Charles Harris is Director of Footloose Films, his screenwriting and film directing have spanned many decades and now he's the author of a best-selling novel 'The Breaking of Liam Glass'. Charles is an award-winning film-maker for cinema and TV including satirical comedy and documentaries on serious topics regarding the environment and trade.
THE LONDON BOOK FAIR - AN AUTHOR'S PERSPECTIVE
Into the Total Perspective Vortex with best-selling author Charles Harris at London Book Fair 2018
After my first visit to London Book Fair, around ten years ago, I vowed never to go again. It was perhaps the most depressing experience of my writing career. Yet here I am again, at LBF18. Why?
Well, for one thing, London Book Fair has changed dramatically. Indeed it has been changing ever since it started 47 years ago in 1971. Back in those days it was called SPEX. The Specialist Publishers’ Exhibition for Librarians. And the exhibits - described as “modestly sized” - comprised a few tables of books in the basement of the Berners Hotel, off Oxford Street.
By contrast, this year’s LBF took something of the size of the Cannes Film Festival and crammed it into three madcap days in four enormous linked halls at Olympia. Upwards of twenty-five thousand agents, publishers, translators, buyers and even a few writers, from around 130 countries, visited over two thousand stands. And sent out over forty-eight thousand tweets as they went!
But perhaps the most important change - and reason for a writer to visit - took place the year after my first visit. The arrival of Author HQ.
Before Author HQ, it was made manifestly obvious that writers were not welcome. It wasn’t that we were irrelevant - our work was on display on myriad shelves, tables, screens and posters around the fair. It was that we weren’t considered relevant to the serious process of selling - which was what LBF was and is all about.
That first trip comprised a massive reality check. I was surrounded by countless books. Some good, many obviously awful - themselves only a fraction of the annual output of the publishing industry. The big names - the Ian McEwans and JK Rowlings - could be seen on hoardings or live, giving interviews and talks. The mid-list and smaller writers, lost in the crowd.
Where did I - then an unpublished author - fit in?
Coming from the film industry, where the UK produces around 300 films in a good year, and the US manages not much more than a thousand, this flood of books felt overwhelming.
More to the point, I felt I didn’t belong. Publishers and agents were there to do deals, publicise this year’s big releases and to sell foreign rights to those they’d already brought out.
A writer just got in the way.
Like the Total Perspective Vortex in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I suddenly saw exactly how small I was in the universe. The only problem being that the Total Perspective Vortex was an instrument of torture designed to drive people mad.
Then, clearly, someone realised this was not right. Perhaps the spark came from the rapid rise of the e-book, bringing with it the chance for writers to self-publish. Traditional publishers saw there was a new rival market on the block. They even began signing self-published writers.
And someone realised that there was money to be made here.
For whatever reason, a tiny corner of this ginormous shed became dedicated to authors. It too has expanded rapidly. This year’s Author HQ offered three days of non-stop seminars on everything from getting an agent to marketing your own books. There was the chance to pitch one-to-one to an agent, if you booked early enough. (I didn’t).
There was even a live Dragon’s Den style pitching event on the last day, where six writers pitched five agents, for the right to have a follow-up meeting with the agent of their choice.
Writers - at last - felt they had a place.
What’s LBF like?
One of the nicest parts is the freebies. As you walk in, you get given goodies - free copies of The New York Review of Books and daily editions of publishing magazines, such as The Bookseller - full of useful information about who’s doing what.
This year Harper Collins were also giving away review copies of upcoming releases, if you were quick enough. (I wasn’t).
I also like to go around the stands adding to my collection of pens. I can’t have enough pens, and many firms like to offer personalised pens, in the hope, I suppose, that I’ll be of use to them in the future. (When I’m famous, I promise!)
The main halls are dominated by the big publishing houses. The largest firms build stands the size of medium-sized houses (one even created a mock-up of the Oval Office to publicise The President Is Missing - the new White House-based thriller co-authored by James Patterson and, of all people, Bill Clinton. (I wonder how he got the gig?)
Around them, spread the stands of the smaller firms, in decreasing order of size as you move away from the centre, until you get to organisations such as the Independent Publishers’ Guild, where delegates jostle for the use of a few tables.
Theme of the year
Each year has a theme - this year’s was the Baltic. If you were interested you could attend workshops and interviews on Baltic literature. And each day has its author or authors of the day, who give talks on their craft. (I caught Joanna Trollope - excellent).
There are specialist areas the size of a medium-sized exhibition in themselves - children’s books, for example, and second-hand/remaindered (the only place you can actually buy books).
If you are interested in self-publishing, there are dozens of firms willing to talk you through the process - and sell you their services. There’s the agents’ rights area - which you won’t get into. Security here is devoted to keeping all writers out!
And then there’s Author HQ, where you get to hear writers who are at the top of their game. I’d planned ahead and decided which speakers I wanted to hear, and make contact with.
I also arranged meetings with people I knew would be attending and bumped into others who I hadn’t known were attending.
Is it worth going?
If you are serious about having a career in writing fiction or non-fiction, I’d say you should definitely go at least once. Clearly, this is easier if you live in London, but I met writers from all parts, from Croydon to New Zealand.
It’s worth going to hear writers talk. To meet others and make contacts that may last for years. To go round the stands and talk to people who work in the industry, some of whom can give valuable advice.
I had a one-to-one meeting with PR agent Ben Cameron of Cameron Publicity where he gave me twenty-minutes of PR advice for free.
Then there’s the reality check. There’s nothing more salutary than seeing where you are in the scheme of things.
Like the Total Perspective Vortex, it could drive you mad. However, if you have an ego the size of Zaphod Beeblebrox - and I don’t know any writers who don’t - it will be a salutary reminder of just what it takes to be seen.
It may even inspire you to write better. We all go about imagining that somehow the world owes us a few readers - and LBF shows us just how much harder we writers need to work.
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Author: Charles Harris
Charles Harris is a best-selling author and award-winning writer-director for film and TV. His debut novel - The Breaking of Liam Glass - a satirical thriller about fake news has been in Amazon's genre best-seller lists, both in the UK and USA, and Finalist for a Wishing Shelf Book Award. He has a new book of short stories, The Cupboard available for free download (see below).