I'm not sure what images are conjured by the words London Book Fair to those who have never had the pleasure of meeting it in person. It's sadly unlikely that anyone's mental space is occupied by a vision of carousels, coconut shies and food stalls based on literary themes. It seems to me that this idea has potential, however, and next year I may run a 'pin the metaphor on the sentence' stall or a roller coaster based on the varying fortunes of a Thomas Hardy character; see this post for similar scenarios (this is subtle intertextuality rather than self-plagiarism). No-one but the lowest cad would snigger cynically if the vision were more one of publishing staff exchanging erudite banter in a smartly bohemian - if not languid - environment, occasionally interrupting this activity to discover an unknown genius or two lurking in the portfolio of a Norwegian publisher. While there are elements of the foregoing, the book business (and its Fairs) are generally highly commercial, hard-nosed enterprises, with an acute awareness of profit margins (and the threats to same) driving most activities. This sense of walking a financial tightrope, especially among smaller publishers, has been sharpened in recent years by the explosion of electronic commerce and publishing, one of the effects of which has been to make one platform for book sales - the physical bookshop - a narrower and more difficult place on which to tread. There are, therefore, as many conversations littered with percentage signs and shipping tariffs as with evaluations of literary worth or promise, and it is a beleaguered but brave band of people who persist in converting ideas into words, arranging them on paper (or pasting them into the ether) and attempting to sell them; a band, moreover, constantly aware of each cost incurred while doing so, and seeking ways to reduce or eliminate it.
Not least among these costs is (I was reminded last week during my one day's duty at the Fair on behalf of Aurora Metro) the price of a bottle of water at the London Book Fair. The careers of many a young Editor or Marketing Assistant have met untimely ends when it was discovered that they have blown an entire quarter's marketing budget on buying London Book Fair bottled water (i.e. about three bottles). Let us say nothing of the sandwiches.
I was reunited with two other curious phenomena that day: The Journey to the Waterstone's Buyer and The Slow Europeans. The former entails an initial application, before the Fair, to be selected for a brief, personal interview with one of the Buyers, a process managed by the estimable Independent Publishers' Guild. When the appointed hour for the favoured delegates arrives, they present themselves to an IPG acolyte who conducts them along secret corridors and mysterious stairways to the Outer Chamber, in which the holy effulgence emanating from the Buyers' Inner Sanctum is palpable. After a solemn transfer of the delegates into the care of a superior acolyte who dwells in this Higher Realm, the recitation of solemn incantations and the donning of ritual, sacred clothing, the fortunate visitors are ushered into The Appropriate Presence, who, after due deference has been offered, will utter some Words of Power such as 'Send me the ai for that new cookery title'. Enlightened and enriched, the delegates withdraw, and are escorted back into the Mundane Realms.
Actually, one or two parts of that description were tweaked with the tweezers of comic effect, and my colleague Rebecca and I had what were, in fact, two very useful sessions with the folk from the Big W.
European Slow Walking (actually, it's French, but I was being diplomatic) is an oft-misunderstood phenomenon. To the insufficiently-trained eye, it comprises the staff of a Gallic publishing company walking, for no apparent reason, at a funereal pace across the entire width of an aisle, thus requiring any Book Fair visitor desirous of punctual arrival at a meeting to dart round them and threaten the physical integrity of neighbouring stands, not to mention the physical and mental health of those staffing same. Since conducting research into the history and development of alternative theatre, however, I now realise that these incidents are all interconnected elements in a massive and sophisticated performance artwork which explores the paradox of journey and the futility of the notion of progress in the context of modern existential emptiness. It can't be long before they win the Turner Prize.
Until next year.....