My First London Book Fair:

The London Book Fair (LBF) – what's it really like for an unpublished author or illustrator?  Following on from our article, How to get the most out of London Book Fair as Writer or IllustratorHelen Liston shares her experience and what she learned at her very first LBF...



An author researches her industry
So for these few days I took off my aspiring-author hat. The LBF website made it very clear that pitching is explicitly discouraged, and on arrival it's easy to see that publishers aren't here to find new authors – they're here to sell their existing ones. The London Book Fair is the fabulous nexus of all the facets of the publishing world; the mad material universe which polishes, packs, digitises and translates stories and sends them across the globe.  I also found industry tech solutions, all kinds of trade meta-business and societies for just about everything. The layers of process evident among the stands here really hammers home the importance of making my manuscript it's very best – I peek in at an agent presenting a manuscript to Nosy Crow, and I'm reminded what a raw product it is.   After all the rewriting, critting and editing we writers put in,  an MS must then endure the emotional and financial investment of hundreds of other strangers in its lifetime. (And behold! The remainder stands, where the unwanted books are sold off cheap!)  I watched it at work, I wondered at its magnitude... but I decided not to ruin my future good name by pitching to exhausted publishers.

It’s not a big book shop…
Basically, don’t try and buy the books... unless you're willing to buy by the hundred. Okay, so this might seem totally obvious to previous fair-goers, but some deep part of my book-lusting soul couldn't quite grasp that those delectable books were display copies for retailers. Whaddya you mean I can't take it home?  You can't. This is big business, not a giant bookshop.  So I quelled the shopping urges and instead, used the opportunity to really get a sense of each publisher's identity.  In this setting the children's stands are quite varied in appearance, and I found it much easier to get a handle on their respective branding this way. All great research for future pitching.
Children's books on display only! (Photo: Bridget Strevens-Marzo)


Glance like a pro
Badge glancing is most likely an international trade fair sport, but one I was pretty slow to get the hang of. I rather enjoyed having the word 'author' stamped out in capitals and attached to my shabby denim jacket, but actually at this event an author's job is pretty much done. Which might be why glances politely slid off my badge... leaving me feeling that at least my dubiously-earned title went some way to justifying my casual attire and unusual questions.

It doesn't have to be kid lit
There was a really great offering from the Children's Theatre this year, but I also heard experts speak about rights and contracts, interactive fiction, publishing careers and writing for screen.  Inspiring advice from the latter came from Rocliffe founder Farah Abshwesha and pretty much mirrored all I've accumulated from the field of kid lit, and it was affirming and heartening to feel aligned with other creatives – and who knows... maybe I'll try my hand at a radio play next.

A kid in a sweet shop still needs direction
There are so many experts here it will be hard to choose! I had my program, planned my time, sometimes even got to seminars early enough to grab a seat .  I'd done a bit of research ahead of time but many titles didn't fully indicate the content I should  expect - hence my rights and contracts session – whoops. I soon learned to steer clear of central seats so I could creep out unnoticed and grab half of something else.  

Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?
Publishing might be a tough industry to break into, but it's comprised of genuinely friendly people. When I got the chance I was ready to chat with an agent who'd previously enjoyed an MS she reviewed for me, and I had a card ready to hand to the publisher of a book I'd made a podcast of.  These were easy conversations – I didn't feel out of place and I wasn't nervous (much).  Not at all like the moment I tried to grab with publisher and panel guest Alison Green, who found herself surprised by a queue of fans and writers and really looked like she needed a moment to herself and a nice cup of tea.

Alison Green, Axel Scheffler, Martin Salisbury and Christine Baker discuss trends and gatekeepers in children's picture books (Photo: Bridget Strevens-Marzo)


Self-confidence isn't my middle name, but I'm glad to say that I started up more than a few conversations. As well as meeting up with new SCBWI friends, I spoke to artists, publishers and some sparkly young publishing students.  All were brief encounters that have left a trail of scrawls in my notebook - books to look up, events to plan and blogs to follow. For me, its rarely just the glittering jewels of agent speeches and the like that lead me to the most interesting, imaginative places - more likely it's little traces like these that turn out to be seeds of other, larger things.  Which, in the end, is what SCBWI is all about.


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Helen Liston writes picture book texts and makes podcasts – also about picture books – which you can hear at www.tinylittlesparks.uk.  She's also Network Organiser for the South West region of SCWBI-BI and would love to hear from SW members on pretty much any matter at all. Email Helen at southwest@britishscbwi.org




3 comments:

  1. What a great blog post! It totally captures what the London Book Fair is all about and how a prospective author can navigate wisely and serenely through the awe-inspiring chaos.

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  2. Fascinating article. I often wondered what went on there.

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  3. I wish I could have been there, would love to go, especially after reading your article.

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