clear that here at least, the self-published walk equally among the trad. This is a very welcome and right development. The snobbery of the trad publishing world is rapidly diminishing.
Another eye-opener was just how many stalls were dedicated to distribution. I never really think much about this aspect of the business but, seemingly, it is very important to those who are full-time in the publishing world. I assume that everything just goes on Amazon and the like and printed books are restocked as and when. This is pretty dumb of me I guess! With a little more intelligent thinking I can see that small distributors would not have the resources to print huge stocks of books nor deliver them to the bookshops and warehouses. It is a huge logistical nightmare. Getting distribution right for your publishing company then is really important. I spoke to more people involved in the distribution side than anyone else. I got the feeling that these people certainly held court here.
Which leads nicely on to the next observation: meetings. It seems that if you’re well established at these fairs (and certainly if you work for a publishers) your time here is spent in ‘meetings’. These don’t take place in locked away rooms. All the stalls have seating areas and, from what I saw, they are always full. people are there with their coffees and laptops talking to each other about god knows what from morning to night. At times there were scrabbles for tables which, in theory at least, were ‘booked’ well in advance despite many just grabbing the nearest table to them. Kurt was booked solid for the entire event in meetings, indeed I didn’t see him anywhere near our stall when I was there.
Next to the meetings in importance was the parties. Each stall held a party at the end of one of the three days. Ours was on the Wednesday. I didn’t know it at the time, but this is what I’d come for. Apart from talking to people about further developments with my book, The Pukur, I didn’t really talk to anyone at the event socially (partly because, despite being an extrovert, I’m a shy extrovert when it comes to new situations). But at the party at our stall, everyone was up for a conversation. I felt like I was speed-dating. It was fun, useful and I met some really interesting characters. Now you might think I spent hours there drinking booze and chatting with ‘darlings’ in increasingly drunken ways. Well there was definitely booze and I did definitely enjoy a few drinks, but I was surprised when the security men started telling us to wrap it all up by 6:30 (the party started at 5:30). I had intended to slip away at 7:30 to go get my train back home later on. Instead, we all headed out of the building and into the nearest pub to continue our conversations. As a result, I left considerably later than 7:30. Such is the writer’s life!
So overall, what advice would I give for authors thinking of coming to the LBF? Here’s my list:
- Come with someone who knows the fair well. I had a toehold being invited by my publisher but I wish I had known more people there to go meet up with. It can be quite boring wandering around for hours not knowing anyone.
- It’s not hugely for authors. I found it very difficult to find anyone who was an author at all. Everyone wears a large badge on a lanyard which states your occupation, so I did look. Almost everyone was in publishing or distribution apart from the rather weird ‘invitation only’ cordoned-off area for the agents. I have to say that was super strange – like agents are royalty or something.
- Don’t go expecting to sell your book. Firstly, it isn’t that kind of fair at all. No one is selling their books. They’re selling their services in the book business. Sure, you get to talk about your book(s) at the parties when you’re chatting, but no one’s impressed. It’s all very ordinary.
- Make sure you get invited to at least one party. This really is where the networking opportunities lie and, for me, made the whole trip worthwhile.
- Bring cards. The one thing I forgot to take with me was a pile of my business cards. I came home with pockets full of them but couldn’t give any of mine out. They will be asked for if you’ve been interesting.
- Unless you manage to get yourself booked in for many of those ‘meetings’ with important people, don’t feel you have to spend the whole time wandering the stalls trying to look interested. Go see what you want, listen to the talks, check out audio options for your book or whatever, then go do something fun in London. I came and went, met with friends for lunch and so on. I enjoyed the book fair much more for doing so.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. His third book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, was published by Histria Books in 2022.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at email@example.com. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways and Lancashire Life magazine. Currently reviews for Northern Arts Review. His reviews have been read more than 5.5 million times.
2 thoughts on “Thoughts About the London Book Fair”
Sounds and looks quite different than “our” bookfair in Berkeley, California. It does cater to writers as well as readers and all associated book people. I was invited to a booth once with a handful of others and it was fun to speak to readers and sell a few copies. Other than that, only the speakers get tables – so they can sign their books. This year I left a couple of copies of mine on the lines of giveaway shelves. I envy your tables where you can sit and chat with others … and yes it is nice to have some connections to meet and maybe have lunch or tea with. Sounds like you are doing well – more power to you!
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Yes it is very different – For a start off, definitely no selling of your own books! Thank you for your kind words. I get by 😀