I had long heard about the London Book Fair, but had once been told by an agent that the fair was really not the place for authors, and was curious to see if he was right.
It is held in Earls Court (a slightly run-down area of London) which is a conjoined twin of a building, bulging out into two huge spaces. These spaces are filled with stands arranged in aisles arranged in what appears to be a pecking order (presumably dictated by cost) with the big publishing houses commanding large central spaces, the medium-sized independents paying homage around these, and the smaller publishers tucked in amongst the remaindered books, digital printing, self- and foreign publishers stands in hall two.
The larger stands (e.g those belonging to Harper Collins, Hachette, Penguin and Random House) have enclosed areas with screens to waist height enclosing tables in a coffee house style arrangement, and an entrance desk with a couple of receptionists policing it. Quite often there is a gaggle of people waiting at this desk, presumably awaiting an audience, because inside there are editors (one or two of whom I recognised). There is a certain quality about the people who wait. They are tall. The women wear skirts and heels. There were suits and briefcases and also that intensity of purpose of the truly determined. Later I saw them with their eyes shut, sitting on stools while a masseur kneaded at their shoulders and back.
The smaller stands (the majority) have merely an alcove with a book rack and a few chairs. Those wishing to attract custom sometimes had bowls of sweets or cakes, and sometimes, in the evening, waiters bringing in tray of canapes and drinks. There would be a sudden knot of people then, with clapping and raised voices, as a book or new line was launched.
There were also pastel-coloured stands with matching soft pastel-coloured furniture belonging to publishers specialising in books for children, and one of two of the European publishers had more imaginative arrangements with, for example, books dangling from the direction of the ceiling on string in a book-rain effect. There were also spaces devoted to book associations e.g. translators, booksellers and publishers.
Of course, almost everywhere there were books. But it was a pretend world. These books were not for sale, and some of them were dummies: just the cover enclosing a wadge of blank pages. Once or twice I spoke to the smiling attendant, especially if they looked a little lonely or bored. I heard about World Book Night, and flicked through the selection of famous books repackaged in a generic format with their original cover design as motif. I also saw some beautiful Chinese books of paintings, the paper reworked to seem like something old and textured.
And then there was the fascinating section on digital books and I had an exciting glimpse of possibilities: pages that turned over electronically to reveal not just pages of text but audio links and videos of the author speaking (not necessarily a desirable thing, I pointed out to the seller, and he agreed). With the advent of ebooks, there are now opportunities for specialist firms linking author and publisher, and enhancing the experience of reading a book to incorporate all senses, except for smell. It is interesting, but it can never replace or match the mind of the reader and the vast universe created by just a few words.
I also came upon my own book
on the books from Wales stand (the one with the tree in the middle),
and discussed the possibilities for another book with Mick Felton, Seren's publisher.
The part I had come to see was the market focus and that was the China publishing industry. Some talks were commercial with sophisticated audiovisual effects, and didn't seem well attended. It was interesting to chat to the Chinese sellers and look through what is on offer in Chinese bookstores. The best part for me was sitting at the English Pen talks in the Pen Literary Café. It is a good idea to arrive early to get a good seat and each time I did this I met someone interesting. The first time I spoke to an Indian writer, and the second time to a correspondent from a Chinese newspaper, and talking to these, as well as the talks themselves were the highlight of the fair. It was worth coming down to London just for that.
Afterwards I met fellow Society of Author member Colin Shelbourn and had coffee, and once we met Lisa Dowdeswell. After a day of meeting strangers I much appreciated seeing their friendly faces.
On balance, I am glad I went because I learnt so much from the talks, but I think, for me, the London Book Fair is going to be a once in a life-time experience.