By Emma Lindsey
If you accept as I do, that ‘being a writer’ is akin to a form of mental illness, whose symptoms include (but aren’t restricted to): inventing places and people, spending such long periods in isolation that, ideally, you are able to draw maps, form relationships and hear their voices – then the London Book Fair, (LBF), the largest spring book trade and publishing event in the world, offers a mix of immersion therapy and respite from the confines of your own head.
A newbie, I have few expectations of LBF23, beyond imagining that it will offer the chance to meet famous authors, hunt down hungry agents and publishers, to whom I can pitch my novel, hand over my synopsis and maybe even get an on-the spot, international publishing deal – or at least secure a date for a meeting.
Day one. Armed with a pass and lanyard, I follow the smart but casually dressed herd from Baron’s Court tube, then enter, blinking into the bright lights, where I quickly feel as if I’ve gained access to a literary banquet. Thousands (25,000 over the three days), have converged, from 135 countries, across Europe (Ukraine is in the spotlight this year); the US, South America, Africa, UAE, China and India.
If you’ve never been to Kensington Olympia – which I hadn’t before – imagine Kings Cross station, but crammed with stalls from not only every component of publishing, but variety of publisher. Lots of purple, blues and reds, along with vast, technicolour hoardings promoting best-selling and soon-to-be, book covers, from just about every genre.
Hungry agents and publishers there are aplenty, albeit safely roped off from the public, and with an extra layer of security thrown in. From afar, we’re able to look but not touch the inner sanctum, where behind Perspex screens and hunched over laptops, they negotiate rights deals. From the harried body language and the buzz, big numbers are being crunched.
For once, I’ve been super-organised, put together an itinerary of seminars, and despite the surging hoards, manage to find Making my WiP stand out, then a group of friends, who’ve also noticed how strangely lacking in diversity the event seems to be. Then onto Keeping up with social media , which I leave early to listen to Author of the Day, Colson Whitehead and then need to refuel with extortionately priced coffee and a thin sandwich. Our group splits up, some to find out How to get a Badass Book Deal, another to chat to TikTok about reaching ‘hard to reach’ readers, and others to Creating a writing community. I do manage to meet a couple of agents and editors at a pop-up networking session, organised by a kind author and inclusivity champion. Duly I reel off my pitch and am asked to submit my proposal. Feels like a gazillion bees buzzing in my head by the time I get home.
Day two. Today I’ve brought my own snacks and head to Chelsea, for a one-day writer’s summit only to discover it’s not included, will cost £199, so it’s back to Olympia where I catch Leone Ross and Irenosen Okojie in conversation. They’re amazing on making magical realism and speculative fiction; refreshingly honest and upbeat about the rollercoaster ride to publication, the obstacles and ways to get past them. Writing in ferocity (aka ignoring the urge for coffee to get that next sentence down), is Ross’s tip – that and stubbornness in the face of rejection. British black publishing pioneer and now President of PEN, Margaret Busby is in the audience, along with a raft of independent booksellers, publishers, screenwriters and poets, all sharing stories which show that the industry is moving, albeit like an oil tanker, very slowly, towards diverse stories. It’s an oasis in the desert which no-one seems keen to leave, but socials are swiftly swapped before the next session starts. Then it’s onto a panel chaired by Dialogue Books’ director, Sharmaine Lovegrove, about celebrating inclusivity and representation in the book and publishing world, with the caveat, “It’s really hard to keep having to explain why our stories matter”.
There is a day three but I can’t take in another thing so give it a miss. Sensory overload aside, (there are no quiet spaces, nor a crèche, interestingly), it’s been fascinating to not only see all the components of the publishing business under one roof and how they fit together, but also to be there and feel part of it. Seeing the major and minor players; who’s talking to whom and about what, is a protein-shake boost to my sense of, ‘being a writer’ and an author. Now I understand what I’m up against, I have more tools at my disposal, including the most important: hope tempered with ferocity.
A former journalist and digital producer, Emma Lindsey is in the final stretch of a part-time MA in Creative Writing at Brunel University London.