I have this problem with book fairs, which is that I hate them at all times unless I am actually at them. It doesn’t matter how many fairs I go to (and I’m well into double figures now), and it doesn’t matter that I’ve had a marvellous time at all of them. As soon as I’m on the plane home I forget everything that’s excellent about book fairs, and adamantly dislike them until the next time I step into an exhibition hall a few months later – at which point I promptly go ‘oh yes, I remember, these are one of the best parts of my job!’.
So I’ve decided this time is going to be different. This time I’m going to remember all of the excellent things about book fairs, and I’m going to be excited in the run-up to Bologna instead of hating the preparations and just getting excited the moment I step into the Fiere (that main entrance with all the flags, and the illustrator displays as you step in…oh good, it’s working already!). To that end, here is a list, in no particular order, of a few of the things I like about book fairs, and that I liked about this Frankfurt in particular.
I’ll start with the obvious one, which is that I get to spend three or four days talking about books with people who love them as much as I do. I’m at the stage in my career now where some of the people I’m meeting I’ve known for four or five years, and it’s really great to be able to catch up with them and find out what they’re up to, what new books they’re excited about and how their markets are doing. I also meet a lot of new people at every fair, and that’s exciting too – you never know when you’re going to meet somebody who you’ll really hit it off with, or make that perfect match between a publisher and a book. Not every meeting works out the way you plan it, of course (I always seem to have one where I can’t find anything to suit that particular publisher and it makes me feel terrible), but a great meeting feels like a conversation between book-loving friends – you swap book recommendations, you share ideas, you introduce each other to new things to read, and you go away happy.
As I progress in my career, I’m also coming to know the joy of bumping into people unexpectedly. The fair is so huge and every time I go I feel like I know practically nobody, but somehow I still manage to bump into a former colleague in the queue for the café, or a translator friend on the way from a publisher’s stand to the agents’ centre. Everybody’s always in a hurry so we can only ever snatch a few minutes to talk, but it’s so nice to have the feeling that this huge industry is a community and I’m not just out there on my own.
No matter how many appointments I make, I always leave a bit of time to wander the halls – and I hope I always will. It’s one of the best parts of the fair for me – walking through aisles and aisles of books with no particular destination in mind, checking out the latest offerings from different publishers and different countries. I always end up spending ages on the Korean collective stand looking at their beautiful picture books (seriously, Japanese and Korean picture books are the best), and of course I always visit the Japanese stands to look for interesting new authors, or new books from old favourites. I used to spend my fairs working on the Usborne stand, which is always pretty much the most beautiful stand in the colourful aisles of UK children’s publishers – now that I’m up in the agents’ centre, which is mostly white walls, black chairs and red carpets, it feels even more important for me to take some time to go visit the other halls, look at all the different shapes and sizes of stand and all the lovely posters and pictures of books, and fill my eyes and mind with colour.
(this is not to say that the agents’ centre is bad – it’s very nice and they give you free apples and don’t let people in unless they have an appointment. It’s just that last time I went to Frankfurt I spent three days selling books in a bright red pretend castle with a big rainbow balloon on the front, and they don’t have one of those in the agents’ centre).
Stand parties have never been a big part of my book fair experience in previous years – I worked mostly with Asian and Middle Eastern publishers and I don’t think they tend to have many, so while I’ve helped to host a couple, I’ve only been a guest at one or two. This year I was invited to several and I enjoyed them all immensely. You’d think the last thing you’d want to do after eight hours of meetings would be to hang about at the fair talking to even more people, but it’s so nice to get the chance to chat in a slightly more relaxed setting. It’s a chance to catch up with old friends, make real connections with new people, and even occasionally talk about things that aren’t books. The Finnish stand party was my favourite this year – pretty much everybody I know in Finnish publishing is extremely nice and extremely interesting, and I discovered that I actually quite like salmiakki vodka, which was unexpected (both because I’m not normally a fan of liquorice, and because your average stand party does not offer anything stronger than prosecco. Yay Finnish publishers!).
This post is getting long, and there are still so many things I’m missing out. That first day when you walk into the hall for the first time and feel the buzz of book-related excitement all around you. Photographing my agency’s books on display on publishers’ stands. Dinners with colleagues and ex-colleagues and clients and friends. Going to visit people on their stands on the last day of the fair, when everything is winding down and we have a bit of time to talk. Stepping out into the cold outside the hall to grab hot Flammkuchen for lunch at Frankfurt. Saying goodbye to the Bologna hall until next year, and going to get gelato in the sunshine (in my head, the last day of Bologna is always sunny and warm). Writing up my notes on the way home, thinking ‘I can’t wait to send this book to that editor – they’re just going to love it’.
And yet, somehow, when I get home, I always manage to convince myself that I don’t like book fairs. I can’t imagine how.