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How to Survive and Thrive at a Book Fair

Claire Handscombe


Claire Handscombe moved from Europe to DC in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but actually – let’s be honest – because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan, and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives. She also hosts the Brit Lit Podcast, a fortnightly show of news and views from British books and publishing. Blog: the Brit Lit Blog. Twitter: @BookishClaire

Earlier this year, I finally fulfilled a long-held dream: I got a job doing marketing in publishing, for an indie I’ve had my eye on for a while called Gallic Books. And as part of that, I got to fulfill another long-held, if more modest, dream: I went to the London Book Fair for the first time. 

The London Book Fair, like BookExpo America in the before times, is an industry-facing event. Meetings are held between movers and shakers and wannabe movers and shakers; translation rights are bought and sold; business cards are exchanged over complimentary white wine. Seminars are mostly led by insiders explaining the latest book trends or helping old folks like me understand TikTok. By and large, there aren’t a lot of author events and there are barely any ARCs to nab. (I was devastated to miss out on getting Yellowface early.) But still, if you’re a nerdy bookish type, it’s a fascinating look into the publishing industry and a chance to rub shoulders with the people who make books happen.

While many in-person book fairs and conferences have been on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing a return to these. Whether you’re going to one of these insider events, or something more reader-focussed like the Brooklyn Book Festival or LitFest in the Dena, here are a few tips and tricks to help you make the most of your time there — i.e., things I wish someone had told me before I set foot in Kensington’s Olympia conference centre.

Dress in Layers

In London — especially at Olympia with its glass ceiling if it happens to be sunny — you’ll probably be too hot. In the U.S., the land of efficient if overzealous air conditioning, you may well be too cold. You’re going to want options.

Grab a Coffee on the Way There

There may well be a long queue for any refreshments inside the centre first thing in the morning, and you might not be able to guarantee its quality. (This may or may not be especially true in London.) 

Pack Snacks

There will be places to buy food, but it will likely be overpriced and the choices may not be great. And, again: queues, because everyone rushes to them at the same time, when sessions end. If, like me, you usually survive the working day on cups of tea and chocolate biscuits, be kind to yourself and buy portable equivalents. (Diet Coke is my caffeine substitute on these kinds of occasions.)

Bring a Portable Phone Charger

I swear that about half my time at the London Book Fair was spent looking for a plug to charge my phone. I thought there would be loads, all over the place, but they only seemed to exist in booths, and it feels very awkward to sneak into one and just sort of stand around pretending to be interested in someone’s display while your phone slowly comes back to life. It didn’t help, of course, that the organisers of the fair had decided to go “paperless” this year, which meant constantly looking at my phone for the schedule and trying to figure out where things were — eating up my battery twice as fast.

Take a Tote Bag

Maybe it’s a UK thing, or maybe it’s a post-2020 thing, but I had to physically go looking for a free tote bag for all the leaflets I’d picked up at the London Book Fair. This being a publishing event, I really thought I’d have about a dozen of them thrust into my hands in the first 10 minutes, but no. 

Take Business Cards

You will likely make new friends, and possibly new business contacts, so give them an easy way to remember you and find you on LinkedIn (which may be the saddest of all the social media platforms, but is also arguably the most useful these days, at least professionally). Also, “let me give you my business card” doubles as an elegant way to bring a conversation to a close if it’s time for you to go home or you need to keep circulating.

Get There Early

This advice would have been wasted on me because I will always pick an extra five minutes in bed over being organised, but if you like to know where you’re going and not spend half a day totally confused, it’s a good idea to get to the fair early so that you can figure out the lay of the land — which booths you’re going to want to visit, where the seminars you’re most interested in will be held, and of course where the toilets are. Also, you can sneakily ask the bigger publishers if they’re likely to be giving out ARCs (or, to use London Book Fair speak, “proofs”), so that you can be poised and ready. Learn from me and do not miss out on a chance to get your hands on the book of the year.

Book fairs are a lot of fun, if slightly exhausting. You get to meet all sorts of interesting people — all of them bookish, which I think you’ll agree are the best kind of people. And armed with these tips, you’ll have a great time.