As a rule, I’m not a fan of large cities, crowds, and high-pressure situations. It’s therefore understandable that I was somewhat nervous about attending the 2019 London Book Fair in early March. Ahead of the trip, we were given survival tips on my MSc Publishing course at Edinburgh Napier University. We were warned that people might be brusque, to wear comfortable shoes, to always carry water, and – the best piece of insider knowledge in my opinion – to not go wandering onto the publishers’ stands unless you wanted to draw the ire of overworked and dehydrated employees who had been negotiating rights deals for hours.
Despite my trepidation during the four hour train journey to London, the experience of all three days was fantastic. A point in my favour was the planning I did beforehand. For example, shortlisting the panels and talks I wanted to attend using the LBF website and then the LBF 2019 app let me work out where I needed to be so I could navigate my way through the labyrinth of bookish beauty set up across two floors of the Olympia arena.
I scurried from panels on Feminist Fairytales to a walkthrough of a cover design meeting steered by audience participation; I devoured Tesco meal deals between a session discussing diversity and inclusion in the workforce and one on the rising sales of audiobooks; I scribbled notes on accessible digital publishing and found a taste of home at a panel exploring the Scottish publishing landscape.
However, amongst my frenetic schedule, I found it was key to factor in a certain level of flexibility. Sometimes, I skipped a panel in favour of just walking around the fair to discover new publishers. On the last day, I left the event for a good hour or more to cool down, hydrate, and get some food at one of the lovely cafes surrounding Olympia (I highly recommend Chapter Coffee Roasters if you ever attend the fair – it’s roughly a five-minute walk away). Part of the fair was simply experiencing the gathering of so many publishers, authors, illustrators, and booksellers all in one place.
It says a lot that, despite my initial fears, I would definitely attend again. Moreover, for anyone thinking of going next year, here are my newbie tips for survival.
Plan ahead of time: I’ve already expanded on why this is helpful but, trust me, taking a few hours to plan what you really want to attend, even if you have several panels that are all at the same time and you then choose on the day, is much less stressful than deciding which of the dozens of events you want to get to when you’re stood amongst the cacophony of the fair.
Classy but comfortable: In terms of attire I chose outfits that were comfortable but also looked professional and expressed a little of my personality. The fair gives you the chance to talk to a lot of people, including people you may want to start a business connection with or who may work for the company where you just applied to work. In my experience, a sharp outfit (with pockets to keep your killer business in, of course) makes an excellent first impression. In terms of shoes, I went for a pair that looked stylish and professional, but that I also knew I could walk miles in. Miles is not an exaggeration either – I did nearly 15,000 steps one day.
Food and water: Make sure you have a decent supply of both with you each day. Onsite the food it expensive and cafes in the local area are often used to host meetings by people from the fair so don’t assume you can go offsite to eat. My technique was to purchase of Tesco meal deal the night before and fill up the biggest bottle of water I could every morning. It gets hot in the fair and the water stations empty pretty fast so refill your water whenever you can. Come prepared and, like I did, leave for a bit if you need to recover.
Keeping in contact: I chose to have some fantastic business cards made in preparation for the fair (I commissioned my graphic design friend Jasmin Ford to create them – find her on Instagram @jasmin_sambac) which made swapping information post-networking chats easier, but they aren’t essential. Just make sure you have your key contact info memorised and correct so you can scribble it down for your new friend/client/business contact
Push yourself: Not a lot. Just a little. Do you have a question but it makes you nervous to ask in front of everyone? Write it down in your notes, so you know what you want to say and stick that hand up. Alternatively, save it till the end and ask it to the panellist one-on-one afterwards if they have time. There are also some fantastic career events and networking sessions.
Stay till the end: If you want the chance to pick up some free books, wait until the very end of the last day; publishers often don’t want to leave with any proof copies and give them away much more readily than on the preceding days. This is a wonderful resource if you are a book blogger just starting out. I left the fair with 12 free proofs, several from high profile publishers such as Harper Collins and Bloomsbury. Just remember that you’ll need a way to get them all home!
The most important piece of advice I can give, however, is to have fun. Yes, the London Book Fair is one of the biggest events in the international publishing calendar, where six-figure deals are not uncommon, and the place that shapes the coming year of UK publishing. However, if you’re not booked up with back-to-back meetings as part of your job, there’s so much to see and do and explore.
It’s a place like no other, a forest of books in the middle of a city, where imagination and creativity run wild, and where even a little baby publisher like me can feel like she belongs.