Sunday, 17 April 2011

London Book Fair 2011: a student's experience

#LBF11: the London Book Fair – a summation of my own experience as a student on an MA Publishing course wishing to ask Science Fiction and Fantasy editors a series of questions for my dissertation, and as an exhibitor on my university press (very small) stand.

Day one:

Steeled myself for targeting the Gollancz/Orion stand first. Got to front desk, woman told me that Hachette Livre don’t own Gollancz. I apologised profusely and bimbled away. A quick Google check later and I was back: ‘Excuse me, I’m terribly sorry, but it appears you do own Gollancz. I can see them over there. On your stand…’ Woman looks at me in silence. A man leaps up to me with an Orion ID badge and directs me over to the lovely Gillian Redfearn, who saw me last year too, and who willing submitted to my abysmal interview ‘techniques’.

Tried Orbit/Little, Brown. Was told no one could see me. Asked about James Long, the new editorial assistant. Was told to come back on Tuesday when he’d be happy to answer my questions.

Tried HarperCollins, same girls who were on the front desk last year, uber tall, thin and stylish and looked at each other when I asked if I could see Emma Coode. Without checking, they told me she wasn’t on the stand, they didn’t know when she would be on the stand, and had no knowledge of her schedule. I stumbled awkwardly away with my many bags, feeling very northern, uncool and old.

Came back later with a friend from my course and saw HarperCollins were having a drinks reception. Recognised someone from my work experience and latched on to him. We grabbed a glass of champagne each and headed for the huddle in the centre of the stand. It’s all about confidence. It also helped that we’d already fortified ourselves with wine (note: not recommended if you wish to retain your dignity). Ate small sandwiches.

Day two:

Headed straight for Little, Brown and spoke to James Long. He didn’t have time to see me so gave me his email address. At some point during our conversation I took one hopeful step onto their stand, he didn’t move back, so whilst maintaining eye contact I carefully stepped back off it again, hoping he didn’t noticed the difference in my height. Awkward.

Went to a seminar where Philip Pullman was on the panel. Afterwards he signed World Book Night books. There were five of us left in the queue when the next seminar was due to start, so Pullman gestured for us all to follow him outside of the room. Happily, the five of us trailed after him across Earl’s Court 1, wondering where he was leading us, only to stop short as he went into the men’s toilet. We hot-footed it back to the seminar room, where we pretended we had been all along when he came back and kindly signed our books for us. If he’d noticed he’d been followed, he politely didn’t mention it.

Tried Angry Robot Books/Osprey stand to try to speak to Mike Ramalho. I had my ‘student’ badge eyed up by a very well-dressed man and was told to ‘Watch out for him in the aisles’ as he wasn’t on the stand. Rather than admit that the only way I was going to know what Ramalho looked like was to shout his name loudly and see who turned around, I thanked the man and walked away with poise (in my mind).

Went back to my own stand (recalling I was there to work) and helped some MA students out with their questions. As they were leaving one said, ‘Thank you for speaking to us like we are people.’

Accidentally ended up in a ‘Getting ahead in publishing’ talk, for people who already worked in publishing. Slightly embarrassing, especially as I bumped into a girl from the Little, Brown stand who had been lovely to me the day before, when I’d quite clearly explained to her that I was a student. I nodded to her and took my seat. It really is all about confidence (or, in my case, ignorance).

Day three:

Decided to try my luck with Orbit one last time. ‘Did you speak to James?’ / ‘Yes, he told me to email him.’ Slight pause. ‘Well… do that then.’ Yes, I did feel like an idiot, but you have to be persistent at the LBF and sometimes, sometimes it pays off. Which means that the majority of the time, you do look like an idiot. Or a stalker. I felt like they were mentally filling in the restraining order every time they saw me on the approach (signed, the Little, Brown stand and witnessed by the HarperCollins stand).

There was one last stand to try. Tor UK/Macmillan. Surely, they wouldn’t speak to me. But I had to get rejected by the last publisher on my list or I’d feel like I hadn’t truly put myself through the wringer. I approached warily. The women on the desk immediately put me at ease. Julie Crisp hadn’t arrived yet but of course they would take my details to pass on. I wasn’t made to feel naive for asking for some of the Editorial Director’s time, they were just happy to help. Then, Julie arrived. The girls on the desk leapt over to her and asked for a moment of her time. She’d had a cancellation, she was happy to withstand my incredibly awkward interview ‘skills’. Persistence. It does sometimes pay off. Luck helps too. But after those, you’re on your own.

The London Book Fair – stressful, and full of disappointments, adrenalin rushes, and that giddying feeling of achievement when you hit the right stand, at the right moment. I love it.

And finally, a vow. If I ever do get into publishing, and I end up on the other side of a publisher’s stand at the LBF, I will always endeavour to speak to students when I have the chance, or explain to them if I cannot. Let’s say it together, everybody: Students – they’re people too.

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