There’s a lot going on at the London Book Fair. From the huge stands that fill the vast exhibition space at Olympia, the world’s biggest publishers are selling their latest releases, while smaller companies are pitching their wares at their more modest stands around the edges. Leading industry figures are giving anyone who’ll listen, from upcoming writers to journalists or industry workers with time on their hands, the benefits of their experience, while elsewhere, panellists are putting the world – or at least the industry – to rights. And talking of rights, agents are meeting their clients in specially designated areas, whose access is blocked to anyone without an appointment.

It’s a three-day event and delegates are entitled to go for as much or as little time as they see fit. For me, it was the Thursday, where fortunately enough, the keynote speaker was the Children’s Laureate, Joseph Coelho. As a relative newcomer to the industry, with three books now under my belt, I was sure I could learn a lot from listening in. I was delighted to hear that his pearls of wisdom were surprisingly down-to-earth and refreshingly no-nonsense. As people were asking him how to respond when they’re asked to write something that doesn’t necessarily feel quite right for them, while I’d expected a leading artist to implore creatives to do what they believe in, that wasn’t his view at all. “Give them what they want,” he responded, brusquely, adding, “That’s part of the craft of writing.”. Clearly, there’s no point being true to yourself if no-one ever gets to read it. Once you’ve made it, then you can be true to yourself. And that tone continued. He hates it when newcomers to the industry can’t be bothered to do the work; it’s the responsibility of the writer to take the time to study the market – who’s selling what to whom, which agents are representing what kind of work. The way he found his own agent wasn’t perhaps the standard route; rather than blanketing the industry with query letters, he happened to be attending a friend’s book launch and got talking to someone who happened to be an agent – and not long afterwards, his agent. For him, it’s about going to events and having fun. “Don’t think of it as networking,” he advised some of the more timid in the audience. “Think of it as having fun at events.” Perhaps most interestingly though, his advice on the one thing you need to have close at hand while you’re writing – chocolate.

One of the main purposes of the London Book Fair for me has always been a chance to catch-up with my Cardiff-based publisher, Graffeg. There’s nothing like a face-to-face meeting to bring a year’s worth of emails into context. And it’s been quite a busy year since we last met; my third book, A Zoo In My Shoe has come out, I’ve taken it to the Northern Children’s Book Festival and I’ve sent them a handful of new manuscripts, that they might want to pick up for the future. But like with any meeting, that’s just the start – both sides then have to return to base and action the points discussed. So now there’s an inevitable wait to find out what happens next.

In addition to firming up your contacts, industry events such as this are largely about making new contacts, so I made sure I chatted to some other publishers – many bigger authors spread themselves across multiple publishers, after all. But at this stage of my career, despite having one book on BookTrust’s Best Children’s Book of 2020 list, another being listed as the author/illustrator Thomas Docherty’s favourite book of last year and a third being part of the Young V&A’s offering, most bigger publishers won’t speak to an author without an agent.

But if that doesn’t make you feel small enough, when I bumped into Joseph Coelho again, just wandering along a corridor, I wanted to stop him to thank him for his inspirational and useful words and ask for a better, close-up photo. But his publicist refused. He might have been in a hurry to get to his next appointment, but it felt unnecessarily brusque, given that he was – at the time – having a photo taken with another passer-by. I was able to hand him a copy of A Zoo In My Shoe as a thank-you; will he message me privately with his thoughts, like Rob Biddulph, or will I never hear from him again, like David Walliams and Michael Rosen?

I’ve gifted copies of the book, now, to four children’s authors, working at the top of the profession. Watch this space to find out whether giving copies of your books to the biggest figures into the industry actually makes a difference. Rob Biddulph’s praised was a psychological boost. Hearing Michael Rosen rapping a page of my book was equally encouraging, even if he didn’t follow it up. All I got from David Walliams was a follow from his team on social media. Although I’m still holding out for a call from an agent he’s tipped off about me.

There were some leading figures in the industry doing the rounds that I didn’t think would be that interested in a copy of my book. Elmer the Elephant and the Gruffalo himself were among those visiting stands and posing for photos. It might have been an interesting photo, seeing the Gruffalo holding one of my books, but photos of celebrities – real or imagined – on social media don’t seem to get you much more that a few “likes” anyway.

At one of the other panels I attended, I found myself standing next to someone I recognised – she was one of the publishers I spoke to last year. I reintroduced myself. Politely, she looked down at the bookmark I offered her as a reminder and she excitedly exclaimed, “I was just reading your work last week!” Not so excitedly, though, that she’d followed up!

The panel itself was the perfect way to end the book fair experience; two book creators and two book sellers, discussing how to build the next generation of readers, chaired by a representative of the UK’s main reading agency, BookTrust. Sanchita, from the Children’s Bookshop in Muswell Hill, and Alexandra from Sevenoaks Bookshop, outlined the kind of books they’d like to be selling to young families, which writer Camilla Reid and writer/illustrator Steve Antony talked about the kind of books they were writing. It was particularly interesting to hear from the colourful Steve Antony about the process of creating children’s books, despite being colour-blind. I found myself nodding enthusiastically as Camilla Reid said animal sounds are great in books for young children (I’ve just pitched a series of books to my publisher involving animal sounds), outlined the importance of interactivity in books for younger readers (I’ve just pitched two more books to my publisher that require the involvement of the children) and it’s great to have a mirror at the back (this ship has sailed, but I’d pushed for one of these with one of my earlier books, What Can You See?). I was wishing that my publisher had been standing beside me so that I could nudge them and say, “See?!”

Like with many such events, members of the audience rushed forward to speak to the panellist afterwards. I don’t often have much to say in such circumstances – you just feel you need to join in. But on this occasion, I felt it was important to introduce myself to Emily Drabbles from BookTrust, given their support for my earlier book, I Like To Put Food In My Welly. I was delighted to be able to thank her for including the book in their best of 2020 list – and to hear how much she loved it. I thanked Camilla for confirming so much of what I’d just pitched to my publisher – I can only hope, though, that they agree. It was also nice to bump into Sanchita again, after our paths have crossed at a number of events in recent years. To her, I’m largely grateful that she advocated for my book What Can You See? to be included as part of the offering to visitors of the newly refurbished Young V&A Museum. And it was great to meet Alexandra and discuss our shared passion for children’s books – and wonder whether the lovely people of Sevenoaks might soon see some of my books on the shelves of their local bookshop.

The London Book Fair is literally the industry condensed into one building for three days. Bursting with writers, publishers, agents and sellers – full of words, both written and spoken – and overflowing with the ups and downs of life. It’s a must for anyone involved in the industry and sets the stage for the year ahead.