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An Illustrator’s Guide to The London Book Fair

Updated: Jan 13

Last week we attended the London Book Fair 2022 and had the best time! We came away feeling motivated and inspired, and so we wanted to share with you a deep dive of all that LBF has to offer. We understand that it can be really tough for freelance illustrators to decide which trade fairs and industry events (if any) to attend because of the cost and time commitment. So, we’ve put together an overview to help give you all the details you need to make an informed decision on whether attending LBF 2023 is the right decision for you.

What is London Book Fair?

The London Book Fair is a large publishing trade fair, held annually every April at Olympia in Kensington, London. It’s a global marketplace for rights negotiation, and the sale and distribution of content across print, audio, TV, film, and digital channels. The event typically welcomes more than 25,000 publishing professionals for 3 days of business, networking, and learning. You’ll find everyone from giant publishing houses and independents to gaming start-ups, from all across the world. Therefore, it’s a brilliant event for illustrators to attend as all of these companies bring content to life and need illustrators to help them do this.

There are also over 100 seminars on offer, and this year Wednesday was the ‘Illustration Day’ (it’s not promoted as such but seemed to be the day when all the illustration related talks were held) with a range of invaluable presentations for illustrators on how to break into the publishing industry.

How much does it cost to attend?

Visitor tickets are £60 for the full 3 days, which is a very competitive rate compared to other trade fairs. However as members of the Association of Illustrators (AOI) we got a 50% discount so only paid £30 peach for our tickets, making it even more affordable. We chose to just attend on the Wednesday as we were mainly going for research purposes rather than self-promotion and meetings, and also that was the day when most of the illustration based industry talks were on.

Can I exhibit?

Yes, illustrators can exhibit at the fair in an area called The Illustrator’s Gallery, which is on the first floor next to Author’s HQ and the independent children’s book publisher stands. Each exhibiting illustrator has 1-3 A1 boards, and this year there were winners from the Cheltenham Illustration Awards 2021 and lots of beautiful children’s book illustrations – our favourites were Julia Sarda and Violeta Fernandez Lopiz. However, the gallery is a relatively small area and, on the whole, LBF is more geared up for illustrators to attend and network with exhibiting publishers and companies, rather than exhibit themselves.

Okay, so what are the benefits of attending for an illustrator?

Simply put, it’s an amazing opportunity to be in the room full of potential clients in the publishing industry from across the globe, all of whom regularly commission illustration. To get the most out of your visit though, it’s important to plan ahead. Don’t just expect to rock up with your portfolio and get an audience with all the publishing houses (but as we discovered it can and does happen, though it’s best not to rely on this approach).

We’ve never visited LBF before, and we’re both currently refreshing our portfolios with a new style of work. Therefore, for us, this year was very much a research trip and an opportunity to get a feel for the fair and what it involved. The majority of the ground floor was very corporate, with huge stands from the big ‘household name’ publishing houses such as Bloomsbury, HarperCollins and Hachette UK. They all had reception desks and were filled with tables of people holding meetings, and we definitely spied a few portfolios being shown.

However, these meetings are all generally pre-arranged, so if you’re planning on attending, we’d recommend starting to contact publishers about 2 months before to get those portfolio viewings booked in. And if you’re lining up as many meetings as possible, it would be best to stay for 3 days so you’re fully available for all of the fair. That said, you will find that the independent publishers on smaller stands are more open to ad hoc meetings, and they’ll speak to you if they’ve got a spare 5 minutes. This did happen to us with one independent publisher, and we spent around 20 mins speaking to the Design Director about our portfolios and potential work opportunities, which was great.

But remember it’s all not all about meetings. If you can’t get to speak to someone at your chosen stand either pre booked or as a drop in, you can always leave a printed promo, as another way of getting your work seen by the right person.

LBF also has an app that allows you to schedule meetings and have all your appointments in one place – a very handy feature that we’ll definitely be using next year.

What were the seminars like?

We went to two excellent talks for illustrators at LBF, both organised by the AOI. Talks are included in the ticket price and places are on a first come first served basis. The seminars were in the Author’s HQ area, with a small stage and seating for about 40 people. We turned up around 10 mins before the talks started and managed to get a seat both times, but there was also space to stand if you arrived later. The sessions lasted around 30 minutes and were followed by 10 minutes of Q&A. Here’s what we learned…

The AOI’s Contracts Masterclass for Illustrators with Rachel Hill (AOI CEO)

Having previously attended AOI Masterclasses, we knew this would be a good one. Rachel broke down publishing contract basics in an easy-to-understand way, and although we feel experienced in terms of contracts, we both learnt something new. The main takeaway was that the initial contract is just a starting point for negotiation, and that publishers won’t be upset if you respond with a request for some clauses to be removed or amended – they expect it. It’s important to take your time to look over the contract and get some professional advice (*side note* as an AOI member you get unlimited free legal advice on contracts which is very helpful and worth the membership fee alone). Rachel also explained how royalties and advances work, and the importance of retaining your copyright.

Getting your Illustrations Published with Rachel Hill (AOI CEO), Donna Payne (Creative Director at Faber), Katie Knutton (Design Manager, Children’s Non Fiction, Bloomsbury Publishing) and Juliette Rechatin (Designer, Picture Book and Integrated Fiction, Bloomsbury Publishing)

This was an excellent panel discussion, chaired by Rachel Hill, giving a valuable insight into how freelance illustrators can break into the publishing industry. Donna, Katie and Juliette were all approachable and friendly, and emphasised that they are always keen to see new work and discover new talent. They discussed how it was a priority for all of them to commission illustrators from diverse backgrounds, and that they had moved away from the model of always relying on illustration agencies to find illustrators. They also explained what they looked for in a portfolio - a distinctive and clear voice, and a skill in handling the subject matter of the project (e.g. if it was a book about tigers, they would want to see some great tigers in your portfolio). The session was very relaxed and informal, and Donna, Katie and Juliette really demystified the process of commissioning in publishing. Again, even though we have experience illustrating books, it was brilliant to get an insight into what goes on behind the scenes at two of the U.K.’s leading publishing houses.

And finally…

For freelance illustrators, the London Book Fair is well worth a visit, especially if you’re keen to break into publishing. The key to getting the most out of it, whether you stay one day or three, is to plan ahead and be prepared. The next fair is a year away, so if this post has whetted your appetite and made you think ‘that’s for me!’, why not start planning now and hopefully we’ll see you there!

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