In the earliest years of JABberwocky I was not making much money, but I was making a little teeny tiny bit each year. My break even for my first year was somewhere at maybe $24-25K in gross commission and I ended up doing something like $30-32K. And I did that for my first year, and my second and third and fourth and fifth years as well. Sometimes I'm not sure I'd have started the business if I'd known it would take so long to start growing it.
Nonetheless, it was still a tiny bit more each year than the bare minimum necessary, and as the years progressed I never wavered in the belief that if I was making enough each year and building a backlist and creeping toward having royalty income as well as advance income that I could let out the belt and spend an extra dollar or two.
So when a piece of direct mail showed up in the box talking about London Book Fair in March of 1999, I started to ponder if maybe I shouldn't finally see London. There were some things to do first. One was to check with my co-agents in translation markets that some of them did in fact attend the Fair, so that I would have a few people to meet with if I went. Another was to see if I could do an air/hotel package for under $1000, which I felt would allow for a total budget including the fee for my table and my incidentals, that wouldn't creep too much over $1500 total for the trip. On that account, it helped greatly that the Fair took place in March in those days, because March was off-season and the package rates were cheaper, and this I knew because that was still a time when AAVacations advertised in every Sunday's NY Times Travel section (print ads in newspapers, who ever heard of such things!). It also helped that the Fair went Sunday thru Tuesday back then, so I could do it in just five nights, arrive on Friday to have some time for the jet lag, and leave on Wednesday. So yes, I would have some people to meet with, I found my air/hotel package for under $1000, and I pulled the trigger.
I knew I'd need a catalog, so I put one together myself using an extremely primitive word processing program, maybe hadn't even moved to AppleWorks yet and was using WriteNow. To add some imagery to the catalog, I had to print out images, and get out scotch tape and tape them into place in the catalog. It wasn't the snazziest thing, it was run off at Staples, but it was my first ever rights catalog and I was very very proud of it.
The AirTrain JFK hadn't opened, and I didn't have much money. Getting to the airport meant hopping on the subway with a relatively big suitcase since I had to pack three ensembles with sportcoats, and then squeezing into the Q10 bus for a long ride to JFK during the middle of rush hour so the bus was very very crowded and not really designed for going to the airport with luggage, but it was the option one had.
The hotel experience was not pleasant. I got what I paid for. I was in the top eaves-y floor of a tourist class hotel near Marylebone Station. The single rooms on that floor had a small bed and a small aisle next to the bed and a small bathroom and shower with hardly any closet space or desk space. The TV hung over the bed. The phone was on a niche over the headboard. I learned that I was never again going to take the airport transfer as part of my package, after waiting in Heathrow for an agonizingly long time for my van to depart, and then having it meander through London dropping everyone else off first, even with limited geography realizing at one point that we were very close to my hotel and then having the van head into Bayswater to drop off someone before finally doubling back to drop off yours truly.
No Google Maps or Mapquest back then, but I had carefully mapped out as best I could that I was within reasonable walking distance for Joshua of the Olympia exhibition center, which meant around 50 minutes. But a pleasant 50 minutes, a chunk of it cutting on the diagonal through Kensington Gardens. When in London, I kept my map book with me at every moment, as the streets had this habit of curving, or changing their names every few blocks and then changing back.
I had something like 22 appointments at the Fair, and maybe a third of those I shouldn't have even bothered with because there was little in common with the publishers I was meeting with and the JABberwocky list. Everyone was late for their appointments, and I was antsy, and I interpreted late as meaning people would not show up at all. So I spent a lot of time sitting at my table stewing waiting for people to show and not getting anything done. I spent a lot of time worrying about appearances that everyone would wonder if I had a right to be at the Fair because I just had 22 appointments and spent half the day doing nothing while everyone else was engaged in very very important business. I had lots of time to walk around and see who else was at the Fair and if anyone might perhaps be willing to accept a catalog that I didn't actually have an appointment with. I had lots of time to go downstairs and roam the aisles of the Fair looking at all of the stands from all of the British publishers that would surely want to be in business with me if only they had a better idea of what wonderful things I had to sell them. Right!
But for all of that, the Fair was clearly better than this makes it sound. Sure, a third of the appointments weren't worth it but that did leave two-thirds of them that had some merit, getting to meet for the first time some of the agents in overseas markets that had been working with my list for only a very short time in some cases or in others dating back twelve years to my earliest sales at Scott Meredith. I was getting to see actual bookstores in another country and educating myself a little about the marketplace in the UK. And of course it was London. And I have to say that it was pretty much love at first sight for me and London. The city seemed to have something interesting on every block, and seemed to be full of life on virtually every block, and it was all knitted together with an extensive tube system. And all those helpful markings at the crosswalks that told you to "look left" and "look right," and everybody jaywalked or crossed when it was safe regardless of what the light said just like at home. I loved walking around the West End.
It's just twelve years since that first trip to London Book Fair, but it seems like an entirely different life. We'll take forward to the present in the next Musing...
- The Brillig Blogger
- A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.