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Bashing and Dashing my first London Book Fair

While everyone is heading off to Bologna Children's Book in April, I'll be drinking rum and coke in Namibia looking at elephants and spotting a hippo floating pass me from the river. All jokes aside, I really do want to go to Bologna next year but this year, I set my sights slightly lower and decided to attend the London Book Fair.

London Book Fair, Ulrike Mieke

I've never attended a book fair, only a comic fair in Angoulême, France and from that experience I know that fairs are incredibly busy, stalls after stalls of authors, booksellers, illustrators - you name it! It can be very overwhelming and difficult to navigate. I've read a bit about the Bologna Children's Fair and spoken to a few people who have attended book fairs before, some find them pockets of inspirations, motivation and encouragement - some find them pointless, you're just a little fish in a very big pond and it can be quite disheartening to see the amount of books that are already out in the world. The purpose of book fairs is that publishers and groups sell the rights of books to different countries, it's quite a world of business. Honesty time, even with this mindset and knowing what to expect, the book fair was very challenging and took a bucket of bravery.

Seminar at the London Book Fair attended by Illustrator Ulrike Mieke

I was lucky enough to purchase my book fair ticket last year on my student discount, without it I don't know if I would attend. Little tip - as an AOI member you should get discount as well, but sadly this information is only made available really late in the year!

On the book fair website, they have a long list of all the exhibitors - I scrolled through them all and made a floor plan of my own, reaching out to potential publishers and agencies through the emails provided. Sad truth, I sent out 40 emails and only received one reply. A publishing house that only works with American illustrators...I'm trying to foster a habitat of collecting rejections - so I simply added these to my list ( I'm aiming for 100!) I definitely think this system could be improved, contacting the right people and finding them is so difficult! Come on book fairs - give us the right emails!

Alongside this, I prepped some business cards and postcards that I would leave with potential publishers, using my most recent illustration work - I created a set of four business cards and one postcard design, printing them on recycled paper from I wrote a short note on the back, highlighting my interest in working with them.

For my portfolio, I made a small, saddle stitched printed portfolio, about 20 pages including my sketches, character drawings and illustrations from the last few months. I wanted something to show, should I meet someone from my list, or be given the chance to chat and review my work with a potential publisher or agent. I also took my dummy book and sketchbook. Hopeful - just maybe right?

Honesty time, I did all this prep and actually had very little opportunity to speak to potential publishers, or more specifically the editors and art directors. I don't believe that book fairs or publishers are set up to accommodate the needs of the illustrator. We're told to go out and introduce yourself, you can't do that when none of the right people are attending the fair, or if they are already off with agents signing contracts with illustrators that are already on the rota. And unfortunately, those agents aren't listed as exhibitors, so you can't even book a slot with them. I walked away from the fair, inspired to see the possibilities but disheartened by the industry and let down that that so many of the industry chats in the seminars were about diversity in ethnicity, culture and language and working with emerging artists, when in the back of my head all I was thinking was - no you're not. I don't see that coming through in children's books or the willingness from publishers to make a conscious effort to work with emerging artists. Okay okay rant over... If you've got some amazing books to recommend, please do share! Keeping the motivation and passion when it feels like you're constantly swimming upstream is really tricky and I do find it very difficult, anyone else finding this game hard?

On a whole though, after a moment of panic I would argue that the fair was worth it, meeting new people, attending the seminars and seeing beautiful books - I just have to keep going, keep swimming...

Here are some of my favourites:

  • Magic Cat Publishers, creates such beautiful books, I loved this book, An Interesting word for Every day of the year, Monika Forsberg

  • Beast Thing Ever, Beatrice Alemagna

  • Kann ich Alleine!, Kathrin Scharer

  • Easy Peasy Gardening for Kids, Litte Gestalten

My tips for the Book Fair:

  1. Be Brave and Introduce yourself - I tell myself this, 'you don't know anyone there, they will forget you the minute you walk away.' Introduce yourself with your full name and what you do. I recently got into the habitat of doing this, and strangely it has really helped with my confidence as a creative. I don't think of it as just something I do on the side, it's my job, it's important and a real job.

  2. Be prepared - having a printed portfolio worked well - I had it in my hand, so it was easy to give and show. Instead of that awkward, okay so it's in my backpack or let me just get my tablet open. It's right there, and every single person I showed it to ran their fingers over the textured bits of the illustration, which I really loved seeing.

  3. Talk slowly - I really struggle with this one, because I just want to race through it, tick box and run! But I'm actively learning how to talk slower, taking my time to explain, asking questions and being more mindful of my engagement. In the same breath, I am mindful of the language I use around my work and what I do.

  4. Leave a card - I've been told that art directors and agents love keeping illustrations and postcards as reminders - so I gave this a try and left a postcard, fingers crossed this works!

  5. Attend the seminars - I really enjoyed the talks ( some of them, even sitting there and having a debate in my head was worth it!) and I got so much from them, I would definitely sign up to them - go early, so you get a seat! And download the app - once I did that, it was so much easier to navigate the floor plan and find the venues.

Hopefully I can apply my tips and take along a new and improved portfolio to Bologna next year! Along with a stronger mindset - I think there is a space for my book out there, and hopefully one day I will get a chance to share it!

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