I’ve had one thing drummed into me by publishing friends: book fairs are not for authors. They’re for publishers and agents, the ones with the cheque-books, to do the grown-up bit about contracts and deals, rights and publicity. Authors, with their dreams and stories, just get in the way.
Well, I have news for them. I spent two days at London Book Fair, met loads of fellow-authors and had an absolute blast. The book fair had an “Author HQ” where they tucked us away with a brilliant programme of seminars, talks and networking events. Organisations for authors, from the august Society of Authors to the engaging Alliance of Independent Authors, had stands, alongside those keen to offer us “author services.”
The talks I attended were excellent and I learned a heap about successful self-publishing, trends in book-selling and buying, audio-book production and marketing. I also discovered how friendly, encouraging and helpful most authors are – just about everyone I approached was happy to chat and to share their ideas and experience. They say authors are introverts, but put us all in one room with a glass of wine in our hands, and it’s hard to stop us talking.
In that spirit, here are the top things I learned at London Book Fair:
- It is possible to make a living as a self-published independent author, if you write enough books, market them well and engage with your audience. If your plan is to write one literary masterpiece and retire to your ivory tower, it’s probably not for you.
- Yes, audio books are the fastest-growing sector of the book trade at the moment. But they still represent only 4% of book sales, and they are expensive to do properly. I’ll be focusing on reaching the other 96% for the time being.
- There’s not just one way to market a book. Although pretty much everyone I spoke to said you need a good email list to drive readership, sales and reviews. That’s high on my (ever-expanding) list of things to do.
- Around a quarter of book sales are now e-books, and that figure has stabilised over the last few years. Sales of e-readers may be down, but that’s because people read on tablets or phones rather than dedicated e-readers. Did you know that 22% of e-book downloads in 2017 were of books by self-published authors? Me neither.
- One thing is true – London Book Fair is probably not the place to go if you want to nab an agent or publisher. They’re all meeting each other in the big zones downstairs, fuelling their ridiculous schedules with caffeine and brownies. I’m glad I didn’t go with that aim – it would have been dispiriting and counterproductive.
How else to get the most out of the fair? I enjoyed listening in to some great interviews, notably Kit de Waal being interviewed about her new novel The Trick to Time, which sounds rather wonderful, and to children’s laureate and illustrator Lauren Child begging for children to be allowed to simply draw for fun. I downloaded the app before the show and ear-marked everything I wanted to see, which helped me organise my time better.
I also came back with a nice haul of free tote bags, magazines, pens and bookmarks! As a seasoned journalist who’s attended many vast medical conferences, I knew to take a sandwich lunch rather than rely on the over-priced and average food on offer at the catering outlets, and to ensure my footwear was up to a full day’s walking from one end of the exhibition to another (although I was rather astonished to see I’d clocked up 17,000 steps by the end of Wednesday).
Is London Book Fair a place for authors? I think it is, so long as you approach it in a spirit of discovery and enthusiasm, rather than as a way for others to discover you. As a one-stop shop to find out all you can about the vast publishing industry, it’s unbeatable.