The London Book Fair has become the first large-scale event in the UK to be cancelled due to Covid19. I have attended the LBF intermittently for the last 16 years. In the beginning it was daunting for me to attend the fair as a writer, but now you even have an “Author HQ” at the fair.
My first book, Sorrows of the Moon, was independently published in 2004 and a year later I decided to set up a stall at the LBF, despite my nervous apprehension at being alongside the big publishers and promoters of the industry. However, an obliging friend came to my rescue and talked to visitors on my behalf. I was relieved that the fair was over after three days.
I hadn’t expected much of a financial return from it. However, a couple of months later, I received an email from a publisher in Helsinki who expressed an interest in translating my book into Finnish.
I was surprised that a Finnish publisher had seen my book at the LBF and wanted to buy its translation rights. In truth, I would have loved my first book to be translated into French since I had borrowed its title from Baudelaire.
It happened a few years later when I got a message written in matter-of-fact English from a publisher of French books in Geneva that she wanted to translate my book and give it the original title of Baudelaire’s poem, Tristesses de la Lune. I was overcome with joy at this news. In 2006 the LBF moved from Olympia to the ExCel international convention centre in the Docklands area.
But many visitors and exhibitors didn’t care for such a huge venue in East London. So it moved back to West London, based this time in the Earls Court Exhibition Centre. When I walked back from Olympia after attending the fair last year, I found that the Earls Court Centre had been razed to the ground.
One year, at the LBF, I bumped into an old colleague from a branch of Waterstones, where I had worked briefly. She was in a great rush, having appointments with various publishers exhibiting at the fair. On another occasion, I was sitting with a friend in an LBF coffee-shop when a publisher greeted her. She very tactfully tried to introduce me to him.
The publisher asked me about the genre of my book. I said it was about London. He replied dismissively, “Tell me something that I don’t know about”.
I didn’t attend the LBF in 2010 when there was a disruption in air travel due to an ash cloud produced by an Icelandic volcano. I was busy at the hotel where I work with guests who couldn’t travel back to their home countries when the airspace over Europe was closed.
A lot of foreign publishers were unable to attend the fair that year but the show still went ahead, despite all of this. I find it useful to attend a seminar or two whenever I visit the LBF. It helps me put things in perspective. When I see an author at the fair who has flown from America or Canada, I realise how easy it is for a Londoner to attend. The seminars are usually very informative and sometimes I find the odd one that’s also amusing.
Last year I attended a seminar at the Author HQ in which a crusty speaker told his audience in a packed enclosure that “you might all think that you’re the next big thing but you are not”. After a children’s author had finished a conversation with an expert from the Society of Authors, a woman in the audience asked him whether it was a good idea for her, as an author, to register a company for tax purposes.
He replied that it would only make sense if her income from writing was over £80,000 a year. New authors would therefore be somewhat ambitious, I thought, in attempting to conjure up that sum when most writers in the UK earn well below the minimum wage.
I found it bizarre to see that the Ivy restaurant had set up a club at the LBF exclusively for its members, who could retreat there for a meal and a glass of pink champagne during their lunchtime. I was more modestly inclined. On one occasion, a literary agent acquaintance of mine was meeting an overseas publisher in a restaurant in the West End after the fair and she asked me to join them.
I ordered only a coffee when I realised the publisher was picking up the tab. The coffee shops at the LBF are teeming with people and it is usually difficult to find a seat. Sometimes I sit on the floor in an aisle, sipping a coffee and watching visitors from all over the world go by. My favourite overheard remark concerned the long queues at the LBF’s coffee shops, and was made by an elderly exhibitor wearing a Whitmanesque beard and a wide-brimmed hat. He observed that “the only people who made money during the Gold Rush were those who sold shovels”.
Like Walt Whitman, he was a printer by trade. The massive stands in the centre that belong to the big publishers are crowded with visitors, whereas small publishers sit idly at their stalls on the periphery. Big publishers have big resources and their take-away promotional material is abundant.
My editor came to see me when I exhibited at the LBF for the first time. He told me that he had attended an earlier fair and ended up carrying home with him bags full of free catalogues and brochures, only to realise later that he hadn’t a clue what to do with them.
I had taken a few days off work this year to attend the LBF. There was trepidation among those who planned to be there as to why the organisers, Reed Exhibitions, were taking their time in calling off the fair, anxiety about contagion from coronavirus being widespread.
When the big American publishers decided to pull out, it became obvious that the LBF 2020 would look seriously diminished and deserted. A few days later, Reed Exhibitions made the announcement to cancel the event. Some people were dismayed, others heaved sighs of relief, while yet others (like myself ) who were at first dismayed, have since come to feel relief. I usually like to be adventurous, but not in this case. Oh well, perhaps it won’t be too late to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair in October when, hopefully, the coronavirus crisis will have abated.