There are numerous national and international book fairs and trade shows that happen throughout the year. The largest of these, the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs, have open days for the public where people can browse the publisher stalls, see copies of the latest publications and teasers for planned publications later in the year.
For prospective authors, there are a number of useful things to take from these events and a few things that many insist on doing that won’t, sadly, be of much use.
1. Know your market
The best way to get a proposal accepted is to write what publishers are looking for. Unless you have an eclectic library of manuscripts, or happen to have Arthur C. Clarke’s crystal ball to predict upcoming trends, it will be difficult to nail the precise requirements unless you are an incredibly fast writer. Having a thorough browse of the publisher’s catalogues will soon give you a clear idea of what direction they are intending on taking, and will also highlight any gaps in their publication schedule.
Do they have a popular author who is not writing the next book in a well-known series this year? This may be an opportunity to get a relevant proposal submitted so they can keep the market interested until their big gun rolls out their new draft.
Are certain types of genre vanishing from the forthcoming lists? Wonderful though your teen vampire novel may be, perhaps the sector has become a little over-saturated with this sort of material and it’s time to put that one in the crypt for a few more years.
Does no-one seem to have the type of manuscript you have written? It could well be that publishers have done some research on this market and don’t think it will sell, so take note and change tack if you have your heart set on being published by that particular house. On the other hand, this may be a fresh idea for them, and would possibly be worth a shot with some of the smaller or independent publishers to see if they bite.
2. Specialty markets
Although you will (of course) have thoroughly researched the publishing avenues in your chosen area, trade events can be an excellent opportunity to discover publishers you didn’t know about. Fairs often have stall zones arranged by subject, so you can easily locate anyone who could potentially be an avenue for your work and harvest their contact details by picking up a leaflet or brochure if they are not already in your contact database. Take some time to browse the list of titles they publish: there’s no better indicator as to what type of material they like to publish than the works they have already put into print. Ask staff what is popular, what their best sellers are and what they have high hopes for: most people tend to drift by stalls aimlessly plucking at the free pens . . . you never know what nuggets of information you can discover from a bored employee by engaging in a quick friendly chat.
3. Speaker Events
Trade shows provide an opportunity for the book trade to talk about emerging trends, problems and solutions. The e-book situation has been rumbling for years and still many of the large publishers are being forced into a reactive policy by the likes of Amazon Kindle. Knowing what pressures and opportunities there are for your prospective publishers can help give you valuable insight into making your pitches, as well as giving you a bit of background into what sort of publishing avenues to consider. If you happen to be a knowledgeable expert in an area of discussion, you’ll also know there is an avid market for your insight and submitting a proposal for a guide or analysis of these areas could also appeal to the non-fiction publishers.
4. Author Events
It’s fair to say that the larger trade fairs usually have these stage-managed to a precise degree, and any interviews or Q&A sessions are usually geared toward the mainstream press. They can still be illuminating however, and many smaller event organisers campaign hard to get well-known, respected and experienced authors visiting. These events usually encourage more submissions from the floor and authors tend to be more approachable after the session has finished, as opposed to being whisked away by their publisher’s hospitality staff. Bear in mind that authors are normally there to discuss their own latest work, being encouraged to discuss more general topics around writing is a definite plus; but don’t expect a personal critique of your latest draft or expect the author to be a conduit straight into the publishing proposals department.
5. Personal Networking
If you know people in the publishing business than these events can be a good time to pop round and say “hi”. Most people on the stalls will have a pretty crowded appointment schedule that probably starts before the official opening time and continues well into the evening over client dinners, so don’t expect to spend a great deal of time shooting the breeze. Even for the promotional staff, three to four days constantly on your feet is physically exhausting so if you can, stop by with something useful such as some handouts on a useful talk or event they’ve missed from being pinned down at the stand. Then they will be more inclined to keep talking and introduce you to other people there at the stall, or if you are very lucky or persuasive, to one of their invitation events.
6. Proposal Documents
For the larger trade events, carrying around your manuscript pitch is generally a waste of time. Commissioning editorial staff rarely attend the publishing stands unless they have specific appointments (such as discussing translation rights with distributors) and for the rest of the time they will be browsing the fair and speaker events just like you. Heaping reams of paper onto the receptionist and asking them to “get this to the right person in editorial” really doesn’t do much for your professional image, and frankly, most staff have enough to carry back with them that your draft is more likely to get shelved in the bin when the stand is dismantled at the end of the show.
Your mileage at smaller or more niche-specific events may vary, but it’s still a better idea to do your research beforehand and find the proper submission address and guidelines. Your draft is more likely to make it into the publisher than relying on the goodwill and tenacity of a publisher employee who has to deal with a mound of accumulated enquiries and backlog when they get back to their office.
Steve Jones worked for one of the world’s leading medical publishers for several years and is a veteran of the International Book Fairs. He now works for a web design company in Worthing.