Report from the London Book Fair

03 April 2017 Report

Janet Laurence, author and member of the Management Committee, reports back from her time at the London Book Fair.

At the fair

For most authors, writing is a lonely business. We sit with our computer, laptop or tablet and write. We may need to research, which sometimes offers opportunities to talk to other people, but in the main it’s about putting words together. Yet the need to promote, publish and sell one’s work is getting more and more necessary these days, and we cannot rely on publishers, agents, or anyone else to keep us in the public eye.

Not so long ago, few authors visited the London Book Fair, which is geared almost entirely towards publishers, rights managers and agents. However, in recent years more and more authors have attended, realising that in today’s publishing climate they need to take every advantage that on offer. Seminars appeared and this year your Society, recognising the need, developed a presence in the brand-new Author HQ.

The Management Committee helped to man the HQ and I was delighted to be asked to assist Chief Executive Nicola Solomon in giving a talk on copyright and using sources in the little open theatre right next to Author HQ.

I came up from Somerset. I changed my original train for an earlier one to give me more time to find HQ, for I remembered the size of Olympia from my childhood when Great Uncle Jack took me and my brothers there every Christmas for Bertram Mills’ circus. Olympia, originally known as the National Agricultural Hall, was built with the aim of being the country’s largest covered show centre. It opened on 26 December 1886 and soon changed its name to Olympia. The Grand Hall was said to be the largest building in the UK to be covered by one span of iron and glass. Today the various halls can accommodate up to 10,000 people. On entering the West Hall I thought I heard the roar of those circus lions from so long ago. No, it was the roar of the book trade. The London Book Fair is huge! There may not have been 10,000 people there, but it seemed like it.

On the ground floor can be found stall after stall of the great names in publishing. On the first floor are more stalls manned by more publishers, as well as printers, booksellers and any possible adjunct to the book trade. Agents are on the second floor and the lifts are guarded by gorgons who demand to know if you have an appointment before they’ll let you go up. Right at the back of the first floor, behind the children’s publishing section and not easy to find, is Author HQ, where for the first time at LBF our Society is exhibiting in what seems a very small area. Yet this whole immense structure of publishers and book trade specialists is an inverse triangle. The layers work down from the top publishers to a tiny point that is the writers; they support the entire structure. Without us, none of this would exist.

Three to four of the Society of Authors’ staff and Management Committee members were on duty at any one time, and business was busy throughout the day. Many non-member writers arrived with queries about the Society and have gone on to sign up. A brand new, shiny leaflet was handed out, together with cards, exchanged with most visitors, and details were kept.

Talking sources

The little theatre next to Author HQ was full for our talk. Nicola gave a masterly outline of copyright and points to watch with various kinds of sources. I provided my experiences. I used excerpts from the work of other writers in my book, Writing Crime Fiction. Also, the sources I have used for my crime novels include a number of interviews, from which I’ve gained oral information. Nicola’s advice is always to check with the source that they are happy with what you are doing with the information they have provided, sometimes unwittingly. My rule has always been to send what I am going to use to the informant and ask whether they have any comments or objections. So far no one has objected. Excerpts from printed works I have sent to the original publishers, explained why I want to use them and asked if I can. In some cases, I was informed that a charge would be made. £60 doesn’t sound very much but multiply it by ten or more and it becomes unaffordable. I wrote back explaining I had no budget for copyright fees, that the excerpt was an exceptional example of whatever point I was making and that its use would publicise the book. I said that if the charge was compulsory, I would have to choose an excerpt from another book. All the proposed charges were dropped.

Nicola received many questions and made it clear that the Society offered this service to all its members. I said membership was the greatest insurance any writer could take out.

The London Book Fair is a great place to meet publishers and learn about all aspects of the book trade, including, now, your Society. Hopefully, next year its presence will be a little more prominent. It does not, however, offer the lonely writer much opportunity to meet the reader and so establish the sort of contact that sells books, which is so necessary in today’s market.

Deal Noir

Last weekend I travelled to Deal for Deal Noir. This is a day-long crime convention held at the Landmark Centre which is organised and run by crime writer Susan Moody and brand new publisher, Mike Linane of Williams and Whiting. Mike has brought out the back lists of Susan and myself, both as ebooks and print-on-demand from Amazon.

Deal is a charming seaside fishing port where herring, cod and skate are landed and sold sparkling fresh. It has a castle, a shingle beach, the sort of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cottages that Mapp and Lucia might have recognised, some excellent pubs and eating places, and a spanking new railway connection: St Pancras to Deal in one-and-a-half hours. Property prices are already rising.

At Deal Noir there were over two dozen crime writers, both established and debut, plus leading crime commentators: our own Ayo Ontade and Barry Forshaw, together with Canadian Craig Sisterson. The event provided a reunion between Agatha Christie’s Poirot with his side-kick, Captain Hastings. Poirot was brought back to life by German Sven W. Pehla, actor, writer and director, who specialises in playing the Belgian with the ‘little grey cells’, and who appeared at the convention in perfect guise. Hastings, of course, was actor Hugh Fraser, who has now turned crime writer.

There was an audience of some sixty-plus crime readers. They listened to a variety of panels. They asked questions, enjoyed coffee and tea between panels; networking and talking with writers. And they bought books from the well-stocked book table. I signed several of mine. It was a very friendly occasion, one at which it was easy to meet readers and establish contact with them.

Our campaign

There are more and more day-long book festivals like Deal Noir being organised all over the UK, only some concerned with crime writing. The Society is campaigning to get organisers of book festivals and conventions to pay all participating writers. So far as major festivals are concerned, the Society’s efforts are having an effect. The Wells Literary Festival has always paid its writers, now others are following. However, conventions like Deal Noir struggle. Much depends on sponsorship. Last year Susan Moody obtained generous sponsorship and so was able to pay a fee of £50 to the writers who contributed. This year sponsorship was more difficult to come by. Income just about covers expenses, and she was unable to do more than give writers a free ticket to attend.

When I first began to publish crime novels over twenty-five years ago, a writer was more likely to be asked to pay to attend a day like Deal Noir’s than to receive a fee. Yes, writers should be paid to attend even a small book convention but if the sponsorship can’t be obtained, which is worse: that writers should attend without payment or such book festivals not be organised? They are one of the few ways that writers can meet and talk to readers and sell their books.

For me, this has been a splendid fortnight.  While the London Book Fair offered all the mechanics of getting a book on the market, Deal Noir gave me the chance not only to hear fellow authors talking about writing crime but also to meet and chat to readers, plus sell some books. Thank you LBF, Susan Moody and Mike Linane.