Publishing Newbie

Posted on May 25, 2009 in Uncategorized

Muffled discussions about The London Book Fair had been echoing around the office walls for a week before the main event. As none of these conversations were directed towards me, I assumed entrance was granted to big-players only. Never mind, I thought, that leaves the girls in the office free to take an extended coffee break over a tub of M&S mini-flapjacks. At a farewell-drinks session mid-week I had listened to intern friends bemoaning the absence of a LBF pass, building it up as a golden ticket that would unlock the secrets of the publishing industry. The first hint I received that I would be welcome came the previous Friday when an Exhibitor pass appeared on my desk. Great, I enthused – I too can pass through Earls Court’s golden gates!


I used the opportunity to attend some of the SYP events being hosted, and the editor also advised that I spend some time checking out other stands to see what type of books publishers with similar lists to ours were bringing out; in layman’s terms – spying on the competition. A day of walking around a giant book fair seemed like a very pleasurable way to spend a Monday. Or so I thought.


I had attended the LBF the previous year as a lowly undergraduate looking for contacts for work experience. My friend and I had trawled the stands, dressed to impress, and cracked out our brightest, shiniest smiles before asking: ‘Are you taking on anybody for work experience?’ This polite yet glaringly naive question was usually met with eyes clouded over with boredom and either a catalogue stuffed roughly into our hands, the brisk instruction to ‘send a CV’ or a mere flick of the wrist indicating we should clear the path for buyers en-route to their appointments. The type of smiles reserved for these visitors, I have only ever seen from the side on.


So this year, as a fully fledged employee in the publishing industry, spit-shined exhibition pass glistening on my collar, I was expecting a slightly more positive reaction. At the first stand I stopped at, this was exactly what I got. After perusing the shelves with a thoughtful expression for a minute, I was approached by a gentleman equally as young and, I suspect, equally as new to the LBF as myself, who asked if I needed any help. His eyes shone with eager expectation almost as brightly as mine shone with inexperience; we attempted to outdo each other on professional subtlety:

‘Are you enjoying the fair?’ he insinuated.

‘Muchly.’ I replied – evasively.

‘Is there anything that interests you here?’

‘Some’ I admitted, looking at the ceiling to preserve my subterfuge.

(A short pause.)

‘What do you like?’

‘…Your military titles are…similar to what we do.’

His smile broadened; he launched in for the kill.

‘We have a very broad range of titles in this area, as you can see,’ (whilst speaking he reached to the table behind him and picked up a catalogue – without turning his head all available at a reduced price for appointments made in advance over a certain quantity. ‘We’d be happy to come to your offices with a selection of titles and samples for you to look at. We visit any area in London. Perhaps you’d like my card to contact me should you like to make an appointment?’

I looked down at his open hand and stared for a moment – then looked back up at him. Good Lord, he thinks I’m a buyer. Didn’t my gypsy skirt and posy-adorned pumps give away my youth and subordinancy?!

‘Oh….yes, well…’ (I gingerly take his card) ‘I’ll have to report back to my…colleagues and certainly, we’ll arrange something. Good day to you.’ And with a flick of my hair I stomped off in suitable executive buyer fashion.


Elated by this young man’s misplaced esteem, I patrolled the rest of the stands with my chin slightly aloof, basking in the anonymity of the pass that meant I could be mistaken for someone with power, status or indeed, a clue. Sadly, this young salesman was the only person to make such a gross error. I soon realised that asking for catalogues and then scurrying away, gasping delightedly at their bright colours and shiny text advertised my inexperience like a stage floodlight. One older gentleman from a very large publishing company even asked me to produce my company’s own catalogue to prove that I was legitimate ‘Exhibitor’ and not, in fact, a magpie. Time did not serve me well, as the more catalogues I accumulated, the more obvious it was that I was doing research and had no buying power whatsoever. It was clear to all: I was a spy – the loathed pest of the LBF.


Suddenly the lights turned a cold blue. I had wandered unknowingly into the digital publishing area, where stands were heralded with unfamiliar acronyms, men in pin-striped suits stood slapping each others shoulders and a crowd were hypnotised by the hum of a huge book-regurgitating machine. Frightened and confused, sensing that people who liked paper weren’t welcome here, I hurried back to my company’s stand.


Happily, I was invited to join in on an appointment with a Rights seller at an American publisher. This rather round, jolly woman stayed unceremoniously in her chair when we arrived, but was friendly enough to my colleague and me as we sat down to listen intently to her latest offerings. Clearly, this publisher catered for a variety of literary tastes – as she flipped through her file of AIs, licking her fingers to select a title that may suit our list, our eyes politely skimmed over a series of pornographic vampire thrillers, werewolf romances and Ninja-mind control handbooks. I confess my eyebrows raised involuntarily over the ‘Christmas’ gift-book on cats caught in sexually compromising positions with the relevant body-parts blacked out. After struggling through the embarrassment, we respectfully said our goodbyes, she loudly mispronounced our company name, and we fled back to the safety of our stand.


The LBF – it’s not for the faint-hearted.