OK, so the first time going to London Book Fair in 1999 wasn't a perfect experience, but there was little doubt that I was going back.
I might not have known it in the earliest months of 2000, but that was the year when I finally moved my commission needle from the low 30Ks into the middle 30Ks and started the upwards trend after five long years of investing in the business for returns not all that much more than break-even. I did feel comfortable enough to upgrade to a snazzier looking Hilton that I walked jealously past in 1999 on my way to and from the Fair. I had a few more appointments that year than the year before, and a higher percentage of those were appointments worth having, and you could say the same for each year thereafter. I got a new computer which allowed me to migrate the catalog to AppleWorks, which was slightly more advanced and did away with the cut-and-paste of images into the catalog, which slowly grew more pages and which went from Staples and me stapling to a local print shop that would staple it for me and by the mid 2000s to having somebody else desktop publish it, though it was quite a long time before we finally updated the last page that still retained touches of the original WriteNow 1999 appearance. There was the one fun year of 2001 when I got campyllobacter somewhere in London, which started to make its full effects felt on the plane ride home. I had a fun visit to the bathroom the moment I got through customs, and was in the ER getting rehydrated a few days later. That was also the last year pre-9/11 when you still got a hot snack in coach for the second feeding on the evening flight home. There was the first year when somebody actually sat down at the table and made an offer for something at the Fair, which I don't go to the Fair expecting but I'll never complain when it does. In 2002 or 2003 I introduced the "Dead Until Dark Chocolates" to the table, and then a year or two after that I got a year or two out the Speed of Dark Chocolates, and now everyone knows that there will be chocolates waiting when they visit the JABberwocky table.
The first year I attended, the International Rights Centre (IRC) had fewer than 200 tables. That number crept up over time, as did the bookings for publisher booths, and in 2006 the organizers decided that the event had outgrown the Olympia convention centre and moved it to the Excel Center in the Docklands, a more modern facility that Reed Exhibitions had been using for other things like conventions of arms dealers. That year is worthy of special note. For the Docklands was a miserable and ugly and awful experience. Essentially, Excel is a big convention center surrounded by a hotel village and very little else. Imagine having the event someplace like Bayonne, NJ, and that's kind of like this. The only transportation is the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), small trains that run without human intervention. Maybe arms dealers liked this, but publishers did not. The DLR was horrible to take back in the evening when everyone was heading back from Excel to the civilized parts of London all at the same time. It wasn't much better in the morning. It was much further to travel back to a good restaurant at night or to do other kinds of things that people in my line of work want to do with their evenings. The convention center might have been newer and shinier than Olympia, but that didn't make it very nice. The particular thing I will always remember is that the closest bathrooms to the convention hall with the IRC weren't in the hall or even on the same level as the hall. You had to walk out of the hall, downstairs, past the staff locker room, and only there could you find a men's room. I felt pretty strongly that this was as miserable a design decision as when the Newburgh Beacon Bridge was built with only one lane of traffic in each direction.
This was also the first year that I had company with me for the Fair, as the agency's first full-time employee Steve Mancino went along. Steve had no experience having LBF in a civilized setting and didn't mind the Docklands all that much. But let's just say that other than for Steve most publishing people enjoyed finer things in life than arms dealers. There was such a rebellion against having the LBF at ExCel that the people who organize the Frankfurt Book Fair started to arrange a competing event for LBF in 2007. Reed Exhibitions felt that this was not a good thing. They somehow managed to sneak in and take the dates at Earl's Court out from under the competing event and it came to pass that London Book Fair moved from being Sun-Tue in March to being Mon-Wed in April.
Earl's Court is much more civilized for we publishing folk. You are steps away from the Tube to get to the restaurant or party or cultural event of your choice in London. It does mean that the airfare and hotel aren't going to be as value priced because it's more during the peak season than mid-March, but I can roll with that punch now.
As the business grew, we expanded our presence at the Fair. We started to split a second table with Baen Books, and in 2011 we took the second table all to ourselves. After an ill-fated attempt at having three people from JABberwocky attend in 2010, which turned into two of us getting there by way of Paris and one never making it because of the Icelandic volcanic ash crowd and two-thirds of our appointments not making it either, we did have the entire office over for 2011. We had close to 80 appointments over the course of the week including around 75 at the Fair itself. Where most of the appointments used to be about going over and introducing our list to people, now there are markets like Germany and France where we've sold the JABberwocky list so extensively that we can spend time on other things, discussing what's happening with the authors someone's publishing, or maybe gossiping, or kind of whatever. Almost all of the appointments are with people that we are doing business with or could be doing business with, in 1999 one-third of the appointments were with people not worth scheduling again and this year it's certainly no more than two or three of the 80 people we met with that we wouldn't try and meet up with again. I now know and accept that almost everyone will be late, so I'm much better at taking advantage of the time to get through some of the day's paper.
I can't take all the credit for the much more substantial amount of business we're doing. I started to attend LBF in 1999 just as it was beginning to cement itself as the spring supplement to the Frankfurt Book Fair that takes place in October. From fewer than 200 IRC tables in 1999, there were 575 in 2011, and they were sold out a couple of months before the Fair. I was surprised this year by how many people we were meeting with from China or smaller Eastern European markets or Scandinavia where we've hardly had any appointments and certainly not productive ones in prior years, and that is certainly a combination of greater attendance and broader relationships.
I hate to say this where the people at Reed Exhibitions might see it, but LBF is important to our business. Over the early months of 2011 I've had this nagging sense which I haven't totally researched by checking year-over-year activity that we've not done as many deals as I'd like in translation for people not named Charlaine Harris. After the experience of 2011 when we were making many first-time contacts with publishers in all corners of the world and renewing our acquaintance with many people whom we did not get to see in 2010 because of the ash cloud, I am reluctantly forced to ponder that the deal volume in early 2011 may have something to do with the lack of an LBF in 2010 when 80% of overseas visitors didn't make it in and 65% of our meetings vanished with mostly only UK and French publishers making it to our table.
There are agencies bigger than ours with client lists much longer than mine that don't have the presence we do in London. Some of this business, some of it, has fallen into our laps. You represent a Charlaine Harris who was one of the top ten or twelve authors in the US in 2009 and has that TV thing going and will continue for many many years to be a major author, you can sit back and deals will happen. But I always thought there was too much of that when I was at Scott Meredith, and I've had this missionary impulse to go out and make things happen for JABberwocky in the translation markets. I can understand why others don't. Nobody makes a lot of money selling rights in Slovenia for $1200. And while there's this little voice that says I'd be just as well off not to spend the energy and effort to set up that appointment with the publisher in Lithuania that contributes to the second table and the second and third employee going to LBF, I can't shake the belief that the agency ends up being bigger than the sum of those individual deals. All of us working at and represented by JABberwocky have come a long way since 1999.
- 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.