Times might be tough, but let’s stop moaning about the big book fairs

If I had a pound for every email I received after one of the big book fairs that began or ended with ‘Hope you survived the fair’, I would certainly be able to go wild in Waterstones, throwing money at full-priced hardbacks and ‘recommended reads’. I’m pretty sure I myself have chucked this comment into many conversations, year after year, post Bologna, Frankfurt, BEA, London, without thinking about it.  

But are book fairs really about surviving? Surely they still serve as one of the greatest opportunities for like-minded people to talk about trends, discover new talent, meet brilliant publishers, scouts and agents from all over the world and, let’s not forget, have the occasional glass of wine or three and call it work. The publishing industry may be struggling with all kinds of political, economic and cultural challenges – but most other sectors would kill for just a tiny bit of the passion, creativity and good hard commerce to be found in our trade fairs.

I get that row upon row of grey tables under strip lighting is not exactly glamorous, but – despite having clocked up 15 years doing the rounds – I still feel a frisson of excitement walking through the doors, not knowing what surprises I will encounter or whether I will have the pleasure of really making an author’s day. Because isn’t that what it’s all about? Being able to call up a talent you’ve nurtured, or a writer you’ve found on the slush-pile, and tell them they have an auction going on in Italy, or an Icelandic or Polish deal in the pipeline?

Between our partner companies, Curtis Brown and C&W, we racked up well over 1,000 meetings for LBF this year. More and more publishers come into town early to catch the elusive literary worm – or indeed eel, as in the case of Picador’s Ravi Mirchandani, who snapped up the Swedish ‘eel memoir’ and then did the originating publisher, Bonnier, a huge favour by hand-selling it to everyone who would listen.

Our co-head of rights, Jake Bosanquet-Smith said: “We feel more than ever that London book fair can deliver great returns for books across all genres and at all stages of life. We conducted half a dozen or so deals pre-emptively or at auction, for a psychiatrist’s non-fiction proposal questioning the nature of human evil. But we also, for example, benefitted with a deal off the back of one editor pressing a literary novel proof into the hands of another editor for the journey home. And tied up five pre-empts for a popular non-fiction title published more than a year ago, which were really based on visiting editors getting a sense of the book’s success in the shops and seeing it in people’s hands on the tube here - part of the magic and serendipity of what happens when we all get together in one room, or one city.”

Jake also saw the potential of a true crime proposal that he and I handled on behalf of ICM, and being able to hard sell the material right on top of the fair ensured a feisty auction and some exciting action in the Agent’s Centre.  We would have sold it without the fair, as the material was utterly compelling - but it certainly moved more quickly because people were teed up.

Other highlights for me this year included Lucy Foley’s Dutch editor for The Hunting Party telling me they were making jigsaws for marketing purposes because they’d seen on Instagram that I loved puzzles. Genius! Seeing the Chinese book cover for Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt, which we all fell in love with so much that we’re ordering prints from the artist (who is wonderfully called Lemon).  Most poignantly, standing with over 100 publishing friends from all over the world to honour the life of genius Spanish publisher Claudio López de Lamadrid, who left us all too soon, but published most of the greatest writers in the world during his lifetime.  

Looking beyond London, it is essential that we publishing professionals never underestimate the creative force of international publishing – now more than ever.  At Curtis Brown we represent two of Germany’s bestselling writers in translation, Jojo Moyes and Simon Beckett, and the value of those deals and the energy put into the publishing by two brilliant German publishers is inestimable.  That the primary agents, Sheila Crowley and Gordon Wise, as well as our brilliant rights team meet these editors at book fairs, cements relationships. Surely half an hour’s passionate conversation is worth more than 100 faceless emails?

Agents like myself are the physical representatives of our authors at book fairs. We need to sell them, their writing, their brilliance – which is why being in the thick of the action is irreplaceable. Yes, everyone already has the manuscript in their inboxes and they no longer have to attend meetings to be given a print-out of precious material, but that is not the point.  Hearing from the agent or their rights representative that a book has just hit the bestseller lists, or sold to a favoured publisher of theirs, is gold, and I am absolutely convinced it guarantees far greater success than a round-robin submission by email. I love it when I get pulled into a meeting to wax lyrical about one of my authors, or get introduced to a foreign publisher who I’ve never met before but who already knows my taste.  

As the chaos that is Brexit crashes into us, I think I speak confidently when I say that the majority of us in British publishing voted Remain because we are one big crazy international family of people who are absolutely passionate about good writing, whether it’s from Ireland or Korea or Norway; who believe in the freedom of travel and global opportunities for all authors; and who believe in the power of the written word to unite people when our politicians seem intent on dividing us.

So as Bologna unfolds this week - whether you’re a publisher, agent, scout or rights professional – when asked if you survived the fair, think carefully about your answer. Instead of claiming to have survived, might you dare to admit that you thrived? (Even if you do croak it with a tiny, tiny publishing hangover…)

Cathryn Summerhayes is an agent at Curtis Brown and a director on the Board of Literature Wales. She has been shortlisted for Agent of the Year for The British Book Awards 2019.