It’s all about flapjack and water. These are my two key takeaways from this year’s London Book Fair. This isn’t a new publishing trend, but instead the essentials needed to survive a couple of days in the hangar space of London Olympia. Snacks and hydration are well worth remembering. Plus, inside the hangar, a coffee sets you back a cool/hot £3.50 so, to avoid the leach of funds on snacks to get you by, the wise fair-goer is a prepared one.

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Beside this nifty insight into the world of ‘going to a book fair’ I thought it might be nice to share how it feels to be an independent bookseller going to London Book Fair. I wrote a brief reflection after my first visit for Sam Read’s a couple of years ago, and I’ve since benefited from many other booksellers sharing their own aims and experiences. This year I set about thinking why you might go to the fair and what to expect whilst on the train down to London. The Unwin Charitable Trust were running their monthly twitter conversation on the hashtag #UCTMentor, and March’s conversation focused on the book fair. The Trust supports initiatives that help the book trade, and has recently begun a mentoring scheme for independent booksellers. Emma Milne-White, the owner of the Hungerford Bookshop and Sarah Dennis from Abingdon-on-Thames’ Mostly Books answered a number of key questions for prospective attendees:

For pure advice, these tweets are evergreen. But, part reflection and part diary, these are my thoughts on this year’s fair.

The fair is a vast organisation… containing cities within cities. Evolving from a book trade meet-up to a prime market for publishing rights, there are now many strands to the fair. Diverse exhibitors make the journey to West London from across the UK and around the world. The core of the event is still to sell manuscripts, rights and publishing services. Claire Squires and David Finklelstein suggest that trade book fairs are about:

 selling books, exhibiting new titles, offering space for trade representatives to meet

(https://www.stir.ac.uk/research/hub/publication/501794)

But the bookselling involved at the fair doesn’t prioritise the bookseller. The bookseller isn’t really central to many attendees concerns. Instead sales are taking place between editors, agents and large distributors. So, as a bookseller, if there are particular presses you want to talk to it’s well worth contacting them in advance to see if you can book a meeting. In my experience small publishers may have brief windows for a quick chat but, as nice as this is, you might be eating into their opportunities to move, breathe some fresh air, or generally go feral for a sniff of a spare flapjack. For all the costumed, staged beauty of the large publishers stands, they are generally a world away from bookseller conversation. Yet, it can still be useful to pick up catalogues and reflect on the key titles they have prominently displayed.

Luckily, the Booksellers Association (BA) has been running its own strand at the fair for a number of years. Thus Tuesday morning this year saw a verso of booksellers crowded into the BA’s venue for the fair, the High Street Theatre, to listen to fifteen publishers and publishing groups list their highlights for the second half of 2019. As only select titles for this period have been flagged up to us by way of tweets, publishers’ sales representatives or media stories, there are lots of new things revealed here. Also known as publisher’s pitches, these presentations are rapid-fire attempts to grab the attention of the booksellers. This can be particularly daunting when everyone present realises that even a digest of highlights looks weighty and hints at the sheer quantity of new books published each week of each month. It’s a real insight to see marketing, sales and publicity staff from each publisher discuss and contextualise new titles. Clearly it’s difficult to have mastery over a list of books where some may still be unfinished manuscripts, so half of the message alludes to where a book might sit in the marketplace. Shorthand deployed this year included:

  • books which were the ‘new Eleanor Oliphant’
  • books which expanded on TV documentaries
  • books which might contain Ben Fogle
  • books which might handle an unconventional relationship in the author’s ‘trademark style’
  • invitations to judge author brands
  • invitations to re-imagine author brands

Alongside these ideas of trends emerge – with clear patterns pointing to which are dominant and which are residual (at best). Cue feverish scribbled notes. The handout with details of titles discussed is now covered in spidery writing. Another note-taking form emerges as my tweets reflects a desire to try and share a few highlights in real-time whilst also testing my new phone’s capacity to hold up under the strain. Judge for yourself on the success of both.

A presumed level of collective knowledge in the room, and a desire for brevity, has in the past led many authors to “need no introduction.” This year this device seemed to be rested. The only author who needed little introduction was actually physically present. In a bid to bring glitz and glamour to the affair, Penguin Random House’s Kate Gunning announced that Ian McEwan would himself pitch his new novel Machines Like Me (published in April). McEwan flattered the assembled crowd by talking about the scale of the press commitment for the new book, and suggesting that “I know that talking to you is probably going to be the most important thing I do”. Some praise for booksellers! Now I look back on that statement I look again at that “probably”, but I’m still happy to take what I want from it. A view of this might also be clouded by the fact that it was in the “just before lunch” slot.

The BA programme at the London Book Fair is a chance to meet other booksellers. Having lots of information thrust at you by publishers is a good environment in which to discuss opinions, what’s worked in your own shop and what’s influencing your approach. These informal nuggets can be as important as anything else at the fair. In part this might be dismissed as professional gossip, but it’s also a counterpart to the conversations of trade representatives meeting each other across the rest of the fair. The more BA events I’ve been to, the more I’ve learnt from other booksellers and the more I’ve strongly trusted their judgements. One of the surprises for those from other trades or professions might be just how collegiate and warm booksellers are.

In the afternoon, the second half of publishers’ pitches led to more feverish note-taking. My notes point to some surprising conclusions. Apparently books with mushrooms in are going to be big. A new book has managed to ‘nab’ the title Theatre of Dreams, which is surprising when a cursory search on the internet tells you there’s a history of Dudley Hippodrome under that title… and as Lakes booksellers we also ought to mention its use by Thomas De Quincey! I can’t recall which book elicited the comment “either it’s secret, or he hasn’t written it yet,” but I do know that books with girls in the title will be big for fans of other popular books with girls in the title. I was also particularly impressed with the book pitch which mentioned that “the universe is going to be in the same format as the world”. In fact I was totally sold on so many books that I’ve listed a few of the new titles mentioned that are still looming large in the year’s coming titles.

  • Katherine Rundell’s essay Why You Should Read Children’s Books (Bloomsbury) due out in time for Independent Bookshop Week in June. 
  • Lara Maiklem’s Mudlarking (Bloomsbury). I was excited for this at the start of the year and a book of diving in the Thames for everyday treasures still sounds great.
  • American writer Shannon Pufahl’s debut novel On Swift Horses (Fourth Estate) due in November sounds particularly good.
  • Adele Brand’s The Hidden World of the Fox (William Collins), a book stemming from a lifelong obsession with foxes, pricks the ears.  
  • Untitled Ordnance Survey 2 of 2 (Trapeze). Operating under a snappy working title, the follow-up to the first Ordnance Survey Puzzle Book – one of our most successful sellers of recent months. This book should be just as big, with the added feeling that anything that helps map-reading takes the burden off the local mountain rescue
  • Clare Pollard’s Fierce Bad Rabbits (Fig Tree). On the origins of famous children’s stories… **Prospective Cumbrian content alert**
  • Jonathan Wilson’s Coffeehouses (Bonnier). Football, political history, Hungary and philosophy. What’s not to love.   
  • Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton). A new Levy novel, waaaaah!
  • Vita Sackville-West, Faces: Profiles of Dogs. A reissue of a classic literary canine compendium.
  • Richard Mabey, Turning the Boat for Home (Chatto & Windus). Reflecting on a life of nature writing.

In the free time between presentations and the BA Annual General Meeting, I attempted to roam out into the wider theatre of the fair. This can be hazardous in its own way. Outside of the pressures of attempting leisurely walking in something akin to rush hour commuter traffic, directions are another problem. Even when you think you have a handle on where you are, it is a confusing and labyrinthine world just ready to spin you around.

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There are numerous other theatre venues, which have programmes of seminars that any attendee can stop by and listen to. Author talks, editorial insights, business analysis, conversations on translation, internationalisation, children’s books and publishing partnerships are amongst the myriad sessions available to attendees. Most of the more popular will need you to plan ahead and get there a few minutes early if you want to get a seat, but many of them are audible and enticing from outside the strict seating area. There are also hundreds of exhibitors’ stalls for small presses, UK Trade Publishers, Academic Publishers and on to international ecommerce solutions, printers, distributors and beyond. I used some of this gap in my time to meet up with my publishing studies mentor Professor Claire Squires who had suggested meeting in the main hall where she was “looking for a warmer country/tea/coffee”. The theatre of the fair invites this kind of imagining. One of the main upstairs lounge areas was sponsored by UNESCO’s World Book Capital for 2019, United Arab Emirates’ Sharjah and struck an exotic getaway look with “sand, bamboo and deck chairs.”

In the evening, the booksellers’ party gave more time to catch up with the BA team and other booksellers from across the country. If the fair feels a little busy, or formal, this lets booksellers meet on different turf away from the throng, and to reflect on those exciting publishing bulletins fired at us during the day. It often leads to more general accounts of what’s happening across the book trade, or just  Linda and James from Grassington’s Stripey Badger Bookshop were at their first LBF and clearly have a great passion for their shop and their community. They also have excellent logistical skills, displayed on the night with expert distribution of the buffet foods…

I had meant to retire from the hustle and bustle after the party but providing an impromptu bit of public wayfinding help for visitors with low phone battery led me to bump into Alana Wilcox from Canadian publisher Coach House Books. Alana is based in Toronto and was a great help when I was writing my PhD so it was great to to catch up outside of the industrial hangar of Olympia. It’s also really helpful to get an international publishing perspective on the book fair. In my parallel life as an academic I’ve spent 15 years considering Canadian literature, and from a UK-standpoint it’s fascinating to see its ebb and flow across our bookshelves. An excellent publisher like Coach House has strong poetry, fiction and non-fiction titles but the way the UK book market works, the perceived incentive to buy rights for UK publication can be unpredictable. One Coach House poetry title that broke the UK market with Canongate was Christian Bok’s Eunoia. Presumably partly based on poetry-influencer Gyles Brandreth’s praise: “Extraordinary, outrageous, irresistible – a must for verbivores.” But many other great Canadian poets have yet to be discovered in UK bookstores. More recently a Coach House prose success has travelled in the shape of André Alexis, whose Fifteen Dogs and The Hidden Keys have found a loving home at Serpent’s Tail. I’m really looking forward to Alexis’ next book Days By Moonlight and hoping it gets a UK publication date soon!

Alana introduced me to Richard Nash, the American publicity guru, who co-founded Cursor where he now works to support international publishers marketing their books in the USA. Talking to Richard and Alana, you realise the circulation of books across marketplaces is rapidly changing. Yet, it was heartening to hear from Richard how individual booksellers in bricks and mortar bookshops are well-placed to be key intermediaries in building strong audiences for particular titles. The Cursor website describes their work:

We go beyond the traditional approach to book P.R. by stimulating each title’s position within the networks of culture and opinion in the U.S.

Richard talked fondly of the network of booksellers whose book love, opinions and tastes, is a vital web for this work. With these kinds of fascinating insights, you can see why the book fair might also be a sensory overload.

I covered three days at the fair this year, although you need not spend this long to get a rich experience the LBF offering. Wednesday, my second day, I’d planned in a list of talks I wanted to get along to before returning to the bookseller’s spiritual home in the High Street Theatre to hear children’s publishers pitching their highlights of 2019. My first task of the day revolved around bribing Icon Books for a proof of a book they had on their stand. Having realised they might have copies of Bec Evans’ How To Have A Happy Hustle, I thought there might be some mileage in tweeting to them about a possible swap deal involving flapjack. Understanding, and now something of an advocate for the power of flapjack at the fair, I duly took along my Waitrose tub of flapjack to Icon. The man on the Icon stand knew the value of the snack in front of him. Proof acquired, I departed. A happy hustle indeed.

The first talk I made it to on Wednesday was on “Rethinking ‘diversity’ in Publishing” and taking place in the posh living room vibe of the Podcast theatre. The staging itself was surprising, situating the audience on fabric spotted benches and the speakers seated on high backed chairs next to a faux-fireplace and candle covered-mantelpiece. Here, Dr. Anamik Saha from Goldsmiths talked with The Bookseller editor Philip Jones about a new project, backed by The Bookseller and Spread the Word, to investigate how publishing “affects racial and ethnic minorities and the stories they want to tell”. Saha suggested that publishing processes turn out tropes and appear broadly opaque but also noted that “cultural production is an inherently risky business.” The interviews Saha conducts over the next few months should be really valuable research, and The Bookseller are committed to publishing a précis of Saha’s study in 2020.

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In the ‘Poets Corner,’ an open plan, bean-bag strewn area, opposite the prime poetry supporters Inpress, I managed to catch some vibrant discussions of poetry-reviewing. “Who Do We Think We Are Talking To? – Writing, Publishing and Reviewing Poetry,” was hosted by Alan Jenkins (deputy editor and poetry editor at the Times Literary Supplement) and featured three guest speakers, two of whom were writer and editor Michael Caines and poet and reviewer Camille Ralphs. I missed the introduction to the third guest (another telling moment of flitting between talks) but he looked very much like poet and reviewer Declan Ryan. Much of the conversation covered the logistics, ethics and aims of reviewing, attempting to advocate for the reader. On deliberately “seeking out readers who can contextualise poetry,” Ralphs talked of seeking interested parties as reviewers, who want to “spend hours of their life reading and rereading to share with people”.

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Meryl Halls, BA Managing Director, at the High Street Theatre

Scooting quickly between venues, I made it back to the High Street Theatre in time to hear some excellent bookseller talks. “Diverse & Inclusive Bookselling: Bookseller Case Studies” was a brief sampling of those funded by the first tranche of the BA’s diversity and inclusiveness grants. Emphasising the BA’s commitment to encouraging diversity and inclusiveness on the high street, booksellers could apply for grants to develop projects that would foster this very thing. The examples provided by recipients were SO inspiring… and more evidence if any were needed that booksellers are very nice people.

  • Fleur Sinclair from the Sevenoaks Bookshop had produced a magazine where children led the content, reviewing books for those aged 8-12. Deliberately cultivating a ‘Press Gang’ vibe, there were conversations about features and how best to present content, with outside help brought in to make the magazine look professional.

  • Noor Hemani from the Lighthouse Bookshop in Edinburgh gave a talk about initiatives to allow the widest possible take-up, and comfort at their bookshop events. Introducing Lighthouse as a radical (Angela Davis style), intersectional feminist, inclusive, diverse bookshop, and with an excellent picture of bookshopdog Artemis, Noor outlined the simple adaptations to the bookshop space that could be so significant to visitors. Lighthouse bought a ramp to overcome the shop’s doorway step, sourced a microphone and amp, and were looking at getting a hearing loop installed. Live-streaming events had also meant more people were able to access their amazing line-up of speakers. In excellent, related news, Noor was recently named Individual Bookseller of the Year at the British Book Awards.
  • Rachel Rogan from Rogan’s Books in Bedford was passionate about sourcing quality books for all, and ensuring that “every child should be able to see themselves on the shelves”. Rachel had used their BA grant to work with an LGBTQ youth group to work as an ally and to get real insight into “how readers feel about books”. Asking for reader feedback, and acting on the group’s opinions made for a wider offering in the shop and demonstrated that all readers were being valued.   

Another round of publishers’ presentations followed! This time, the Children’s Book Pitches organised by the Publishers Association, featured a number of children’s presses running through their key titles. For the hundreds of upcoming books we heard about, here are the ones that caught my eye…

  • Elena Arevalo Melville Umbrella (Scallywag) – June
  • Chloe Daykin, Fire Girl, Forest Boy (Faber) – July
  • Emma Carroll, The Somerset Tsunami (Faber) – September
  • Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Deathless Girls (Hachette) – September
  • Sue Cheung, Chinglish (Andersen) – September
  • Ben Hoare, The Wonders of Nature (DK) – September
  • Jenny McLachlan, Land of Roar (Egmont) – September
  • Catherine O’Flynn, Lori and Max (Firefly) – September
  • Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston A Child of Books (Walker) October – in paperback for the first time! Previously published in 2016 in hardback.
  • Frances Hardinge, Deeplight (Macmillan) – October
  • Catherine Fisher, The Velvet Fox (Firefly) – October (Sequel to The Clockwork Crow!)

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As with the adult titles, there were more facts and trends than you could shake a stick at. There are lots of anniversaries in 2019. The Very Hungry Caterpillar hits 50! Meanwhile, Percy the park-keeper is 30 years old! What a service to park-keeping. Elmer the patchwork elephant is also 30 this year, as is Kipper the dog, all just getting a short use out of the poorly defined millennial railcard. Because I imagine Percy, Elmer and Kipper take the train a lot. Also, bees are STILL everywhere! I did take more detailed notes here but as this is rather an epic blogpost, I’ll speedily move on…

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At the end of Wednesday I managed a brief stop at the Publishing Scotland stand, where celebrations were underway for the 45th of supporting Scottish publishing. A whisky reception, sponsored by Arran Whisky made for some free flowing conversation and nice opportunity to catch up with many friends with connections to the Scottish book trade.

Thursday, my final day, began with a stop-by the Firefly Press stand where a drinks reception was underway. I love the work of Catherine Fisher, and Firefly published her outstanding The Clockwork Crow in 2018, so it was great to be able to see Penny Thomas (cofounder of Firefly) and let her know that the book has been doing well in Grasmere (shortlisted for the Blue Peter prize, it recently won the Welsh Tir na n-Og Award too!) AND how excited I was by the announcement of a sequel in 2019, titled The Velvet Fox. On the stall, I also bumped into Graffeg’s Matthew Howard. Not only is Matthew one of the nicest people you could hope to meet, but in the bookshop we’ve seen Graffeg go from strength to strength. Publishing amazing work from Nicola Davies and Jackie Morris, Graffeg now hosts the runaway paw prints of Zeb Soanes and James Mayhew’s Gaspard the Fox. The sequel to Gaspard, Best in Showis due out in August! I’d hoped to meet Kate Mallinder, whose new YA book Summer of No Regrets has just been published by Firefly but you can’t do everything…and besides there were talks to get to! En route to the first talk of the day, I dropped by E&H Global Ltd, who carried many Story House Press titles on their stand. One particular title on display caught my eye, The Ugly Duckling, illustrated by my Sam Read’s bookselling colleague Kim Tillyer!

Although there were many more seminars to attend from the cross-cultural hub, to children’s books I opted to fit one more session in before the northern bookshelves called me home. The Association for Publishing Education hosted “Deserving Dissertations and Prize-Worthy Projects: A Publishing Education Showcase” to showcase MA dissertations. Talks by Leanne Manfredi, Matthew Everett and Fanny Allart, chaired by the aforementioned Claire Squires, outlined some amazing topics and ran through fascinating territory. Manfredi’s talk reflected on her work on bookmaking as a form of public engagement using the V&A collection in London, Everett reflected on Waterstone’s recent history from the insider perspective of managing the Cambridge branch and Allart gave findings from a study on the lack of diversity in Anglo-French publishing.

During the fair I also got my own bit of news. I’m going to be a judge on this year’s Costa Book Awards and I couldn’t be more excited. Not book fair news in and of itself but definitely influenced my mood.

* * *

The fair is always going to be exhausting as the amount on offer, and the duration, means it’s basically an endurance event. Yet, a bit of pre-planning rewards any length of visit. For members of the Bookseller’s Association, booksellers get free tickets to the fair, so if a trip to London isn’t prohibitive in itself then it’s well worth the investment.

A final word on one of the best London Book Fair commentaries of the year. The Bookseller’s Tom Tivnan developed quite the insight into Kimmy the search dog. Brilliant.

— Will