An Unpublished Writer’s View of the London Book Fair 2009
My background is such that I’ve been to a great many industry exhibitions, mainly in the information business, and have become quite blasé about them. For some odd reason, as an unpublished writer I suppose, I had anticipated the London Book Fair to be different. I guess that comes from not being involved in the publishing business, and from the naivety which comes from that, regardless of age or background.
I must admit that I was off on one of my blue sky endeavours here, especially knowing that I’m not the most forceful or resourceful of men when it comes to cold selling. And that’s what walking into the London Book Fair with a combat jacket full of promotional postcards is, let’s face it. The hope being, of course, that someone would take mercy on me and talk to me. Because I can talk the hind legs of a warmed-up prospect.
Anyway, let me just go through the way I perceived the general setup. At all exhibitions I’ve been to, the picture is one of a load of exhibitor badges talking to another load of exhibitor badges about how good or bad business is, and frowning on the folks collecting lots of freebies or seeking appointments not previously arranged – time-wasters, we used to call them when I was a stand-shark. Their perceived value to the exhibitor badges is nil. So they generally get ignored. Same here, unfortunately.
The fronts of the stands here are manned by, more often than not, very beautiful, thin young women who are obviously impeccably house-trained. Very decorative, and actually very clever, all of them. However, one of their greatest skills is reading badges very quickly, and, as soon as they see author on your badge, a great look of pity comes over them, and they greet you, not with hello, but with we don’t take unsolicited submissions; best to go through an agent. A great shame, and, unfortunately, a beautiful stonewall is nevertheless a stone wall. But if you’re not married and are looking for eye candy and a potential wife, the I suppose the London Book Fair is the place to come.
I did manage to coral a couple of commissioning editors who took my Bee Bones card, made kind noises about checking out my web site, and shook my hand very strongly and sincerely. And I was engaged in very pleasant 10-minute conversation with a lovely front-of-stand lady called Jennifer who hails from New Zealand and who promised to pass my details on to her commissioning editor. I live in hope, but I won*t be holding my breath.
You see, past the lovely ladies, there’s an outer circle of sales & marketing people who are all trying to sell to each other and outsell each other. Then there are the rights managers who are really sales managers with an extra bit of intellectual property rights know-how built in. And then, right at the back of the stands, there are the conclaves of the real power brokers, the movers and shakers, the people who you really need to know to get anywhere. And getting to them, especially for shy and retiring people like me, is nigh on impossible.
Interestingly enough, all the agents seem to be ensconced in the crow’s nest of the International Rights Centre which, unless I have misinterpreted something, you either need to pay extra to get into, or must have been specially invited to. Bummer. Back to querying by email, I guess.
One very interesting thing I did see was the Espresso Book Machine 2.0 in action. This print-on-demand machine produces a 250-page book in 6 minutes. Unfortunately, the Americans who were giving the demo of the machine, had bought the wrong weight paper, because they couldn’t work out the metric equivalent of the paper they normally use. The 80gsm paper they were using was too thin, so the spines of the books weren’t the right thickness, and every book coming off the machine didn’t look too good. To add insult to their own injury, they were taking any old book file from LightningSource, a lot of which was very poor quality writing – the sort of thing that gives self-publishing a bad name, because it is not quality controlled, and because the writer can’t write. I’ve got one of the books in my bag, and it is dreadful in content, layout, and physical presentation.
There are 12 machines in use at the moment at World Bank InfoShop, Washington; New York Public Library; New Orleans Public Library; Internet Archive, San Francisco; University of Michigan Library; Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, VT; University of Alberta Bookstore; McMaster University Bookstore; Newsstand UK, London; Library of Alexandria, Egypt; Angus & Robertson Bookstore, Australia; University of Waterloo Bookstore, Canada. There are plans to install some more (as 2.0 beta sites) at McGill University Library, Montreal; Blackwells in London; and Brigham Young University Bookstore. The machine still needs an operator to run, but I believe the potential is huge. But only if used properly, with the necessary quality control to ensure high editorial standards. That day is some way off, though, as the costs are not insignificant – USD96k per machine plus operator salary and on costs, plus 1 cent per page in other production cost (I don’t know if the operator I spoke to had a full handle on all the costs, so I don’t know exactly what’s in that 1 cent cost).
As far as attendance is concerned, I can’t really judge. What I would say is that it was by no means very busy, and certainly not heaving. There were no gangway crushes. A reflection of the current economic climate, I would suggest. And by 17:30, the bigwigs had either left or were swilling wine on their stands, looking relieved that there was only one day to go.
My intention with this post is not to be negative. It is to tell of one day at the London Book Fair from an unpublished writer’s point of view. Walking away with any number of free books (although they are proof copies) made me think, though. (I hasten to add that I saw no such freebies on the HC stand). When I first registered with authonomy, I made a suggestion as to how HC might deal with those top 5 books they thought were good but didn’t fit into a list (ie well-written, well laid-out and worth taking a small punt on without creating reputation risks for HC). That proposal was to create an authonomy imprint, do a short trade paperback run of the top 5 books, say 1k per book each month, and to sell them for GBP2.99 a copy. Having been here today, I am more convinced than ever that this would work, and that HC would have at least one bestseller a year on their hands, as well as significant kudos in the market place as a result.
Conclusions? No different to any other industry conference in that it involves a lot of preening. However, it’s obvious to me that many of the people employed in publishing who are further down the foodchain than the folks at the very top actually put in some significant hours. It also became apparent to me that, for people like myself, who are very good writers but not marketeers, and who want to break into mainstream publishing, having an agent is extremely important. For me, in the wake of all the anti-agent bluster that’s been going round twitter and the net in general, this is a really important recognition. The other side of the coin is that serious self-publishing is still an option, but with the proviso that we’re able to persuade readers that our writing is not to be compared with 95% of self-published material which is dross.