I spoke to Kate Hamlyn about her visit to the book fair and this is what she had to say.
The London Book Fair is no place for writers, this is the business end of the process, the dirty, gritty, commercial side that is miles away from the little creative bubble in which we spend our days. We all know it’s happening somewhere “out there” – we just don’t necessarily want to be involved in it. Frankly, who does want to spend 6 hours away from natural light trudging up and down the aisles of publishers, foreign book organisations, and people offering services to authors and to the industry, in the hope that we can find someone helpful to talk to.
“It’s all about the serendipity!” one (sales)man told me. “We were talking to an unpublished writer when a foreign publisher came up and wanted to buy the Dutch rights.” Yeah, that sounds like estate agents telling you that they sold a house just like the one you want but with an even bigger garden/conservatory/garage just a few months ago. You can imagine the stories: the writer who got an agent when she met her in the queue for the ladies, the writer who sold his Chinese rights, after a Chinese publisher asked him to take a photograph of her, etc. Of course they’re true, and they nearly happened to me.
And where are the agents? Ah, they are upstairs, busy negotiating international rights for their clients… you can go up there, but you can’t see them unless you’ve got an appointment and if you’re not interested in buying international rights, forget it! Up above the main exhibition hall is this dark, dowdy place, filled with booths and tables – rows of agents, and foreign publishing houses have tables here. You can’t go in without an appointment – but would you want to? What would you do? Introduce yourself “Hello, I’m a leprous pariah looking for representation.”
The LBF is not a place where authors go to feel valued: it’s a salutary way of making yourself realise how small and unimportant you are in the process. For the first time this year the LBF acknowledged writers by introducing a place called the Authors’ Lounge. Sounds nice doesn’t it? A quiet spot with some sofas, a coffee machine perhaps – or at least a water cooler – somewhere to sit and chat to your fellow sufferers. Wrong! A flimsy structure, open to the rest of the exhibition, furnished with padded benches, with a rolling programme of talks – many of which were being given by people representing companies with a commercial interest in helping self-publishers. Author’s purgatory really. However, due to the lack of anything else constructive to do, I ended up sitting there and hearing about Granta’s 20 young authors under 40 (which I can never be of course) and it was good to hear a couple of writers (Adam Thirlwall and AL Kennedy) talking about their experiences of being selected. AL Kennedy gave a rather spirited attack on people who just wanted to make money out of unpublished writers which was refreshing to hear (don’t start me on Amazon’s Create Space scheme!) and was very encouraging to the writers in the audience who asked questions.
Without the writers none of the rest of this industry, or this trade fair, would exist – but I realised that we are analogous to the workers under capitalism: our labour produces profit, but very little of it gets back to us. In promoting Create Space, the Amazon speaker pointed out all the people who took a cut between the author and the reader… and how Create Space changed that: they take the cut instead! Perhaps one ought to find some way of working co-operatively with other writers to publish and promote books – but how many writers really want to market their books, go on the road, or even around the internet, to do that – come on, we’ve got books to write!
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