Book Fair 101: everything you needed to know about book fairs

I came up with the title of my autobiography over the weekend. Inspiration struck just after I’d picked up a lovely copy of one of the Moomin annuals, displayed face out on a bookstall at York Book Fair. It was priced at £750. My autobiography is, perhaps unsurprisingly, going to be called: Books I have touched but could not afford. Here’s a sneak peek at the cover.

A cartoon depiction of the Jealous Girlfriend meme in pen and ink against a yellow background; in the foreground, a girl in a red dress captioned "all the beautiful books"; in the background, a boyfriend captioned "me" turns to stare, whilst his girlfriend captioned "bank balance" looks on jealously.
“all the beautiful books, me and my bank balance”

It’s a hazard of attending a book fair, and one that I should be accustomed to by now. I am interested in children’s books and they do not come at children’s prices. Not when you’re at the business end; my strength is in jumble sales and Unexpected Places. I sell books on Ebay when I have things to sell, and the thought of a stand at one of these fairs is a distant and somewhat heady dream. It’s a dream that lives somewhere next to my adorable book cafe that has gingham table-cloths, sunflowers in vases, and a menu full of literary puns.

So how does one book fair under these circumstances? I attended my first book fair when I was a teenager, and have been fairly regular at fairs across the country ever since. I do get still somewhat intimidated by them however and for a long while, I wasn’t even sure if I was allowed to touch the books or pick them up off the shelf. It’s the little things like this – and not just related to book fairs – that I think the literary industry (and libraries!) could do with thinking about more. Once you’ve learned the rules about something, it’s easy to forget that period before where you were still figuring it out. I tweeted this over the weekend, and it’s something I’m actually rather serious about:

Can you imagine if it a book fair had a book buddy? Somebody who said – look, what are you into, great – here’s the stalls you should look at and here are the people you should meet? And what if you could get a buddy for author signings? Somebody who said – I know it’s your first time, look, this is what you have to do, it’s going to be great, I’m here for any questions, have a lovely time.

That’s great, but how do I find out about book fairs in the first place?

I’m glad you asked, mythical internet person! You can look at this list from the PBFA – Provincial Booksellers Fair Association – which covers upcoming book fairs in the UK. There’s also a nice list here of book fairs from Inprint, who make the important point that book fairs can be anything from tiny to several floors and 200+ sellers. If you’re starting out, I’d suggest you look at one of the smaller and more regional ones first and use this as a chance to educate yourself as to prices, presentation and those books that are beautiful but might require your firstborn in payment.

Prices, though? How’s that work?

You are on fire with the good questions today! Prices for books are generally written on the inside cover, or one of the first few pages, in pencil. There’s no sticky labels here because they are the devils work when it comes to book collecting. You’re looking for that little number on the inside, and if it’s not there then ask. Terrifying, right? Obviously. But even if you are screaming inside, all you have to do is say “Thank you” and pull a thoughtful face when you put it back on the shelf. If it helps, you can method act this and pretend that you’re a rich person with millions to spend – but not on that book you’ve just had to put back, so sad! but this is my rich millionaire life!

Not that I’ve, uh, done that.

A cartoon of somebody laying on a couch. Above them, a speech bubble says "What, actually, is the problem?" and the person on the couch replies "I picked up a moomin book and it was £750 and three days later, I'm still not over it."
Four days now, but who’s counting.

Okay, I think I’m getting it. But – can I actually touch books at a book fair?

Yes! Of course! But you do have to do it nicely. York, for example, is a massive book fair, featuring people from across the world, and being able to see their books and handle them is a gift. Book collecting is about that moment of connection with the object. It’s hard to explain, but you’ll know it when you get it. And you can’t get it if you don’t pick up the book and look at it.

There are rules for touching books and some books are substantially more fragile than others so ask if you’re unsure; caution here is a good thing. As a rule though if they’re on an open shelf with others, then you can handle. Cradle it – support the spine – don’t even think about having any food or drink near it. In fact, you shouldn’t take food or drink inside the fair at all. It’s just easier that way. Make sure your hands are clean and dry as well and be gentle. These are old, delicate things. Treat them with the respect they deserve.

Okay. Last question. How do I know what to collect in the first place?

Go read an article I wrote for Book Riot on “How to become a rare book collector“. And then come back. Have a think about what you love and your budget and what’s going to be there that might never be there again. There will always be Chalet School hardbacks in the world, for example, as there’s a healthy collecting culture about them. There are other books though that you don’t see much of – whether it’s for cultural, practical or mystical reasons. I’ve only ever seen one fabulous Barbie hardback from the 60s (and it’s one that I still regret not picking up). But you’ll figure this out, the more you read and the more fairs you attend. In fact, as an eminent doctor once said, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

I look forward to seeing you at a fair!

2 thoughts on “Book Fair 101: everything you needed to know about book fairs

  1. 🙂 – a friend who went to the York Book Fair said that she’d seen a copy of Chalet School Reunion on sale for £150, and I’m sure it’s the same copy I’ve seen several times at PBFA fairs at both Haydock and Harrogate for the same price, and that the seller’s still convinced that someone will eventually buy it!

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