Book fairs are the most unpredictable events imaginable.
In advance, the idea of spending a day in the company of fellow writers and potential readers seems full of promise. What could be more enjoyable than talking books, stories, spreading the word about one’s novels and making some valuable sales? And surely, anyone who walks into a book fair – whether it is taking place in a local church or village hall, a community or leisure centre, is interested in books, likes to buy books and sees them as essential possessions, rich furniture for their home.
Or at least that was my assumption before I began attending a few.
But by now, jaded and mildly frazzled by the experience of half a dozen, I know better.
Let me take you through an average day at one of these events. The preparation starts the week before, of course, with a check on marketing bits and pieces to decorate the table and entice passers-by. A few freebies of book marks and postcards, some recent reviews, a good stock of copies to ensure there’s no chance of running out when sales are stacking up at a formidable rate ..(excessive optimism is an essential ingredient for these fairs)
Then there are the logistics of travel. Public transport can mean lugging a suitcase and associated paraphernalia up and down station platforms and flights of stairs in the manner of some outmoded travelling salesman. On the other hand, driving might involve prohibitive parking fees some distance from the venue unless there’s the rare convenience of somewhere attached to said venue to abandon the car for the day.
First sight of the book fair setting can be a key indicator. Is it central and likely to catch chance passers-by? Or is it maddeningly tucked away in some discreet corner of town where few willingly venture?
Then there’s the interior. Sometimes, two rooms are allocated to the fair and the difficult decision is whether to position oneself – if there’s a choice – in the first of these in order to catch people early in their visit, or the second where, drained by so much choice and exposure to needy writers, the punters might be more likely finally to cave in and part with precious cash.
By now I am adjusted to the perverse behaviour of the public at these events. At first, when I was a mere novice, I was thrilled when someone stopped to chat endlessly about my books, my writing process, displayed enthusiasm and admiration for the cover, scanned the first few pages at some length. I would stand, smiling broadly, ready to pile a number of copies into one of my bespoke paper carrier bags and accept remuneration. But no. By now I have learned. The people who talk endlessly, who occupy me for 15 minutes at least, with apparently intrigued conversation, are the ones who suddenly break off midstream, wish me luck with sales, and disappear. Bookless.
In fact, the buyers have proved to be the ones who quietly pick up a display copy of a book, silently scan back cover, dip into a page or two for a fleeting moment, then produce the required cash and leave with either one or both my novels in their possession, hardly having exchanged a word.
Of course the weather, that most unpredictable of events, can play a factor in the day’s success. The last book fair I went to was on a desperately wet and gloomy day when clearly some people were using the hall simply to escape the elements for a while. Heavy with dripping umbrellas, drooping hats, boots and sopping mackintoshes, the majority skimmed the room swiftly, avoided any eye contact, stood for a while near a radiator, scanned the skies outside for a break in the rain, and left. And I couldn’t blame them. Possibly if we had offered hot buttered toast and warming mugs of soup as a precursor to looking at the bookish wares for sale they would have been more receptive.
And it has to be admitted that there can be a curious attitude to the idea of buying books at all. One woman, after we had talked at some length about genres, trends, favourite writers et al said quite blatantly, of course I never buy books. I just borrow other people’s copies. But at least that was preferable to another who spent quite a time touring the fair, reading display copies and then said in a loud voice to her friend, I can’t imagine who reads books. It’s such a waste of time – a comment which seemed to condemn every writer in the room to the status of useless parasites.
But some people do buy, of course. And some people enthuse. And providing expectations of mega sales are kept within the bounds of reality, a day at a book fair is never a waste of time. For even if only two or three or four or five leave the fair with a copy purchased and tucked into their bag or pocket, that’s a connection that did not exist at the start of the day. Our stories and characters, our images and much toyed over words are going to be communicated to a stranger who, therefore, will no longer be entirely strange to us. Or us to them. The figments of the writer’s imagination is thus passed on and shared. And that’s an exhilarating feeling and an extraordinary privilege.
So when people ask, did you have a good day? Was it worth the journey? the answer is always yes. Financially, the day might or might not have been particularly successful, but even reaching out to one or two readers who will willingly devote hours and hours to the fictional world I have created justifies the visit. At least in my reckoning.
Of course, it’s even better when it doesn’t rain …