Posted by: philsteele | April 28, 2011

How I learned (almost) to stop worrying and love the London Book Fair

Around Ynys Môn this week there is an open studio scheme, which allows the public to meet artists,  view their work and leaf through their sketchbooks.  After a studio visit  I am often filled with the desire to get out  paintbrushes and  canvas myself as soon as I get home. Admittedly within half an hour of doing just that,  I  generally give up in sheer frustration at my own incompetence. Still,  that initial inspiration is  a good feeling while it lasts.

I don’t think I have ever been to an international book fair and come home with the desire to write a book.  If creative ideas are present at these events, they are hidden deep in the fortress-stands of the big  publishers, where rights are traded with all the excitement of  futures in spam. I know, I know,  without the rights we would not survive. The sheer volume of  volumes that are on display seems more daunting than inspiring, and even rather depressing when one sees their titles.

Last October’s Frankfurter Buchmesse featured 7,539 exhibitors from 111 countries, with 75 national exhibitions.

I have twice been to the Frankfurt fair, but to be honest I would  prefer to have spent that time outside the halls with a beer and a Bratwurst in the autumn sunshine, reading a good book.  I once went to the Bologna fair, too, the annual forum  for children’s book publishers. Well, stylish northern Italy in the spring really is a delight, with the wisteria in bloom and the choicest of  foods on offer in the city’s restaurants. However I couldn’t afford the cheapest hotel bill for Bologna  these days, unless a friendly publisher picked up the bill. Alas it’s a long time since that happened.

For many years London was the poor relation on the fairs circuit. Olympia always seemed to have past decades of salesmen’s cigarette smoke steeped in its very fabric, and the tube connections were serendipitous, rendering void any appointments before 11am. For one year the London Book Fair moved to Excel, a giant metal box in the new Alphaville which  has been beamed down into the East End of London, accessed by driverless trains.  It was not a popular choice with the punters, so the fair has now become established back west, in Earl’s Court. That works surprisingly well. Why, there is occasionally a place provided for  visitors to sit down, don’t you know, and even  coffee which can be accessed in under half an hour.

But why go at all, if you are not  buying or selling rights? Trudging  the aisles is interesting for an hour or two, but tiring for longer.  (Although one of the highlights of this activity  is chance encounters  with former colleagues – will they still recognise you, or you them?).

Rest assured, the London Book Fair really can be a useful and enjoyable experience for a freelance writer these days.  It is worth organising the day  well before you go. Publishers may no longer send editorial staff to distant climes, but most editors,  editorial managers and  directors do now make it to the London fair, at least for one of the days.  The LBF offers a great opportunity to make appointments, a rare chance to  see a good few editors in the space of a single day.  One can dicuss work in hand, future prospects and the  way of the world. If no immediate work is on offer, the contact  at least reminds them of your existence.

Meeting up with other writers is increasingly easy, thanks to internet links with Society of Authors interest groups, with Nibweb (the Network for Information Book Writers and Editors in Britain) and with the NUJ Book Branch – so how about other Dragontongue members joining the exchange in coming years (if they don’t already)? Sharing experiences and gossip is all part of the networking necessary for survival as a writer. This year there was also an interesting lunchtime seminar on children’s non-fiction, involving writers and publishers.

The 2011 LBF seemed busy and bustling. Children’s non-fiction publishers were keen to be seen as upbeat and positive, and were certainly seeking ways to appropriate the internet.

Private talks however were less encouraging, revealing many  fewer titles than usual and lower print runs. More of the big firms seem to be taking in packaged material, but the packagers’ margins are so tightly squeezed that they too are struggling. Most fellow hacks seem to be short of work. Encyclopaedia work has gone online, and is no longer offered to the existing professionals. The cuts in education and libraries, especially savage in the USA, as well as curricular confusion, also seem to be  biting hard.

Despite this, I did feel we might all muddle through in the longer term, and at the risk of sounding uncharacteristically cheerful, I must admit I enjoyed my day out. On the 18.10 from Euston back to Bangor, however, I failed to dream up a single exciting new project in children’s non-fiction.  I did sleep soundly, though.

PS  I see (the Guardian, 26 April) that Argentina ia considering paying writers who have published five books, or invested over 20 years in literary creation, a pension of £565 per month from the age of 65.  Might this prompt a flight of Welsh writers to repopulate Patagonia? Sounds good to me!


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