You know you’re in London when you see billboard advertising for books. A species of book publicity not frequently spotted in Cumbria, the house-sized display of book promotion is, to this viewer, heart-warming. I mention this, as my first glimpse of the approach to the 2017 London Book Fair (#LBF17) was a string of brightly coloured book-billboards.
Such adverts looked over a bustling café, brimming with serious, concentrated conversation. The Hammersmith road outside London Olympia felt saturated with bookishness. Other posters outside the venue proclaimed the ‘authors of the day’ for the three-day event and this year’s extra recognition of Polish literature. Inside, the array of stalls, booths and brightly coloured displays were utterly bewildering. Keen not to look alarmed, I gradually wound my way to the Booksellers’ Association ‘High Street Theatre’. Although this wasn’t strictly speaking a theatre, it would host some excellent events over the two scheduled days of talks. The BA kindly supported the bookshop’s attendance at the fair as ‘hosted booksellers’ enabling the long trip down from Grasmere. Unfortunately the shop’s owner, Elaine Nelson, was struck down by a bug and missed out on the fun, meaning I was a solo representative for Sam Read’s. However, there were many friendly faces mingling at the BA stand and amongst those many booksellers from the North West, ensuring a warm welcome. It was particularly fun to catch up with Catherine from The New Bookshop in Cockermouth and Katie from Storytellers Inc in St. Annes.
This was my first proper visit to the London Book Fair and it was initially a surprise to realise that most at the fair aren’t terribly excited to see booksellers. This actually makes a lot of sense given that the meetings being held by publishers, agents, authors and the whole spectrum of book enablers are about making sure the best books see print and travel widely. So, rights are bought and sold, contracts signed and book finishes pawed over as the book world tries to identify the next big thing (and how to explain it by referring to things that used to be the next big thing). As a bookseller, it’s something of a peek behind the curtain of a veiled and often distant industry. Luckily, the BA and a number of industry organisations arrange a host of seminars, panels and roundtables that bring the humble book peddler insights from this fabled land.
The BA arranged some unique events for booksellers. The first event lined up talks from publishers’ sales directors giving us their highlights for the coming year. The longest of the events this squashed fifteen presentations from presses and imprints large and small into a comfortable 10.30am-3.30pm sitting. Pitching us these highlights meant holding our attention but also letting us inside the vision that each publisher holds for their new books. I’m the kind of person who will happily read a long list of new titles, or even a basic catalogue if it contains some digest of book information so having knowledgeable humans perform this information was a real treat. I can appreciate this might not be for everybody but there were some gems of information along the way, e.g. news of Maggie O’Farrell’s upcoming memoir I Am I Am I Am, the special plans for Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 and the Reservoir Tapes, and many things which I’m not sure we have the security clearance to share. I personally enjoyed hearing that Jackie Kay’s new poetry collection, Bantam, will contain “a lot about Scotland as well”. Good news for the Scottish Makar. The title poem from Bantam is online here. In another sense, the session was akin to seeing the next six months of major newspapers’ cultural review pages distilled down to their essence. This event also gave me a chance to put a face to a twitter username, meeting ‘@flossieteacake’ AKA Rachael from London’s LRB Bookshop.
Having taken an epic amount of notes, subsequent requirements for day one were minimal. The BA AGM was smooth, and gave some great insights into all the wonderful things achieved by Book Tokens and the annual ‘Books Are My Bag‘ promotions. A couple of brief interludes ensured I got lost and then retethered myself to proceedings. Following Elaine’s draft plan, Catherine from the New Bookshop was enticed along with me to the launch of a new book celebrating one hundred years of a London Institution, The Ivy. At the Ivy’s pop-up venue within the fair we met the lively Fernando Peire, director of the Ivy, who has created The Ivy Now: The Restaurant and its Recipes (pub. by Quadrille, June 2017). Fernando was brimming with stories and eager to note down recipe ideas generated from the midst of conversation. The mockups of the book looked like an artwork but the recipes were being kept tightly under wraps until release. The book is also a conscious nod to a book produced by A.A. Gill and Hodder twenty years ago, The Ivy: The Restaurant and its Recipes (1997). Anna Murphy, a sales representative for a plethora of publishers, was on hand to introduce us and is symbolic of the small band of reps that are our essential windows onto the publishing world throughout the year.
The fair provided a great chance to meet other booksellers and share our own differing experiences. It was reassuring to see familiar faces from the recently established Bookseller’s Network. I now feel the need to visit Kibworth in Leicestershire and re-visit a bookshop from my youth, Red Lion Books in Colchester. Events like this ensure that even if you may spend your days alone, or as part of a small shop staff, you actually have hundreds of kindred co-workers up and down the country all eager to talk about their life in books. The first night, the BA organised a party at a neighbouring hostelry which aided this process and provided excellent anecdotes from other booksellers. I was proud to share tales of our handwritten sales ledger, which I’m sure went down well with the people from Nielsen Bookdata. The evening also proved a fascinating jump back in my own bookselling history as I caught up with some old Blackwell’s colleagues. However, in conversation I did fail to recognise Blackwell’s chief executive, David Prescott, which might lose me some ‘I Spy’ points (there must be an LBF edition).
Tuesday’s BA seminars were much busier than expected. There was standing room only at the first session, ‘Creating an Inclusive Bookshop’ which began with a rousing and passionate talk from Nikesh Shukla, editor of the recent bestseller The Good Immigrant (Unbound). Then followed practical reflections from behind the sales desk as Tamara Macfarlane (from Herne Hill’s Tales on Moon Lane) and John Newman (from East London’s Newham Bookshop) discussed how they approached diversity in stocking a wide range of books and hosting literary events. John was particular in insisting the shop prompt customers to think “whoever you are there is a book for you”. Tamara’s discussion included generating events in-store and in schools and linking up with local festivals. The followup session on ‘Using Social Media to Build Community and Maximise Sales’ with Katie Clapham of Storytellers Inc., and Lynsey Sweales from Social B Ltd looked excellent, but its success at building a community of listeners meant that it was impossible to attend! Crowds filled the walkways nearby in the hopes of garnering insights but I remain untutored in this world. I’m reliably informed that it revolves around posting images of books and interspersing these with pictures of cute pet dogs. We endeavour to pursue this path to success.
Taking this as a sign to ‘go rogue’ I attended some of the many parallel sessions of bookish note. Stumbling across what I mistook for a bit of breathing space, I found myself in another growing throng for a talk on copyright. Sponsored by the Society of Authors, Nicola Solomon, the organisation’s CEO, and Janet Laurence, noted cookery and crime author, picked apart ‘Using Sources: Managing Copyright Issues and Avoiding Common Legal Pitfalls’. Both were entertaining speakers and challenged the many myths about the use of research in creative works. Some knotty problems around defamation and plagiarism were ironed out in public view as we were treated to a masterclass in professional practice. Janet talked about her negotiation skills and tact in using other writers’ work in a book on ‘How to write Crime Fiction’. This was discussed in tandem with the copyright pressures in cookery, and the fraught process of holding together a recipe’s integrity! A well-honed double act emerged when Nicola discussed the potential for defamation in charges of Janet being a poor dinner host (apparently it all depends on your pre-existing professional culinary reputation).
Fleeing the lands of cookery, crime and copyright, a session on ‘Science Fiction and Fantasy’ reflected on the state of the genre in UK publishing. A panel made up of publisher Jo Fletcher (Jo Fletcher Books), agent Ian Drury (Sheil Land Associates) and debut author Ed McDonald (Blackwing, Gollancz – July 2017) shared their unique perspectives on their experiences and the genre’s emerging trends. Jo noted that publishing under SciFi and Fantasy provides an extraordinary freedom as the genre is such a broad umbrella. Ian talked of the pitfalls and problems of worldbuilding and ‘infodumping’ and how Ed’s work had ensnared him forcing him to consider how much of the manuscript he could get read between other appointments. Meanwhile Ed spoke of the way perseverance, peer-critique and writing lesser, unpublished work had developed him as a writer. The following hints about interesting new writers to read were shared: Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird, James Brogden’s Hekla’s Children, Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld and the Greek Myths series of Anne Zouroudi.
Whilst other booksellers were involved in ‘speed-dating’ with the Publishers Publicity Circle for potential events ideas, I happened upon a real highlight of the fair. In the literary translation arena, a second launch event was taking place for a list of authors from across Europe selected as the top thirty-nine under the age of 40 writing children’s and young adult literature. Sponsoring the scheme, Aarhus, the 2017 European Capital of Culture, has partnered with the Hay Festival and commissioned new works from each of the writers themed around a ‘journey’. Each text will then be translated into English and published in May by Alma Press in two anthologies, Quest and Odyssey. The panel itself was chaired by Daniel Hahn, editor of these collections and featured the translator Guy Puzey, Icelandic writer Ævar Þór Benediktsson and English writer Katherine Rundell. All discussed their creative processes, travelling stories and translation. Katherine mentioned how attending international schools had flagged up to her the notions of cultural difference in texts and yet all the writers on the panel considered how stories come from elsewhere. Reflecting on the scarcity of translated fiction in the UK, and the greater sense of this in Children’s fiction, Daniel put forward the idea that translation represents something on its own, “translating stories is the most anti-nationalist thing”. Considering the travelling done by fairy tales and their implicit migrations the panel also tackled the practicalities of translation. For Guy, this meant finding a plausible lexicon for Norwegian ‘pseudo swears’. Working to translate Maria Parr’s stories in English (see Waffle Hearts), Puzey settled on using the language of fishing to derive tame-sounding curse words. Katherine noted a poetic improvement the French edition of Rooftoppers has rendered, where the title becomes an approximation of The Sky Belongs To Us. Ævar voiced one of the project’s key aims, echoing the tradition of Hay’s ’39 series’ chosen across the world, noting that stories should speak to all, and if enabled to travel, tell us something about our shared core – the ground that makes us all. There was an Icelandic word for it but I can only report this half-glimpse of the meaning.
Armed with a rich and vibrant faith in stories I was well prepared for my final engagement of the London Book Festival. As a companion to day one’s ‘new titles’ odyssey we were treated to a sequence of seven-minute presentations from leading children’s publishers and imprints. Proceedings were aided by a school bell being rung to reinforce these tight timings. The presentations were a testimony to the wild and creative world of children’s writing and illustration – with new takes on familiar themes balanced alongside all-new, quirky and surprising titles. Thirty-five years after the first book, Gillian Cross has written a new Demon Headmaster (The Demon Headmaster: Total Control), there are exciting developments in the world of moominvalley and Cressida Cowell is embarking on a brand new series set in Bronze-Age Britain. Not to mention Emma Carroll’s World War Two mystery Letters From The Lighthouse and a brand new Paddington title from Michael Bond. Sarah Driver’s The Sea looks like a shiny new debut to draw the eye, and Mimi Thebo’s Coyote Summer should also create new fans. Amidst this surfeit of new writing, excellent new illustrations from the likes of Sarah McIntyre, Elys Dolan and Jim Field hung long in my mind and the long train home was a welcome chance to sit and read… only… which book should I start first?
— Will Smith