Not Quite A Literary Affair: What I Learned at London Book Fair 2023
By Natalie Beckett
I didn’t have much time to prepare for my first London Book Fair (LBF), so sitting on the overground on my way to Kensington Olympia, my imagination wondered. Will there be free books at the door? Will I stumble across any famous authors? Perhaps I’ll end up in a great literary debate? When I arrive, I quickly realised that LBF is less a literary affair, and more a rat race for translation rights, book deals and subpar coffee.
That’s not to say LBF is without charm. The amazing range of literary-themed tote bags hanging over shoulders is unparalleled. The bustling pathways lined with giant-sized covers of upcoming releases and bestsellers from the big five made me feel like I’d finally made it: I’m officially working in publishing. However, whether or not the publishing industry is an “attractive workplace for the generation of tomorrow,” as one seminar was titled, is still very much up for debate. The root of this discussion was best summed up by the panel chair, Samantha Missingham, who commented:
“... in real terms salaries have not gone up since the last millennium” – Samantha Missingham, Founder of The Empowered Author.
Of course, it’s not all bad, and organisations such as Inspired Search & Selection, the Society of Young Publishers, The Publishing Post, Young Authors Publishing (for any aspiring US authors) and BookCareers.com are all making strides towards publishing becoming a more accessible and realistic career path for young people.
On the topic of money, the “overdue” rise in book prices was also a trending headline at this year’s fair after HarperCollins’ president and CEO, Brian Murray mentioned it during a Q&A. This got me thinking about how LBF provides an annual reflection on the state of the industry, so I asked my boss, who’s worked as an editor in the industry for over twenty years, what her impressions of LBF were the first time she went. I was comforted to discover she was as flummoxed by the fair’s “hustle” as I was.
“I was overwhelmed by my first London Book Fair experience as a junior editor. So many stands, so many excited agents, tremendous hustle and an air of great creativity. I'll never forget setting foot in the Agents' Centre for the first time: rows and rows of small tables as far as the eye could see! Then, there was very little focus on inclusion and it's wonderful to see how the industry is now more focused on representing everyone.” – Imogen Cooper, Founder of The Golden Egg Academy.
While the publishing industry still has a long way to go, “this marked shift” dominated the 2023 seminar programme. In a talk called, Celebrating Inclusivity and Representation in the Book and Publishing World, interesting points were made about the industry’s obligation to be uncompromising on books that champion diversity and inclusion when selling rights to international markets. Meanwhile, in a panel titled, Inclusivity and Accessibility are we Nearly There?, the European Accessibility Act (coming into effect in June 2025) shaped the conversation. In other good news for diversity and inclusion and aspiring authors, a new award for debut writers over the age of fifty was launched by Jenny Brown Associates during the fair.
Although diversity and inclusion was high on the agenda, sustainability took the award for the most focus. As noted by The Guardian, “Mayor of London Sadiq Khan was the most high-profile advocate of doing more to tackle climate change” in the industry. While I don’t doubt Mr Khan’s dedication to the cause, I couldn’t help but laugh that his sustainability-themed speech also happened to provide the perfect backdrop for plugging his own new book, Breathe: Tackling the Climate Emergency.
Unsurprisingly, social media was also a popular talking point, embodied by a TikTok stand that played clips of viral Booktokers and authors like “booktok sensation” Laura Stevens, one of countless YA authors whose career has been propelled forward by the app. In events like, Making your WIP Stand Out: Tips from Industry Experts and Preparing for Publication, there was also an emphasis on the value of debut authors having an existing fanbase online, even if that means using Twitter or other social media.
Another question seminars seeked to answer in the Tech Theatre: is ChatGBT a force for good or evil within the publishing industry? In an event on day three titled, ChatGBP: What it is and What it Means for Content Creators, Style Factory Founder Chris Singleton put a positive spin on the contentious topic and encouraged everyone to use it as a tool for research, idea generation, marketing and PR and editing, amongst other things. A sentiment, I imagine, most are happy to go along with for the time being.
On a brighter note, How Have Books Become a Key Focus for Streamers and Broadcasters in the Global Marketplace? easily took first place for most cinematically topical seminar at LBF as sentences like “we’re living in a post-Bridgerton era,” and we want “highly commercial escapism like Emily in Paris” were thrown around by panellists. There was also a mutual agreement that books remain essential to developing great film and TV. A position that we as publishers all know to be true, but nevertheless is always nice to hear from those guarding the Netflix gates.