The Guide to Literary Agents—an extremely useful book that helped me to find my agent—suggests that budding authors go to book fairs to meet potential agents.  So in the spring of 2008, I dutifully hopped on the train from Paris and headed to England for the London Book Fair.  Unfortunately, what The Guide didn’t tell me was how to go about meeting agents at book fairs.  As it turns out, there is a right way and a horribly wrong, painful way.  I experienced them both.

I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in London.  I had never been to a book fair before.  It was spectacular in the truest sense of the word: a show worthy of being observed.  If you think of a typical bookstore as a human body—general fiction making up the torso, travel literature the feet, history the right arm, and so on—then a book fair is a bit like twenty bodies that have been massacred and their parts strewn all about.  It’s messy, overwhelming, and while it holds a certain fascination, after a while you just want to look away.

The London Book Fair occupies the entirety of the Earls Court convention center, a sprawling, warehouse-like structure that covers maybe three football pitches.  This space is filled with booths set up by publishers.  They range from tiny cubicles with little more than a chair and a bookshelf, to sprawling platforms with hundreds of books and separate conference rooms.  As far as I can tell, the publishers are there to meet with literary agents and purchase the rights to books, to network with suppliers (printers and the like), to publicize their upcoming books, to make connections with booksellers, and, most importantly, to get out of the office.  While the big publishers—Random House, HarperCollins, Quarto, etc.—certainly had imposing displays, I was more intrigued by the amazing degree of specialization of some of the smaller publishers.  I saw a booth containing only cookbooks, another for a publisher that specialized in books on plants, and a third displayed only children’s books about pirates.  On the one hand, this is great if I ever get around to writing my own pirate book for kids (tentatively titled Argh!  Where’s Me Booty?): I’ll know exactly who to take it to.  On the other hand, I couldn’t help but wonder about the poor editor who must spend all his or her time scouring the globe for the next great children’s book about pirates.  I guess that beats editing books on plants for a living.  “Flowers are so last year… tubers are the next big thing!”

But I digress.  The publishers’ booths are not the part of the fair that interested me.  I was there to meet agents, and they are mostly to be found tucked away upstairs in the relative calm and quiet of the International Rights Center.  Hundreds of literary agencies from around the world have tables here, where they meet with publishers to try to sell book rights.  Theoretically, the space is supposed to be limited to agents and publishers—i.e. unpublished authors like me are not supposed to be able to walk in and harass people.  However, by avoiding the escalator and taking the stairs, I managed to avoid the staffers who were supposed to check my credentials.  (I will leave it to you to conjecture what the lack of stairwell security says about people in the publishing industry.)  I had already made a list of agents that I was interested in meeting.  So, after wandering around a bit to get my bearings and summon up my courage, I sauntered over to an agent’s table and introduced myself.

This was a bad idea.  Approaching people cold is not, repeat NOT, the right way to meet agents at a book fair.  The agents are there to meet with publishers, and most of them have busy schedules.  The International Rights Center is hidden away upstairs precisely so that they will not have to put up with importunate fools like me.  So, in hindsight, I should not have been surprised when the poor old fellow that I approached reacted to me like I was some sort of venomous snake.  As I told him about my book, he refused to make eye contact, shied away, then eventually asked me “how did you get in here” before getting up and peremptorily walking off.  Needless to say, at that moment I had rather grave doubts about the wisdom of meeting agents at book fairs.  I was starting to think that I had wasted good money on my train ticket to London.

Luckily, I had also set up two meetings with agents the right way.  Several months before the book fair, I had sent out query letters to a few agents, describing Siege and informing them that I would be at the London Book Fair if they were interested in meeting.  After several emails back and forth, two agents agreed to meet with me.  Both eventually offered to represent me.  Did showing up at the book fair make the difference?  I don’t know.  But it definitely showed that I was serious, and it gave me an opportunity to meet two extremely nice, professional agents who, even had they not offered to take me on, still provided some great advice on both Siege and my career.  Most importantly, I got to meet my future agent, which is something I highly recommend.  After all, it’s nice to have met face-to-face the man or woman who will be holding the fate of your precious book in his or her hands.

In the end, I left the London Book Fair happy, and I have fond memories of it.  Just don’t ever make me go again.

Next time: Feedback (on knowing who to listen to, and when to listen)