Thursday, 13 March 2014

In Perspective - London Author Fair 2014

by Catriona Troth

The first time I attended the London Book Fair, in 2011, I sat literally at the feet of Gareth Howard of Authoright, in the tiny space designated as an Author Lounge. His audience far exceeded the handful of cuboid pouffes that furnished the Lounge and the rest of us sat cross-legged, gazing up at him like kiddies at story time.

The following year, the Author Lounge was a little bigger, but demand was growing faster than space. By the first day of LBF 2013, every talk was packed to bursting and eager authors were crowding the aisles of the Fair’s Digital Zone, trying to catch the words of wisdom as they fell. By Day Two, the Fair’s organisers had called security to ensure the walkways were kept clear and the cry was going up from every corner:
Little Luxuries
“We’re going to need a considerably bigger lounge!”

Well, Authoright tried, but when it became clear that the Author Lounge (which they sponsor) was not going to be allocated any additional space in 2014, they took matters into their own hands. The result was the first ever London Author Fair, which took place on 28th February 2014 in Covent Garden’s Hospital Club. On a cold, wet, windy day it was a delight to be able to check coats on arrival rather than having to lug them around for the rest of the day. Goody bags included tokens for two free coffees. Lunch, provided in elegant black cardboard boxes, included a potato salad with quails eggs and a lemon panacotta.

I suspect some of those attending would have foregone a few of these luxuries for the sake of a cheaper entry price. But what none of us would have foregone was first of all the space we were allotted and secondly the flexibility and responsiveness of the organisation.

The lecture room where the seminars were held comfortably seated at least 200. There always seemed to be somewhere to sit down when your feet grew weary. And when, after the first hour, it became apparent that the space for the workshops was oversubscribed and the groups were competing with each other to be heard, matters were smoothly and efficiently rearranged.
Space that put authors at the centre of things

The variety of talks and workshops was impressive too. They ranged from Dan Holloway running a workshop on performance poetry and artistic collaboration to a panel entitled: ‘Agents of Change: the evolution of the literary agent.’ Many of the speakers hung around for a good proportion of the day, mingling and chatting with the attendees, which contributed to the feeling that the audience were being treated on equal terms.

One end of the gallery, where the coffee bar was located, was decked out as a Bedouin tent. Here, authors who had booked their places in advance could pitch their books to one of a selection of literary agents via the offices of LitFactor. My sample of those who were making the pitch was small. However, it’s interesting that, on the one hand, all three had previously self-published – but on the other, only one was now actively seeking representation.

Jane Davis, author of Funeral for an Owl and the soon-to-be published, An Unchoreographed Life, felt that the opportunity to pitch it to an agent face-to-face was too good to pass up.

"The experience wasn’t quite as expected. I had nailed my ten-word pitch. I had been told to bring two sets of submissions (letter of enquiry, synopsis and first three chapters), one for the agent and one for myself. The suggestion was that the agent would critique the work there and then. In fact, I was asked to use the full 15 minutes to describe my book. The agent really wanted to see how I would sell the concept and my passion for the subject-matter.”

So did she feel it was worthwhile? “Absolutely. To have an agent wanting to jump to the end and asking with real concern, 'But what happens to Belinda?' made it worthwhile. She also assured me that the concept for my novel was commercially viable, which is great news.”

Rheagan Greene had crafted every aspect of her Samurai Revival Trilogy, teaching herself everything from file formatting and type setting to cover design. But having proved to herself she could do it, she now wanted to get back to focusing on the writing.

“Agents make themselves so inaccessible it seemed like an opportunity which should not be missed. I had the impression my agent was not in 'buying' mode for the sort of books I was pitching – a risk given one had to pitch to whoever one was allocated. Also, the agents were probably exhausted after seeing so many people that day (for just 15 minutes each). But even though I didn’t feel I got anywhere, all such experiences are beneficial.”

Rohan Quine was actually using the London Author Fair to launch his novel, The Imagination Thief and a collection of novellas, The Platinum Raven. He admitted that he had chosen to pitch to an agent here, “On a whim, because it was easily available.”
“It was all very straightforward and informal, sitting on a pouffe in a Bedouin tent -- and sometimes sitting on a pouffe in a Bedouin tent is simply the best way forward, literarily. Just a chat between two parties from different contexts, and we'll see if those contexts happen to want to mesh. Either way, an intelligent conversation was had, among many intelligent conversations at the Hospital Club that day.”

The best of the day’s seminars was saved till last. This was ‘The Big Publishing Brainstorm: How can we get to where we want to be in 2020?’ - chaired by the formidable Porter Anderson.

To begin with, each panellist was given exactly 30 seconds to say where they thought the publishing industry would be in 2020, and it was fascinating how diverse opinions were.

Patrick Brown of Goodreads anticipated a rise in ‘social reading.’ Gareth Thomas envisaged a future where there would be “as many authors as readers and authors will be at heart of the industry.” Eileen Gittins from Blurb believes that images are the new lingua franca and that in the future all books will be illustrated.

Andrew Lownie, a literary agent, foresaw yet more consolidation at the top of the industry, that perhaps 20% of authors will be handled by agents and as much as 75% will be self-published. Fellow agent Piers Blofeld didn’t anticipate a massive sea change, but said that what Amazon chose to do would affect everything.

Self-published author, Polly Courtney, made an appeal that readers should be at the heart of the industry. “New developments should be all about connecting us with readers.”

Trade Published author, Adele Parks found much of this vision ‘grim.’ “I worry that we will end up with a lot of short, pretty, crappy books. I hope there will still be a place for great literature.” She was also concerned that, as self-publishing involves an up-front investment, being published could become “a plaything of the rich.”

Courtney countered that authors were “sick of the ‘sink or swim’ mentality from publishers” that had driven so many mid-list authors into self-publishing. There was an agreement that everyone in the industry – authors as much as publishers – were in need of more and better data about how books sell. And there was discussion about different models of selling – such as the Chinese model of buying a chapter at a time on mobile devices.

After much intense debate, there was a sigh of relief when Gareth Howard declared it was ‘drink o’clock’ and we repaired upstairs for a very welcome glass of wine.

So what were my overall impressions of the inaugural London Author Fair?

Here, at last was a space where authors were made to feel welcome and at the centre of things – not like children being told to play quietly while the grown-ups discuss business. The entry price was steep and perhaps some of the luxuries could be trimmed in future to make the event more affordable, but on the whole what was on offer probably represented value for money.

Nevertheless, there were significant disappointments. Although several speakers – Roz Morris, Dan Holloway, Ben Galley – were members of the Alliance of Independent Authors, there was no official representation, which seems a shame when this could have been a perfect opportunity to talk about, say, the Open Up To Indies campaign, or their evaluation of self-publishing service providers.

It was disappointing, too, when the talk on Distribution degenerated into a sales pitch for the likes of Ingram and KDP. Where were the booksellers and the librarians to talk about how books get onto their shelves and how authors can build relationships with them?

Overall, though, this was an immensely positive experience. I hope that whose who attended will give Authoright plenty of feedback that will make the London Author Fair 2015 an even better event.

Catriona Troth is a freelance journalist.  She is the author of the novella, Gift of the Raven, and the novel, Ghost Town and a member of the Triskele Books author collective.

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