We stumbled out of Baron’s Court tube station looking lost and feeling overwhelmed. I, clutching my new oyster card, walked over to a map and pretended that I knew what I was looking for. I had obviously failed because a kindly old lady approached me, observed my pained visage, and gave me and the group the directions we needed.
That was the first surprise London afforded me! I had been led to believe that everyone in London was stuck in tunnel vision mode. That they were too rude and/or indifferent to bother with a lost looking group of master’s students. At least, that is what I had been told.
Unfortunately, that soon became the truth as pedestrians elbowed us aside, people cut in front of us, and drivers beeped their car horns and swore under their breath as we failed to cross the road quick enough.
Ah! Finally, the ‘authentic’ London experience.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to London, but it’s more complex than the Labyrinth of Crete. It is not, however, inhabited by a minotaur so… swings and roundabouts I guess.
After an unnecessarily long walk (we had walked in a big circle) we arrived at the Olympia, received our badges, and (after a swift bag check) we were granted access to the Book Fair.
F-doosh! Much like diving into water, I felt as though I had been dropped into a sea of sound. Thousands of people were to the front, left, and right of me, and, as the crowd pulled me deeper, thousands of people filed in behind me. I didn’t mind being swallowed by this mass of people. After all, a crowd who love books as much as I do is a crowd I want to be a part of.
The sheer scale of it all astounded me. The biggest book fair I’d been to before this was my school book fair, which consisted of a tombola, sixteen second-hand books, and a crushing sense of despair.
To be honest, I don’t know what I was expecting. I knew it would be a big event. I knew it would have a collection of publishers and authors from across the globe. But nothing prepared me for just how big the venue was, or how many people would be there.
It wasn’t just one big room, it was several. These rooms were separated by what kind of company they were: fiction, non-fiction, children’s, and academic publishers all had their separate sections as well as print, binding, and recruitment companies.
We spent most of the first day familiarising ourselves with our surroundings and approaching publishers to engage in the most awkward conversations imaginable. One of my friends managed to get a meeting with a publisher they follow on Twitter just by staring at him for five minutes.
That didn’t work for me. Apparently, when I stare at people it’s just considered ‘creepy’.
In fact, most of my conversations started with enthusiasm, then took a tumble down a metaphorical scree slope and ended with ‘…erm, well. I guess it was nice meeting you then.’
It wasn’t until the end of the day, when everyone was too tired to talk to us anymore, that we met Brian May.
Another student on my course, almost hyperventilating, ran down the stairs toward us and said something like: ‘Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god! I just had a picture with Brian May.’
‘Where? Where? Oh god, tell us where!’
‘Up the stairs right to the back corner. Go, quick!’
It turns out that Brian May was there promoting his new book, and we just caught him as he was about to leave. Despite his entourage’s protests and attempts to move him on, Brian was more than happy to talk and to take a picture with us.
The second day was easier. I assume that most of the meetings that kept many of the publishers busy had been completed by the end of the first day because I managed to talk to several of them on the second.
And there is so much to talk about when you figure out what to say.
It seems that every publisher comes from a different background: some fell into roles from other careers, some did internships until they were employed full time, others went through graduate schemes, some set up their own businesses, the list goes on.
Wanting to find out how she got into her role, I approached a senior commissioning editor at Walker Books with nervous apprehension. There was no need to be nervous. I quickly found out that she was lovely and easy to talk to. I even managed to talk to her about how she got into her role and the best ways to get internships. In fact, lots of companies were thrilled to meet us.
The employees from Austin Macauley were lovely to us, Harper Collins introduced us to their graduate scheme and gave us books that haven’t even been released yet, Usborne talked us through sensory children’s books and provided us with rainbow cakes.
There were seminars about all sorts of topics from genre fiction to copyright law, fantasy to non-fiction, and how to be a freelancer to how to break into the publishing business. I won’t lie, I did indulge my author-y side as well as my publishing side at these seminars.
It was a wonderful time. My thoughts about London have been forever changed (which is good because I want to work there).
I came to London expecting to network a little bit. But, on the whole, I was expecting people to be rude and to not want to talk to us. Being a student usually means we have little to offer except inquisitiveness, at least that’s what I thought.
I was wrong.
Most publishing companies were thrilled to meet students looking to get into the business, and I guess I know why.
We are the future.
Not only did the publishers reiterate this point, but Brian May said it to us as well. We are the people who are excited by and dedicated to the book trade. We want to see awesome new books being published well into the future. The recognition of this fact is one of the brightest things I’ll take away from the whole experience.
I’ll be going back next year, and if you can – no matter your background – you should definitely try to go too.
Things I learnt about The London Book Fair
1.) Try to book a hotel close to the venue
The tube system is great, but is prone to horrific delays at times. I’m glad I booked into the Kensington West hotel, which was only a five-minute walk away…
2.) Oh yeah, you’ll be doing a lot of walking
Bring comfy clothes and shoes
Unless you’re on business, don’t worry about dressing up too much. At first, I wanted to wear a three piece suit. I’m glad I didn’t because it was sweltering inside.
3.) Don’t be afraid to talk to people
London is intimidating, senior publishers seem intimidating, but that’s not the case. Get stuck in, talk to people, and don’t be afraid to ask the questions you want to know. More often than not, you’ll get the answer you’re looking for.
4.) ‘It’s not a place for freebies’
I heard this a lot when preparing for the fair. So, I was not prepared for the sheer amount of free stuff I’d be bringing back with me. Yeah, the main reason for my attendance wasn’t freebies, but I did come back with a multitude of free books (some of which won’t be released until 2018), pens, tote bags, coasters, and a variety of other stuff. Pack accordingly, or be prepared for some aching shoulders.
5.) ‘It’s not a place to hand in manuscripts’
This is another thing I heard a lot when preparing to go to London. Though I agree that it’s not the best place to approach publishers with your work, especially companies such as Penguin Random House and Pan Macmillan. There are some smaller publishing companies who accept manuscripts there. So, if you’re dreaming of being in the Harper Collin’s hall of fame you’re probably better off getting an agent.
6.) Peruse the place
Yes, we all know that we should step outside of our comfort zones for once. I’m at home next to any fiction stand, but then I wouldn’t have learned much. Have a look at that Turkish book publisher, engage with a Chinese Literary agent, and go and talk to Oxford University Press. There is so much to do that three days is not enough!
7.) Go and learn!
There are seminars there, go to the ones you’re interested in and some that really push the boat out. When you alternate your time between meetings, networking, and learning, you truly engage with the London Book Fair.
8.) Keep one eye on your social media
This is the big one. Follow all your favourite publishers on Twitter and keep an eye out for stand parties, freebies, and unique opportunities that are advertised on social media.
That’s all from me for now. Look out for tomorrow’s post, in which I shall be having an in-depth look at the free books I’ve received.
Thank you for reading!