Guest post by Juliet Mushens: Unravelling the Mystery of the London Book Fair

My wonderful agent, the brilliant Juliet Mushens, has very kindly written a blog post all about book fairs: what agents get up to at such things, what they’re useful for, and exactly how many wild parties are involved. Over to Juliet! 


It’s all about the books!

London Book Fair tends to be shrouded in mystery if you aren’t a literary agent. Some authors know roughly what it is, others only know the received wisdom that you ‘shouldn’t submit to agents then’, and others don’t have a clue (I didn’t until I became an agent). The word ‘fair’ makes you think of candy floss, roller coasters and circus tents but the reality – for agents at least – is a lot less glamorous. In simple terms, at the book fair, I meet publishers from all over the world and pitch them books, hoping they will offer to publish them in their territory.

At every fair, my agency pays to rent two tables in the International Rights Centre, and for the entirety of the fair, those tables are my home. By the end of the week they are covered in business cards, rights guides, and empty sweet wrappers (our sugar consumption levels are high at this time). Every 30 minutes, from 9 until 6, I take a new meeting, which will have been scheduled several months in advance. I will see people from the film industry, scouts (who are paid a retainer by foreign publishers/production companies to ‘scout out’ the hottest books), and a whole host of foreign publishers. This year I will see people from places as diverse as Ukraine, South Korea, Hungary and Taiwan. Big publishers also have stands in a separate part of the fair, where they meet foreign publishers and clients, and nowadays Author HQ runs programming for authors including speakers on traditional and self-publishing. I attended LBF as a student, hoping it would be useful as a networking tool, but whilst it was interesting walking around and seeing the scale of publisher stands, everyone was so busy in meetings that it wasn’t hugely worthwhile. We often have authors arriving at our tables asking to pitch their titles, but I’m always back-to-back in meetings and it’s not a particularly good use of time: better to research online and attend writing workshops and festivals where agents are specifically there in order to be pitched to by authors. I’m at LBF to sell, not to be sold to!

Before the fair, we draw up a rights guide. This contains our front list titles: cover images, blurbs, sales info and a list of countries where rights are sold already. I learn to pitch every title in the guide – some I know extremely well, but others are agented by my colleagues and it’s up to me to learn to pitch them as well as I do my own titles. I have to play up key selling information, and know the plot in depth. Some publishers will ask to know the twist at the end, whilst others just want a punchy overview. Sometimes I’ll have submitted a ‘big’ book just before the fair, to capitalise on the buzz the fair creates. At LBF 2013 I closed the UK and US deals for The Miniaturist the week before the fair, and closed another 20 territories during, or just after LBF. This year, I just closed a big UK deal for a debut author, and have offers pending in several other countries.

The publishers I meet are diverse, and not just in location – some publish romance, others only literary fiction, popular non-fiction, or upmarket memoir. I have a schedule of meetings which tells me editor name, publishing company, country, and any extra information I can find. Sometimes this is just a line telling me they buy ‘commercial fiction’, but sometimes this information is really in depth – some editors already publish other books of mine so I know their taste very well. I start the meetings by asking how business is in their territory, and what is working well for them: you learn a lot about different quirks of the publishing industry in other countries. For example, psychological thrillers often under-perform in Italy, dark fiction does particularly well in Scandinavia and France, and commercial women’s fiction is very buoyant in Germany. Often I am asked about word counts as translations have much longer page extents, so long books can be prohibitively expensive in translation.

Some meetings can be tough: maybe the editor says ‘no’ to everything, or sometimes they will tell you they didn’t like your books as they flick through the rights guide! But some are great, with very profitable discussions and the knowledge that offers are likely to follow. Last year I met an Italian publisher who was on the fence about one of my books – we had a great discussion about it and 5 minutes after the meeting I had an offer in my inbox. My best meeting in Frankfurt resulted in a Brazilian publisher offering for two of my books on the spot, and we closed the deal over email an hour later. I also see publishers who already have translation rights in my books. I can update them on UK book sales, when translatable text will be ready, reviews and marketing information. I can also get an update from them on the book in their territory: at LBF 2015 I learned that The Miniaturist was on the French bestseller lists!

In the evenings there are lots of events as well. This year I have three dinners and four parties to go to once I’ve finished meetings during the day. It’s a chance to catch up with people who I normally only deal with over email, and it can be great fun to spend time together, and forge lasting business and personal relationships. Face to face allows for more nuance, quick answers to questions which would be strung out over email, and in-depth discussions.

At the end of the fair I am exhausted: I normally start to lose my voice on day two. This year I will have 46 meetings with people from 14 countries, which is a personal best. After the fair I then have several days of follow-up: sending people manuscripts they have requested, negotiating new deals, sending covers and blurbs and editorial notes… It is an extremely busy time of year, but we always see a spike in business during or after, which emphasises just how useful it can be.

The book fairs are great for business, and great for renewing my feeling that publishers might speak a lot of different languages, but we are all united in our passion for good books.

Juliet Mushens

Juliet Mushens is a literary agent in the London office of UTA where she handles a bestselling and critically acclaimed list of writers including Jen Williams (THE COPPER PROMISE), million copy bestseller Jessie Burton (THE MINIATURIST) and popular brand Very British Problems (@soverybritish).