Notes from the London Book Fair, part 1

Featuring Gavin Esler, Lemn Sissay, Kit de Waal, and many others.

Have you ever had that feeling that you were both in the right place and utterly out of your depth at the same time?

I felt like that at the London Book Fair on 12-14 March; my first time at the event.

The London Book Fair is an enormous trade show for the publishing industry, housed in the frankly Tardis-like Olympia London. I threaded my way round only a fraction of the hundreds of publishers’ stalls, eyes popping at the depth and variety of books on offer from the global industry.

I picked up a beautiful copy of Anne of Green Gables from Wordsworth Editions; one of its Luxe Editions range, a gorgeous hardback with embossed gold on the cover. I mean, I couldn’t not, could I?

Book cover shot of Anne of Green Gables, a green book with gold embossing on the cover

I transcribed the notes from the seminars and talks I attended, and am sharing them with you, some in bullet point form, over two posts.

Darren Hardy, Peter Gibbons and Sarah Lynn seated onstage at the London Book Fair

Self-Publishing 101: Your toolkit for bestseller success featuring KDP authors

With Hannah Lyon, author at Paper Cat BooksPeter Gibbons, author; chaired by Darren Hardy, UK manager of author and editorial programmes Amazon

Note: Amazon runs the Kindle Storyteller Award every year, with an opportunity for authors to win £20,000. Entry is open from 1 May to 31 August.

Peter Gibbons
Peter said he comes up with lots of ideas all the time but thinks them through carefully before he takes any one of them further. 

He fits his characters and ideas into a traditional plot structure.

When it comes to knowing when his story is finished, Peter said there is an artistic sense of wanting to send out the story as perfect as possible – “but it is a business, and you have deadlines to hit”. So there comes a point when you are hitting your deadline, and the manuscript just needs to be sent to your editor when it is “good enough”.

Peter said he first used Upwork to find editors.

[Note: Upwork is the place to find editors if you have a very small budget. Upwork editors are not verified. When you can find it in your budget to pay a verified and qualified editor, use official editor directories to source a reputable editor.]

Traditional publishing “wasn’t going to work” for Peter, whereas, he said “self-publishing opens the door to big opportunities”.

He went on to say:

• Use a storyboard or planning structure to make sure your idea has legs
• Brainstorm ideas for characters to flesh out before writing your book
• Plot out your story with bullet points and then write round those. Have a clear idea of what to write
• When you’re stuck, or have writers’ block, move onto another scene and then come back to the bit you’re stuck on
• Get a structural [aka developmental] editor. “I sat down and wrote my first book and thought it was awesome. It came back from the structural editor with lots of problems. Then I cut a character and streamlined it. Now I have grasp of story elements. The key is a copy editor.”
• Make sure your investment in book design and editing suits your budget
• Use Kindle Create to design your book and front cover, to upload, add links to your mailing list and previous books… there are YouTube videos explaining the processes
• Spend time updating your Amazon author page
• “I uploaded my book for free downloads first, then for £1.99, and the readers built from there.” 
• When you publish a new book, your Amazon followers get notifications with a clickable link to order the book
• It’s important to get reviews early on Amazon – you can remind people via your newsletter to write reviews. And don’t be afraid to ask your mailing list to write honest reviews
• Facebook is the best way of interacting with readers but it is important to have a basic website with contact page

Hannah Lyon
Hannah reassured the audience that “writing a whole first draft and then thinking it doesn’t work is not wasted time – it’s all part of learning to write”.

She used to see where the story took her but is now a plotter; and pointed out that some (but not all) authors have detailed character analyses and profiles.

Interestingly, in the face of writer’s block, Hannah said: “If I get a block there’s a problem with my plot.” So when she gets stuck she considers there to be an issue with the story that’s stopping it from flowing.

She added: “If it’s a problem with the feeling of the story, I switch to another book or I turn on a timer and force myself to write for half an hour.”

Hannah labels the “rubbish” chapters so she remembers they’re going to need further work.

She uses Reedsy to find editors 

[Note: Reedsy does have a more reliable method of proving the veracity of editors, since it requires a portfolio – but I don’t know if the portfolio is verified.]

Hannah’s marketing is done on social media, especially Facebook and TikTok, and also newsletters ­– but not just when her next book is coming out. She reads her reviews as they “help in knowing what the reader wants. I look at the beginning to check the reviews aren’t all two stars. When I get a one-star review, I go to my favourite authors’ reviews and read their one-star reviews!”

Jasmine Richards, Vicky Palmer, Hannah McMillan and Ken Wilson-Max seated onstage at the London Book Fair

Preparing for Publication

With Jasmine Richards, founder StorymixVicky Palmer, creative and marketing director Hodder & Stoughton; Hannah McMillan, director Midas; chaired by Ken Wilson-Max, publisher Kumusha Books, Harper Collins Children’s Books

This talk looked mostly at publicity and marketing, with Ken saying authors should “think about who your ideal reader is and who your audience is, and think about where they will be – then get your book where they will be.”

In other words, put yourself in the mind of the reader and be in the places where they are so you can sell to them there.

Ken added: “If you’re self-publishing, you have to think about the publicity and the marketing and how much you can afford to market and what money you will make.”

Vicky Palmer
• Build your connections and get to know your market. Look at comparison titles and how they’re being marketed. Find your creative thread, think of your ideal reader and what they want to hear from you
• In non-fiction, put yourself in a needs-based search – you want your book to answer readers’ questions [in other words, Google the most-asked questions in the area you are writing about. Then answer those questions with your book!]
• Start marketing a year out. Take time. Give yourself time to test messages and see what’s working. Have clear milestones. Know where you want to get to but be realistic and clear
• Keep things local and focused. Know your local bookseller by name; buy books from the bookshop. Know your schools. Build local networks. If you give, you will receive
• Indie bookshops are so important – they can sell books through website, via Twitter and Instagram
• Write the book you want to read. You’re going to read it a lot of times. If you don’t love it, you won’t feel passionate about telling other people and building connections. Think about the other types of books your readers might have read
• Find a creative hook. Work out what you’re trying to say with and about your book

Hannah McMillan
• Build a buzz through proofs, social media, talking to journalists, engaging retailers, setting up school tours, bookshop events…
• Talk directly to your readers. Make your book topical and timely
• You have to know your story and your book before you know how to market it
• “It seems to me that the marketing more widely can’t really happen until you’re close to finishing your book. You can start the buzz with your mailing list as you start to write — but that’s only if you know you’ll hit a deadline. When you’re close to finishing you can widen the publicity.”

Jasmine Richards
• When you go into publishing you want to get your book out to as many people as possible and that gobbles your money. Think about where your time and money is best spent. 
• Activate your friend base: start your marketing with your friends and family. Think of yourself as a mini start-up. You want them to be your ambassadors spreading the message. “Hopefully there’s a ripple effect.”
• Be targeted and intentional. Don’t compare yourself to other people• Learn about how to sell books. Publishing is a craft and a conversation.
• Keep the fun and joy, because it’s a long journey

Gavin Esler, Lemn Sissay, Kit de Waal and Joe Haddow seated onstage at the London Book Fair

How I Write

With Gavin Esler, author and broadcaster, Eat The Peach Productions; Lemn Sissay, author; Kit de Waal, author, No.3 Limited; chaired by Joe Haddow, author

This was an energetic chat that saw Lemn exuding passion and sharing the joy with Kit, with Gavin proffering the occasional remark. There weren’t a huge number of actual tips for authors coming out of it, but it was an absolute joy to witness.

Kit was scathing about writer’s block. She called it “an indulgence. Teachers don’t have teacher’s block. Plumbers don’t have plumber’s block. It’s an indulgence if you can afford to say you can’t write today. 

“I don’t write beautiful prose every day. But I write, edit or read something. I tackle the white page by trying to do something.”

Astonishingly, Kit’s first and second novels were both rejected.

“After my first one, my agent said just write another one,” she said. But when she handed in her second novel, her agent said: “That’s not it, write another one.” 

Kit said: “I wept for days. Then I wrote another one. That was five years of ‘you’re not very good’. If my third had been rejected, I wouldn’t have gone on.

“I don’t know how you get the strength to give it another go.”

Lemn said: “Every morning I write a four-line quatrain and put it out on socials – and a lot of them are not that good. Your writing is not always great.”

How does he write? “I have a deadline in two hours, and I write.”

Lemn recommended Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. “If you’re struggling to write or create, it tells you to go to an art gallery or look at architecture. Writers are not cynical – we are open and constantly looking for ideas.

“I thought it was a singular game but it’s not, it’s a team game, involving other authors, publishers… You have to learn to trust. 

“Creativity is not the monopoly of artists, it’s in everybody. Creativity is everywhere, all around you all the time, and inside you, and only you can deny it.”

Gavin’s take on tackling writer’s block and the blank page was: “It’s all about application – applying the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair. The difficult bit is the inspiration ­– the main inspiration for me is talking to people.”

His one tip was “don’t afraid to be bored. Being on a dog walk or stuck in traffic are problem-solving moments.”

Interestingly, Gavin’s approach to plotting and constructing his books differs according to the genre. Of fiction, he said: “I think of a situation and the characters in the situation but I don’t know how it’s going to end. “In non-fiction I like to think about how it’s going to end and what we can take away from it.”

Orna Ross, Helen Lewis, Michael Miller, Karen Inglis and Ben Hughes seated onstage at the London Book Fair, with the backs of heads of delegates showing in rows in front of them.

Great Tips for Self-Publishing Success

With Orna Ross, founder & director Alliance of Independent AuthorsHelen Lewis, CEO & founder Literally PR, co-founder The Diverse Book AwardsKaren Inglis, children’s author; Michael Miller, author; chaired by Ben Hughes, senior manager business development IngramSpark 

Helen Lewis
• Use your data – who followed you on social media, etc – and make sure it matches with who you target in your marketing
• Readers are buying into authors’ brands. Authors should capture that spirit and engage through mailing lists or zoom events. Look at how you show up online. You want to see reviews and your socials. That’s what you want to see and work towards 
• You have to have a marketing budget and know what you need to outsource. You need to look at what you enjoy and what you know, and what you need to outsource 

Michael Miller
• Give things away free [such as short stories] to boost your mailing list. The bigger your mailing list the better your career will be
• Don’t spread yourself too thin. Don’t use all the social platforms. Stick to the platform you have a good following on 

Karen Inglis
• At the start money is tight but it’s worth investing in support like illustrators, etc
• I spend 20–40 per cent of my time on marketing activity – but when launching a book it is 100 percent 

Orna Ross 
• Organise the marketing when you know what will touch your reader. There is no choice but to be more you
• Kickstarter has taken off in the last year for book launches

Read Notes from the London Book Fair, part 2 here

These notes were shared first with my mailing list – sign up here.

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