Speed dating has never appealed to me and my early launch into monogamy has rendered it unnecessary, at least where romance is concerned. Not so with books. Hopes of swiftly finding a passionate publisher as soon as my first novel was finished were slowly deflated over the several years it took to get a deal, and any dreams of life-long devotion were dashed when the publisher went bust a few years later. I’ve been out flirting ever since. And that’s what the London Book Fair is all about: one of the world’s biggest match-making events for books. Publishers and agents from around the world gather in the giant hanger of the Olympia centre, set out their stalls, and seek to woo each other in a back-to-back series of fevered rendezvous. I don’t think my chat-up lines are up to job so, thankfully, I don’t have to enter the fray. My agent was out there doing it for me with meetings from 8 to midnight all three days. Here’s hoping a marriage is in the making.
If not to tart yourself around the trading floor, then, why go to London Book Fair? Lots of reasons, depending on who you are. I took a day out of life in the Cairngorms to volunteer on The Society of Authors stand, answering questions and encouraging new people to join. Seems I’m better at match-making than flirting as I recruited three people over lunch. Because I am Co-Chair of the SoA in Scotland committee, it was also a useful time to touch base with several staff from HQ and to work on planning a series of author business skills workshops we are hoping to run later this year. It was great, too, to see friendly faces from the Scottish literary scene including folk from Publishing Scotland, Stirling University’s Publishing programme and our own SoAiS committee.
Historically, the London Book Fair didn’t provide much for authors except a terrible sinking feeling when you saw the hundreds of thousands of books published that year – while yours was not one of them. If you weren’t feeling insignificant before LBF, you certainly were after. But it’s a healthy dose of reality. The UK alone publishes nealy 200,000 books a year (not including self-published titles) and while everyone agrees that is too many for success, no-one can agree which ones to ditch. (Though everyone seems agreed on that point when it comes to mine.) Writers need to have their eyes wide open and realise just how many books are out there and how difficult it is to get published at all, let alone with enough frequency and fair terms to make a living.
However difficult, though, people do keep on writing, pitching, submitting and hoping, and that has influenced the offering at LBF. There is now an entire area called Author HQ with a seminar space and a section for author-centric stands titled – appropriately enough – Writers Block. That’s where The Society of Authors set up camp, along with The Alliance of Independent Authors and Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing. There are, of course, growing numbers of writers taking the self-publishing route and one seminar I attended was a panel discussion of indie authors who had been short-listed for the inaugural Selfies Awards – won by Jane Davis for Smash All the Windows. It was fascinating to hear their stories and I respected their professionalism and honesty about the ups and downs of the journey. I don’t feel it’s the right approach for me. (Yet, anyway.) It’s very hard to make literary fiction work in the indie world, but then again, it seems very hard to make it work anywhere.
So I looked around at the teeming hundreds on the trading floor, at the miles of displays, at the posters featuring the big fish, at all the minnows crowding hungrily round the seminar on How to Land a Literary Agent, and took my small fry self off to find a drink. In the throng of people I saw a beautiful, tall black woman striding purposefully in the opposite direction. “Rose!” She stared at me and then we whooped and hugged.
She was none other than Rose Kawesa Sandy, who had been a pupil of mine at Woodstock School in Mussoorie, India in 1992. I was there as a student teacher doing English, Drama and Dance and she – the daughter of Ugandan diplomats – was in her final year. Intelligent, athletic and musical, she was always in demand, but I had managed to persuade her to side line hockey for a term so she could be Titania in my outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
She and the whole cast were simply stunning and we have stayed in touch over the years, though never been in the same place at the same time. Till, of all places, London Book Fair. Rose has now turned her considerable talents to publishing, heading up the new Harper Inspire imprint and choosing to self-publish her own successful thrillers. And why has she chosen the indie route? “I know too much,” she laughs. We went out for dinner before I caught the Caledonian Sleeper home, and talked and talked about our lives, our kids, our Woodstock friends, our faith, our work and our books and it was, for me, the very best thing about London Book Fair. In or out of books, life-long friendships win over speed dating, every time.