Notes from the London Book Fair, part 2

Featuring Steven Bartlett, Richard Osman, Joseph Coelho and others.

The London Book Fair is a distant memory now. Those intense three days are now nothing but a surreal moment in my editing life, and I “like” London Book Fair posts on social media with wistful affection. 

Anyway, here are the notes I made on days two and three. Conversations with Steven Bartlett, Richard Osman and Joseph Coelho were more interesting than useful, but the session on becoming a full-time author with KDP made many practical points.

Joel Rickett and Steven Bartlett onstage at the London Book Fair

Special In-Conversation with Steven Bartlett

With Steven Bartlett and Joel Rickett, managing director of Ebury

“I didn’t get the point of a book because I didn’t understand the role a book played,” Steven announced to a room full of book people. We all laughed. “I could just do a Facebook post,” he added. 

And once he began to write the book, he described it as “a painful experience”. Somewhat inexplicably, he seemed to travel the world and visit jungles as he tried to write; possibly for a bit of peace and quiet?  That does seem extreme, but “I sat in jungles for days”, he said.

And once the book was written, Steven’s attitude towards the “point of a book” changed dramatically: “The first time I saw it in someone’s hands it was such a surreal experience.

“There’s something intangible and mystical about the world of books.”

As he pointed out, “there have been macro changes in social media” – platforms and methods change almost daily; trends move on, what works today won’t work tomorrow but, Steven pointed out: “Podcasts and books are the last places of long-form thinking.”

He was astonished to find that his first book, Happy Sexy Millionaire, had more of an impact than his much-loved videos.

“Books have more depth in a world absent of depth,” he said. “Books are a way to set up shop about how you think about the world, which becomes a business card or a building stage for your ideas, from where you can transact your ideas.

“I have more conviction than ever that books are here to stay ­– even physical books.” 

So the man most known for building his podcast success and following via social media found that books about his success reached further.

He added: “I have content on my social media that has bigger view numbers – but nothing that makes a bigger impact.”

Interestingly, however, he used his knowledge of what works on social media – Instagram and TikTok in particular – to design the layout of his latest book, The Diary Of A CEO.

He pointed out that youngsters like to scroll; that they focus only on something that really stops them in their tracks, like an arresting image or phrase.

So his books include pages with nothing but a meme-like quote on them that are “photographable moments” for the reader – pages they can upload to Instagram with a pithy comment on what they learned from it, “sending a signal” to people about what they’re reading.

“I used YouTube to build the chapters,” Steven said. “At the beginning of each law [or chapter – each chapter is a “law of business and life”] I shout two sentences about why you have to read this chapter.”

And the chapters are short and sweet.

“This generation want things to be more concise,” the entrepreneur pointed out. “You feel like you’re making progress if you’re reading more laws.”

Steven’s big thing – which I had learned from his The Diary of a CEO podcast marketing director, Grace Andrews, at a talk the previous week – is paying attention to the smallest details. Details are very much his obsession.

“Every little detail matters,” he said. “It is the one per cent. Competitors don’t care about the small detail.” So where your competitor might skip over research or data, you pay attention and fill in the gaps. 

Find the data gaps

Steven explained: “As an author you should find data gaps. What are people searching for and not getting the answers in Google?

“Google the questions being most asked, so you know what questions to ask and answer yourself.

“The small things don’t matter in isolation but they compound.”

This point was like an epiphany for me, and it’s one I’m applying now in a very small way to my own business. What questions are authors asking? What do they want to know? What terms are they searching to arrive at my website?

For authors writing a business book, this is a key takeaway from Steven’s talk – what is it your readership needs and wants to know? What can’t they find out that you might have the answer to?

As Steven pointed out, he doesn’t know everything. But he knows how to find out, and he knows how important it is to do so.

“I don’t have the right answers,” he said, “but I have the fishing rods to find the right answers.”

As for the question of AI –­ which was a running theme at the book fair, and rightly so – Steven launched into a behavioural and philosophical lecture on threats and opportunities.

Our instinct, he said, when we are faced with the “bizarre”, is to turn away and refuse to accept it. We see it as a threat and a danger.

But, he said: “You have to lean in when things feel bizarre and turn threats into opportunities.

“The instinct is to dismiss something that sounds different or bizarre. But you need to exercise the muscle to balance both acceptance and dismissal and lean into the bizarre.”

Admittedly, until this talk I was not particularly au fait with Steven or his work. I knew he existed but saw his patter as just that – the words of an overconfident young man. But I confess I was impressed, by his energy, his passion, his knowledge and, actually, his modesty. He was certainly persuasive.

Richard Osman and Elodie Harper onstage at the London Book Fair

Author of the Day

With Richard Osman and Elodie Harper, author and TV reporter, Bloomsbury 

Confession: I haven’t read any of Richard Osman’s crime books.

So why did I go to this talk? Because he went to the same sixth form college as I did in West Sussex, just three years ahead of me, and I wondered if we had had the same teachers. I’ll get to that later…

Richard was very funny and very slick.

“In the world of crime fiction,” he said, “everyone’s obsessed with plots. But there are a million plots around. It’s not what happens, it’s why do you care what happens.”

The author claimed to be very much a “pantser” when it comes to writing, making things up as he goes along and being guided by the characters rather than by his own plans. I’ve heard many authors say the same – that the characters lead the way – but I found it hard to believe that Richard would start writing a book without any idea of the plot, how it would progress and how it would conclude.

And yet, he said: “My characters have conversations and suddenly someone will say something and I think, that’s interesting, what sort of person would say that?”

It seemed that he would arrive at the end of a story, find out himself “whodunnit” and then think about how he got to this point, in a somewhat backwards method of writing.

“You can reverse engineer a lot of plots,” he said. “I only have the next five scenes in my head. Then something will happen and I think, I didn’t know that was going to happen.

“I would get bored if I planned it all out. If I surprise myself, I think I will surprise the reader.” 

Focus on character, not plot

As for the comedy (and here I have to remind you that I know nothing of his books’ tone so had to take all these comments at face value), he said: “Humour takes you out of the plot. It would be difficult to be a hard-boiled Wodehouse. I thought, don’t do jokes. I don’t want to be funny. But the characters do the jokes, the humour comes from the characters’ reactions to each other. The humour can’t be seen coming from the author.”

It’s almost as though he has no control over the characters at all – and that his own personality plays no part in their creation or development. I don’t know whether that’s strange or worrying or very clever.

His advice for aspiring authors was to “focus on character, not plot”. This is quite simple to do in the world of crime fiction, since (apart from more highbrow authors) the genre is very formulaic. A crime fiction plot will be predicted and expected by the readers, so the trick to being different is to focus on your characters. 

And what about writers’ block? “Just do it,” he said. “Turn up and write. Just put your fingers on the keyboard. There’s a voice in your head that will tell you you’re terrible and it never shuts up. But write anyway.”

And did we share a teacher? We certainly did. Having both studied politics, we were tutored by Ms Longmate – “a nice hippie”, Richard said. “Well, all hippies are nice, aren’t they?” 

JD Kirk (aka Barry Hutchison), Clare Lyon, Rachel McLean and Michaella Parkes onstage at the London Book Fair

Your Words Have Value: Making the leap to becoming a full-time author with KDP

With Rachel McLean, author and publisher Ackroyd Publishing; JD Kirk (Barry Hutchison) author; Clare Lydon, author Custard Books Ltd; chaired by Michaella Parkes, UK author & agent relations lead Amazon

Michaella started this chat with the statement that, according to an Alliance of Independent Authors study, “self-publishing authors earn more than traditionally published authors”. And with that, the audience focused a lot harder and furiously scribbled on notepads, taking down every word.

(I have listed comments as bullet points because there was a lot to take in.)

Rachel McLean
• [Talking about outsourcing and hiring other people to help publish her books] I didn’t think of it as outsourcing; I’ve built a team of freelancers, as I’ve built a publishing team for the imprint I’ve set up
• But starting out going full time I started with ebooks and built that way up. Don’t worry about all that at the start
• The only thing only I can do is reader engagement. I send out the newsletters about research trips, what I’m working on and I get a lot of emails in response
• The majority of sales are from ebooks. They are easier to market and get data back
• Most sales were from Amazon ads but now I’m building a reader army who I’m telling to go into book shops to tell them to sell my books! It’s more word of mouth and getting into Facebook reader groups. In the last year, Facebook advertising is starting to work.
• I’m constantly promoting my back list so I expect new readers to come and start with book one in series.
• When I release a new book, I run Facebook ads targeted to people who have already engaged with me.
• I have a reader magnet – a piece of content I send free. A piece of the next story free at the end of a book.
• If there’s a point when you think you can make a full-time income I would say just go for it

Clare Lydon
• There’s only one part of my business that can be done by me – writing. Everything else will be done by someone else and better. I outsource as much as I possibly can: book editing you can’t do yourself, book covers, accountancy… only I can write, do reader engagement and send out the newsletter, which I do religiously every two weeks
• I make 70 per cent more sales in ebooks, though print is becoming more popular. Different parts of the world are different. Also, audio has risen to 15 per cent.
• Self publishing is courageous and scary but nothing magic ever happened inside your comfort zone

Barry Hutchison (JD Kirk)
• The UK makes 55-65 per cent sales, the US 25-30 per cent and Australia makes up the rest. Print is two per cent sales, 65 per cent is ebook, and the rest audiobook.
• My newsletter is the big one for marketing. I don’t go out looking for readers who haven’t read the books, I try to engage with readers who have read the books and get them to sign up to my mailing list
• Go to your readers. I send free material to readers, like a copy of a handwritten wedding letter mentioned in a story
• I wait until I have a few books out until I start advertising – advertising one book is impossible to make a profit. You’ll lose money.
• Don’t be overwhelmed by what you need to know; you will learn as you go along• Ask yourself why you want to write a book. As a legacy for the grandchildren? To make money? To fulfill a dream? Make a plan and build your business from there.

Joseph Coelho and Greg McKenzie onstage at the London Book Fair

Author of the Day

With Joseph Coelho and Greg McKenzie, actor & broadcaster 

Joseph is a lovely, lovely man who has clearly worked incredibly hard to get to where he is today – children’s laureate and established poet, author and playwright. He began his career performing his own poetry and spoken word shows in schools and youth groups with Apples and Snakes, a performance poetry organisation; and was always left with a sense of despondency when the children asked: “Have you got a book?” and he had to say no, he hadn’t.

But after many years running creative writing workshops in schools and writing plays for theatres, his big break came at the London Book Fair itself, in 2012, when he met publisher Janetta Otter-Barry. He published his first book of poems in 2014 and here he was, ten years later, passing on his own tips and advice.  

He does a lot of work with the Book Trust and is very enthusiastic about the support and resources they can provide to authors.

He was asked how much he earns from the sale of his books, and the reality of how hard it is to become a millionaire in the industry elicited a few gasps in the room.

He said: “You get an advance of £3000-4000 for a picture book. But that’s a loan. So you won’t get any royalties until the advance has been made back [so 300-400 copies have to be sold]. Then you’ll get 8 per cent royalty – that’s about 20p on a £10 picture book.”

But, as he also pointed out, “the advance depends on your profile”. So if you’re just starting out, don’t expect to be lent any amount you can live on!

• When starting out, you need a finished article to pitch. And always have other ideas aside from the one you’re pitching
• As artists, you have to think about how to make a career in the industry. I have fingers in lots of pies. It’s a fickle industry. I write books, do school visits, write poetry…
• Never underestimate what you can do to market your book, even if you’re traditionally published. Do school visits, library visits, share your process on YouTube… It’s another job but the in-person aspect is more important.
• Good resources for writers are the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and the Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook; look for publishers and agents working in your genre
• When you’re starting out, give them [agents and publishers] what they want. That’s part of the craft of writing. Give them something they need. They want to publish. As you build up a backlist and name for yourself it gets easier to pitch different things
• Having an agent changes things. It is possible to do things without agents but you get a better deal with one. (The Society of Authors checks contracts)
• Go to events and book launches where you will meet agents and editors to get a feel for the industry. Don’t think about networking, just enjoy the events!

Read Notes from the London Book Fair, part 1 here

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

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