Writers need to get serious about the business of authorship.
(Editor’s Note: I’ve attended the London Book Fair for a few years now, but I wrote this in 2017, which was the first time I attended. All the advice I give still stands.)
I attended the London Book Fair, an annual industry event that sees thousands of publishers, literary agents, retailers, distributors, and of course, authors, come together from all over the world to talk business.
That’s right, business.
When I’ve talked to writers about the London Book Fair (or the Frankfurt Book Fair, held in October), I’ve noticed that many among us think that the book fairs are a place for authors to network, to gather, to learn, and to be inspired.
While that is true to some degree, the real purpose of the book fair is not to be a meeting ground for authors. It is meant to be, as described on the website, “the global marketplace for rights negotiation and the sale and distribution of content across print, audio, TV, film, and digital channels.”
In other words, it’s a place for your agent, if you have one, to come and mingle with other professionals in the industry and make you some extra cash. It is a place where business deals happen. It is a place for indies to build business relationships with publishers and distributors in other countries. It is a place to try to understand what’s coming next in publishing and where the market is heading globally.
If you go to the London Book Fair with that understanding, your experience will be a lot more meaningful and you will walk away having learned more.
It was my first time at the London Book Fair and I was reminded, once again, of how, despite the challenges and the long journeys we undertake as authors, publishing (no matter how you do it) is still the best game in town.
Here are a few lessons I walked away with that may be helpful to you, too.
Community, Not Competition
1. We all want each other to succeed
An event like the London Book Fair shows you how vast this community is and how much your fellow authors—and many agents and editors—want you to succeed. Authors, especially, understand that a friend’s success doesn’t take away from theirs, but in fact, increases the chances of them achieving their goals as well. They will often meet with you, give you advice, and offer encouragement.
My favorite story is from a session I attended where writers were pitching literary agents, their book projects live and in front of an audience. A British-Indian woman in a headscarf came up to the microphone and in a trembling voice, with the paper in her hands shaking so violently you could hear it, she told everyone that she’d been working on her novel for ten years and that just being in that room was a huge victory for someone like her and with her background.
The applause that followed her introduction was the loudest I heard in the whole three days.
2. Everyone has blind spots you should be aware of
This is especially important if you, like me, want to be a hybrid author. Sit among the indies for a while and you will, very quickly, find yourself subject to a discussion about the snobbery of literary authors and how they don’t make money and how they like to think they’re better than everyone else. Also, was it mentioned that they never make any money? (Untrue, by the way.)
Sit with the literary authors for a while and you’ll hear about the lack of quality that indies exhibit and how the precious art of writing has now been reduced to copies sold, marketing and “churning out” books by the dozens. (Also untrue.)
I’m lucky enough to belong to both these camps, so while I get to be on the receiving end of the dismissal of both, I also get to hang out and be part of both communities.
And here’s what I’ve learned: It is all about control.
If you’ve read even a single blog post on this site, you know that everything I teach and talk about revolves around the idea of taking personal responsibility, retaining creative control, and being your own best advocate. That does not change whether you’re publishing traditionally or going the indie route.
I chose to remain unagented for a long time because I didn’t think the people I was talking to understood what I wanted from my career or the vision I had for my work. I have turned down book deals through previous agents who wanted me to work for a pittance. I’ve had agents for my novels. I continue to self publish my nonfiction.
The point is, when you’re at an event, listening to rock star literary figures or seven-figure indie authors, it’s easy to think that their way is the only way. And it is important to remember that their way is one way, a fantastic way, but a way that may or may not align with your goals.
What are your goals? Seek the options that help further those and remember that you are always in control. You only get taken advantage of when you stop paying attention to the business side of things and start giving up control.
Also? Engage with both indies and traditionally published authors. We all cross over from one to the other time to time and it’s an industry that can support us all.
The Artist And The Businessperson
3. Be creative, be business, be both
Easy for me to say, I know. But remember, the London Book Fair is a place where business happens, and this surprises many authors. You, as a creative with a book to sell, are a businessperson with a product. It is in your interest to not only make sure that you get the best price for that product, but to protect your rights and the rights of the work.
For instance, I met with my foreign rights agent who flies in annually from the US for the fair. It has been a matter of concern to me that UK publishers often do a rights grab for all Commonwealth nations, that is, they buy rights to all countries in the Commonwealth for one sum. India, where I’m from, is a solid and big market for me, but falls within that group of Commonwealth countries. Ideally, I’d like to sell UK and India rights separately, but this is rarely done. I’ve done my research, and so I brought this subject up.
It is something that had not occurred to my agent because he didn’t know that this was something that would be important to me (or that I have publicity potential in India). Also, we’re not quite at that stage yet. But by learning about the business and having paid attention to it, I could not only bring it up, but we also came up with some options for how we might tackle it when the situation arises.
The London Book Fair is a fantastic place to be learning about these things, to be having these conversations, and to be sitting in the small coffee shops eavesdropping on conversations between agents and publishers, agents and authors, publishers and authors, etc. (Not that I would ever do that, of course!)
You are an artist when you’re in your studio. When you’re at a business event, you’re a businessperson with a product to sell. Act accordingly.
4. You need to build your audience
I know you don’t want to hear this, but you’re smart and I don’t want to pretend like you don’t already know this. If I were going to be crass about this, I could say that your success as an author depends on how much product you can move.
But I’m not crass, so I’ll say it differently.
If you’re an indie author, you’re entirely responsible for building your readership because those are the people who will buy your book. If you’re going the traditional route, you’re more likely to get a bigger advance if you can convince your publisher that you have an audience waiting for it. This would require, of course, that you first build that audience.
I know this is difficult for many authors and I also know that you can tell me stories of authors who have succeeded with no pre-existing audience. I won’t debate that because you’re right. It’s not even that rare. It happens all the time. Authors come out of nowhere and become huge hits. And that can happen for you. I hope it happens for you. I hope it happens for me, too.
But since that is not a guarantee, is it not worth putting some time and commitment into a plan for marketing just in case that option doesn’t work out?
My best advice on this is to forget all the advice from the experts about what works on social media and what doesn’t, and start showing up as yourself. Talk about the things that interest you, things that you care about. Send out a weekly newsletter. Be consistent.
Start from there. You’ll figure most of it out as you go along, but first learn to enjoy it.
Be social. The marketing will follow.
5. Look at all the various options
The London Book Fair is a fantastic place to explore all the new and emerging technologies, learn about trends in publishing, and get a feel for what is selling. I sat in on sessions about indie publishing, about contract negotiations with traditional publishers, about Kickstarter, and about government grants for artists. The publishing industry has changed. There is no longer just one path to success. See what excites you, what speaks to you, and go from there.
My takeaway: This is a fantastic place to come if you’re looking to learn, be inspired, and see just how many people are involved with the book industry, care deeply about it, and are making money from it. As I wrote on Instagram: “Thousands of people under one roof. All talking books. This is happiness.”
Be inspired. Allow yourself to bask in the glory of being surrounded by thousands of people who love books as much as you do. And don’t forget, you’re part of the best game in town.
(Oh, final tip: Wear comfy shoes. You’ll be walking. A lot.)
See you next year!
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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