Thousands of publishers, booksellers, literary agents and media suppliers attend the London Book Fair, which could sound intimidating. So what’s it like for a first-timer?

An early start at Earl’s Court and I have my itinerary: attend the seminar on risk aversion with a Kierkegaard quote in the title, catch Ian Rankin talking in the PEN Café, and then see what’s happening after that.

Having not been to the London Book Fair before, just getting my ID beeped by the security team and a special LBF edition of The Bookseller handed to me was something of a thrill.

Headlines had reported predictable ash-related gloom (foreign rights deals stymied, international guest speakers grounded in departure lounges the world over, whole units on the exhibition floor left vacant), so I was surprised to find a space buzzing with activity.

After deciphering the glossy floorplan, I found my first seminar, on the future of British literature. Has the publishing industry become risk averse? The answer, according to the panellists at least, was emphatically no, though the reading public apparently has, going by the risible numbers buying poetry collections and debut short fiction.

Arab poetry was cancelled owing to ash (a sentence no one would have predicted a week ago), so I checked the timetable and caught the end of Andre Brink on the modern Afrikaans novel.

On to an interview with Ian Rankin. The woman sitting next to me was sussing him out as a possible guest for her creative writing workshop in Swanwick. She’d heard he was a bit dry on stage, but seemed pretty charmed by his openness about his travails as young writer.

After lunch the bright displays and hubbub became a little overwhelming, so I headed upstairs. A few similarly wide-eyed types sat reading promotional material, and important-looking people strode about with their PAs scurrying in tow.

“I only had two appointments yesterday,” said one woman sitting across from me. She put her hand over her mouth in a mock yawn. “And three booked for today. Borrrring!”

The other woman prodded disconsolately at her Blackberry. “It’s the ash,” she said. “No one’s here.”

But it didn’t seem that way to a book-fair rookie.

Matt Munday
(Editorial, A&C Black)