As a literary agent, I have often joked that if I had a table and four chairs and everyone came, I could have a book fair anywhere, even on the Moon. This year I put my claim to the test and decided to do the next best thing: Skype meetings.
I first tested this out last year, when ashes from an Icelandic volcano snuffed out the 40 meetings I had scheduled with agents at the London Book Fair, and forced me to find a way to reach my coagents some other way. I swallowed my disappointment, contacted agents around the world, and asked them to Skype with me. Only two took me up on the offer. One bought her first webcam for the meeting and thanked me later because she was now able to Skype with her daughter, who was going abroad during the summer. The other proceeded to tell everyone what fun it was when we all convened at Frankfurt in the fall.
This year, London was not possible for me because of a multitude of other trips scheduled around the same time, so I was determined to connect with agents virtually. This time, I sent links to download Skype and offered people help on pricing webcams. Fifteen meetings later—a mix of Skype-to-land line, Skype-to-Skype but no webcam on the other end, and, the ideal, Skype-to-Skype with webcams for all—I was happy to declare it a success.
Beginning my meetings in Latvia, I then "visited" offices in Denmark, Hungary, Israel, Switzerland, Serbia, Brazil, Thailand, France, Spain, Poland, Greece, Argentina, Bulgaria, and Italy. We discussed the state of the industry, the challenges of e-book rights, and how all things Italian are big in Poland. I was able to pull up information from my database instantly to answer questions and find the perfect book to pitch even if it wasn't on my current list. Because we had double the time we would have had at a book fair, we were able to discuss my entire list, chatting about the upcoming passing of Venus across the sun, which inspired Mark Anderson's Finding the Sun; marveling that the first sales for Women, Sex, Power & Pleasure were in Russia and China; discussing the YA international powerhouse Lesley Livingston; and that Mary McGarry Morris's latest book, Light from a Distant Star, should be perfect for lovers of Emma Donoghue's Room. We celebrated Jean Auel hitting the bestseller list in 13 countries and even had time to talk about our kids.
Many agents told me they would be ready with Skype and a webcam the next time. Others suggested we not wait for a book fair to meet this way.
Of course, there were a few downsides. Dropped calls caused some scrambling in one meeting. Fuzzy stop-and-go images plagued other meetings. There was no possibility of bumping into someone I hadn't been able to squeeze into my schedule but found I could spend five minutes with while waiting for the next person to show up. There was no chatting over drinks, and no opportunity to meet someone new at a party.
I did make all of my meetings, however, and we were all on time. We had hourlong talks when necessary and everyone had seen the materials we were discussing as we had e-mailed them beforehand. I was able to check my database with ease while talking and could even deal with e-mails without having to wrestle with bad wireless access in a fair hall. And best of all: my feet didn't hurt.
A virtual book fair isn't ideal, and meeting in person is always preferable when possible. But if, for personal, financial, or wrath of nature reasons, you just can't make it, I highly recommend Skype.
Jennifer Weltz is v-p and partner of the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency. She tweets at @JVNLA and will be blogging soon at the Association of Authors' Representatives Digital Rights Committee's new blog, aardvarknow.us.