Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The London Radical Book Fair - where next?

It is perhaps premature to start discussing where next for the London Radical Bookfair when it has only just happened, but we have to. It was a success. Around 50 publishers took part - large and small, mostly "movement" publishers with commercially published radical books represented on the stalls of radical booksellers. This alone seems a way to go. I can recall operating from a tiny space at the big socialist bookfairs of the 70s and 80s (where you had to pay to get in!) next to enormous displays of radical (if academic) books published by the likes of Routledge and Cambridge University Press who were keen to take part. They could buy big space, we groundlings could not. In addition, the bookselling beneficiary was Bookmarks - they had organised it, so fair play - whereas we need to ensure that the new radical bookfair benefits all the radical bookshops, including those outside of London. We need, for example, to ensure that everyone attending at least has a list of such book shops, and find a way of making it economic for them to attend.
The title "London" is deliberate. There is already a longstanding radical bookfair in Edinburgh run by Wordpower. But London is where most publishers are based and the centre that more people can come to. Perhaps - as has happened with the spread of anarchist bookfairs - others can organise their in their own area.
Certainly the exhibiting publishers and bookshops did seem to do pretty well this year. The public came. The public spent money. More than I thought would come - 750? 1,000? - nobody was counting. But we have only scratched the surface - with more notice it would be easy to increase the number of stalls, and to ensure that advance publicity goes out in such a way that radical readers see the day as an important fixture in their calendar, as anarchists do for the London Anarchist Bookfair. And with the radical bookfair involving a wider range of publishers we should be able to reach a wide audience. New Internationalist, for example, has 30,000 people on their database, and Occupy London also contacted thousands of people. With a longer lead up, and with a commitment from all participants to promote the event it should grow.
Copying the anarchist bookfair is not a bad thing. For many years Cliff Harper created beautiful posters for the fair, which are still sold to help the funds. It would be useful to find another artist who can make radical bookfair posters as memorable. Mugs? Postcards? Other merchandise? We have to think that way because big halls cost money  and it would be good to be able to at least pay travel expenses to speakers rather than draw on Londoners only.
The hall... At the busiest times, Conway Hall was stuffed full. There was no more room for stalls, and gangways between stalls were too narrow. There were, at the busy times, too many people.... Well, we don't want fewer people so we might need a larger venue... which costs more money...
Organising... the event really leaned on the work of one person, Nik Gorecki at Housmans. Good in that Housmans - that was the original idea - is a radical bookselling hub, but bad in that the team is too small. We  don't want to clog our diaries with meetings or arguments but we do need one or two more people who will do a lot of work for no reward and without fuss. It would be nice if there was money around to do a bit of rewarding... unions, trust funds, left wing solicitors...
It is not that every event should be enormous, but we need to reach a natural level and this event will do the world of good for radical bookshops and publishers if it does grow.
The linkage with the Bread and Roses Award was deliberate and it worked well. We got to announce the winners in front of hundreds of people rather than a social for fifty, and shortlisted books were bought. The shortlisted authors found it useful, I hope, to present their books to bookfair audiences and there was a lot of interest in their meetings. But we only had one at a time... and there are so many other radical books out over a year. Perhaps next time, let's take it gently, a series of meeting around the shortlisted books and a series of meetings around other books or themes, perhaps curated by an author or well known activist. And of course we need to ensure good chairing and better publicity about when each event is on, and, oh yes, technology so that speakers will always be heard and can show images.
There's a lot to think about. Nik and I are exploring other venues, the participating publishers are all being asked for feedback and we have to think about money. The bookfair about broke even with stall holders income providing all the funds, plus some generous support from a Trust as a fall back. We have some money in the bank but can't take risks as there is nobody and no organisation with deep pockets in the background. Yet.
Do contact me on if you have any suggestions, or talk to Nik at Housmans. Meantime, here's a couple of pics of the first radical bookfair, those attending the Bread and Roses/Little Rebels award and of people browsing. As you can see, though these pictures only show part of the main hall, we need more room.


Jim Jepps said...

Just want to say how much I enjoyed the event and am looking forward to next year already!

Ross Bradshaw said...

Thanks, Jim. We are hoping to move it to Bishopsgate Institute - more room, higher profile, more events...