It was all fine while I was reading Private Eye on the tube. It was all fine while I was walking around to the pleb’s entrance. It was all fine while they conspicuously failed to scan me on my way in (ooh, what larks I could have got up to in my ‘not-really-here’ way). But then I was in and on my own, in a very, very big shed. The London International Book Fair – a trade show, and not just any trade show – the biggest publishing event in the UK, and one made memorable this year for the various and increasingly expensive Fogg-like tales of ingenuity in the face of Le Manche. And Eyjafjallajokull.
Apparently exhibitors are down by a fifth – and it was certainly painful to walk around the non-UK stands and see the number of deserted stands and the odd rather lonely looking rep staring balefully at their laptop, cardboard boxes half-heartedly ripped open behind them.
But first and foremost I had no real reason to be there – the events for prospective authors are sales pitches for companies I hold in varying degrees of fondness (the Arvon Foundation changed my life, Author House is unlikely to ever feature on my Christmas card list. I was considering using The Literary Consultancy until I attended their event). And because of this I felt very much the outsider. I’ve been to oodles of trade shows before – indeed, one of my first jobs was helping to assemble the stand for a disco light manufacturer for PLASA, and I’ve presented and attended lots of digital / web conferences. But always the primary focus was my job – picking up trends, new suppliers, a day larking about, or simply out of the office.
I didn’t have that context for this show. I wandered around a bit aimlessly, gawping at the big trade publisher stands, pausing briefly outside the academic publishers that I’ve worked for in the past, and half-heartedly talking to a couple of folk I know from Twitter who were manning the Bookseller stand.
But I felt very much like a fish out of water. It’s a serious business, and none of mine (yet). I felt a little deflated – I had hoped to chat to a few people and – not necessarily network per se – but just talk to people I don’t usually talk to. But I had a fit of the shy-boys, and slunk off to the PEN Literary Cafe, to wait for Kate Adie to interview Hilary Mantel (got to justify the ticket price somehow, right). And then something clicked. Watching, listening, observing. I have at least two stories worth just from overhearing my elbow-neighbours.
And Mantel was great value (and Adie is a great interviewer), but while they spoke I couldn’t help but notice the suited man in the empty stand behind. He’d hand-written some headings on sheets of A4 and was busy pinning them up on the wall. Presumably the publicity materials for the stand had never arrived, or were stuck in a warehouse somewhere waiting for a volcano and wind patterns to behave. The signs were for digital services – and the wonky, hand-drawn lettering just seemed to make the little scene even more pathetic.
Then, just to further make the gentleman’s day, a trio of ‘other’ suits came and sat on his spare table, and began passing around and stroking an iPad as if it were a newborn baby. Or a puppy. A4 sheets of paper just isn’t going to cut it, son. Personally, I’d have gone down the pub, but manfully he didn’t. He sat there and made some posters on his Toshiba. And then somewhat bizarrely didn’t take down the handwritten ones, but put the printed ones next to them. I wish him and his company well.
And all the while, Mantel’s voice, elaborating on the politics of Tudor England, and the very non-digital process and workflow she uses (giant pinboards, and index cards). Talking about an ‘unsellable book’ that has racked up more sales and awards than I could ever hope to achieve.
All very poignant, somehow.
I then had an impromptu meeting with someone researching collaborative writing tools, had a blander-than-bland sandwich, and trooped around again – trying not to stare at the graphic novels, Harper Fiction heels or the strange man dressed as a wizard. By then I’d decided my time was better spent at home, doing something more likely to get me on to the business end of the Fair. I’ll be back tomorrow, to hear Ian Rankin do his thing, and I will again be too shy to say that I listen to Mogwai while I write because he said he’s done this in the past, and that my scotch of choice is Highland Park, a la Rebus.
Because that would be fanboy behaviour. And this is serious business.