Greyhound Literary

What Bookfairs Are, And What They're Not: our rights director busts some myths

Sam Edenborough writes ~

Recently I was asked by the Association of Authors’ Agents to take part in a panel aimed at agents who are at the beginning of their careers entitled “How to get the most out of your first bookfair”. It was a great discussion, hosted by the excellent Kristina Peréz of Peréz Literary & Entertainment, in which I learned plenty from my fellow panellists (literary scout Dagmar Gleditzsch of Maria B. Campbell UK and editor Grainne Clear from Walker Books). As I prepare to attend my 23rd London Book Fair in April, and reflecting on the advice I gave during that panel, I wanted to share a few things that I’ve learned over the years.

What Bookfairs Are Not

I think some myths persist and authors are still uncertain about what goes on in the rights centre. In part this is because agents and rights people are understandably keen to put the best possible spin on things in order to drum up as much excitement as we can about our companies and the books we’re selling. You would be forgiven for imagining that we all spend our fairs sitting at our tables receiving offers and conducting auctions, in between giving quotes to the trade press and drinking cocktails. Many of the more nuanced (and frankly mundane) aspects of what happens at bookfairs can be overlooked in favour of reporting deals and explaining to everyone how brilliantly successful we and our authors all are.

Each day at a bookfair rights people, agents and editors meet with each other and in the rights centre these meetings happen every half hour usually without a break from 9am (or earlier over breakfast) to the early evening. Rights people and agents are trying to fit in as much as we can to give our authors’ books maximum exposure and conversely editors want to meet as many people selling rights who might have a great book for them. In each meeting the rights seller will present some titles to the editor, and hope that they will ask to see them after the fair. Usually. Very occasionally an editor might make an offer on the spot or read a book overnight in their hotel room and send an offer in shortly after. Then things get exciting (and complicated). These days however because of email and the speed and ease with which we can share, they are more likely to have made the offer before arriving at the fair. Especially if they have a literary scout who will have briefed them on the hot books and shared material and reading reports in advance. 

Agents and editors talk about other things of course. We share news of our lives and what we’ve been reading outside work; tell each other how the market is, what’s happening in our countries’ cultural and political spheres; and ask about what our competitors are up to. At the Frankfurt book fair in 2022, pretty much every half an hour, Charlie and I would have to answer questions from international editors about whether or not we thought Liz Truss would outlast the famous lettuce. Then on the Thursday afternoon a cheer went up in the rights centre and we learned she’d resigned.

The largest rights fairs (in London, Bologna and Frankfurt) are mainly business-to-business events, which means that, as agents, in addition to pitching books we’re focussing on developing the relationships we have with the publishers we sell rights to. We’re not meeting potential clients or talking to members of the public. Although rights deals are sometimes negotiated during a fair the majority of transactions happen before or afterwards. A lot of the deals announced during bookfairs are already several weeks (or even months) old. I find that making a good highlights list which focusses in an efficient way on the books that we are working on currently – rather than every possible book we could include on it – is the best way to capture the attention of the people that my colleagues and I are meeting. Inevitably this means that not all of an agency’s authors’ titles are being talked about at every book fair. And that’s fine: my colleagues and I are selling rights all year round, not just in the busy period before and during a fair. Being selective, knowing what individual editors are looking for, and using the limited time we have in meetings with them to really zoom in on a few books is more effective. It means that in all the other weeks of the year - when we’re not at a bookfair - and we make a submission, those editors will pay attention because they know that we are paying attention to what they want. As is so often the case, less is more.

What Bookfairs Are

The thing that gets me most excited in the run up to a bookfair is the prospect of learning more about the markets and publishers in them that I’m selling to, and making new connections, as well as catching up with old colleagues and friends.

The structure of our schedules means that we thoroughly update our mental maps of the markets – we hear new stories, meet new people, perceive new trends, learn about new ways of selling books, and have new ideas. The intensity of the event and the sheer diversity of meetings (as many as 60-80 per person during the week of the LBF, for example) means that your brain makes rapid and serendipitous connections all the time. That experience is both exciting and shattering.

In the evenings more relaxed discussions (and gossip) happen at drinks meetings, parties and dinners. This year during the LBF I can’t wait to play my sax at a jazz gig I’m organising with some musical friends who work at publishing houses and agencies in Amsterdam, New York and London, for a crowd of fellow bookfair attendees.

All of our conversations touch on books and authors: those we represent as well as those that we don’t but have read and admired. Authentic connections made in this way set the stage for more compelling sales pitches. Getting to know people’s personalities, tastes and something about their lives outside work builds trust and enriches and expands our chances for success in business together. And each fair is different, each year. Sometimes I’ve spent my time running about handling multiple auctions because one title has blown up into ‘the book of the fair’ (truly the unicorn of the publishing industry) and other times I’ve come away with no offers but a sense of deep satisfaction from having been properly in listening mode – hearing from editors about their lists and authors in detail and building plans for future submissions and successes.

Finding inspiration through other people is the aim of the game, although I always reach the end of a fair feeling completely exhausted. It can be hard afterwards to quantify empirically the benefits gained from being there. But there’s nothing else like it. 

So, while they are rarely a carnival of auctions punctuated by the pop of champagne corks, every bookfair I’ve attended has been a deeply enriching experience that leaves me fizzing with new knowledge and overwhelmed by the sheer joy and privilege of working with so many brilliant people from so many different cultures around the world. Just don't ask me how I feel about doing the follow up when I get home. . .