What If We’re Asking Too Much of Our Book Fairs?
When our good colleague Jael McHenry  wrote What You Would Have Learned at BEA  earlier this month, she did a fine job of listing some of the common views and assumptions among many writers about the industry’s major trade shows. Excerpting here:
If you’re an aspiring author, there’s pretty much no reason to go…If you’ve ever needed a physical representation of what it’s like to be a reader, this is it — rows and rows, tables and tables, yards and yards (that feel like miles) of books…Publishers place their bets. You can preview half of next year’s bestseller lists by looking at the BEA posters and displays.
I’m going to cordially disagree with McHenry on all this.
Most easily: What writer worth her or his pixels doesn’t need a good representation of what it’s like to be a reader?
[pullquote]In the UK, in 2012, there were more books published than there were in the 18th century, the 19th century, and the first half of the 20th century combined. –Samira Ahmed, BBC Radio 4’s Front Row[/pullquote]
Let’s put some background into place, and then I will argue the following:
- It is important for an aspiring author to see a trade show (if it can be done without too much expense and inconvenience) because our commercialized world of arts and letters is encapsulated at these massive transactional events.
- There is a chance for our trade shows to shift their own author-responsive focus from an admirable but perhaps less practical focus on independent writers to something that serves the needs of traditional authors (who come to the shows already) in terms of marketing skills that indies wield more frequently.
Now, let’s look at these events for some background.
Trading in Trade Shows
There are three major trade shows for Western publishing:
- London Book Fair  (#LBF15) in April;
- BookExpo America  (#BEA15) in May, next year in Chicago, not New York; and
- Frankfurt Book Fair  (#FBM15), this year 14-19 October. The M in that hashtag is not a typo: it’s Frankfurt Buchmesse.
I know these operations well. Porter Anderson Media  is a Media Partner with LBF and I enjoy my contact with that staff annually. At BEA, I programmed the show’s Author Hub last year, and this year I was program director for the International Digital Publishing Forum’s (IDPF) Digital Book Conference that opened the trade show. At Frankfurt, I’m very pleased to program special events in the Business Club  facility. (If you’ll be in Frankfurt this year, do ask me about the Business Club, it’s terrific.)
Each of these three big shows is quite distinctive in its approach to independent authors.
- About three years ago, London Book Fair, under Jacks Thomas’ direction, led the way in creating activities for independent authors at London Book Fair. Its AuthorLounge, originally programmed by Authoright, was the first of these majors to lay on a complex, busy round of panels and programs for authors. Now called Author HQ , the program is still up and running, quite robust. It stands as primarily a lecture- and meeting-area, busily programmed. It made the move with the rest of the trade show to the Olympia London facility this past April.
[pullquote]I walk the convention floor for impromptu meetings, greeting and bumping into publishing buddies. I snag catalogs of interest and the occasional galley giveaway. I stop at booth signings by our clients. It’s all about face-to-face connections. Nothing will ever completely replace that. — Donald Maass[/pullquote]
- At BookExpo in New York, Reed Exhibitions’ Steve Rosato followed up, working diligently to produce Author Hub. This year called Author Marketplace , the offering for independent authors was again a chance to have a table of your own for the life of the show (five days this year — it included BookCon) as a place for meetings, a base of operation, and a showcase area of your own on the trade-show floor. The proposition is quite different at BEA from what it is at LBF. At LBF, the author arrives and sees panels and presentations about various aspects of craft and business, all for the price of admission to the floor, about £30 or $47.50. At BEA, the author who wants a place in Author Marketplace  pays, and quite substantially, for the table: $1,720, which included a BEA Author Autographing Session . There has been a one-day self-publishing conference at BEA, as well, called uPublishU .
- Frankfurt’s approach, under the good work of Juergen Boos, Holger Volland, Thomas Minkus and many others, so far has been primarily conference-oriented  (this year, the good Michelle Turnbach is working on it), with a line of events for German-speaking authors and, last year, an afternoon’s half-day conference for English-speaking authors put together by Authoright — I assisted in programming and moderating some of that English-language afternoon, which had a fine turnout. There was also a good series of sessions on the Saturday developed by our friends Edward Nawotka, Hannah Johnson and others at Publishing Perspectives’ stage. Plans for this coming October are still in the works.
Each of these major trade shows has, in recent years, tried to accommodate at least some of the interests and needs of independent authors.
I’m stressing independent authors because traditionally published authors, a whole lot of them, have always been at these shows. At BEA alone, more than 600 traditionally published authors were engaged in various activities this year — autographing, speaking, answering questions.
To what purpose? The publishing trade show is an event designed to have publishers advertise their upcoming releases to booksellers and influencers. Like buyers at major outlets, the mom and pop who own that bookshop you loved as a kid in Minnetonka might fly to New York and roam the huge floor at BEA in order to get copies of upcoming books they might order for the bookshop back home. So will the operators of major book clubs and other outfits that move large numbers of books, influence their sales, blog about their excitement. And the industry wants them to see the upcoming wares.
Those influential people like meeting authors, getting their autographs. This is the core mission of the trade show: get the traditionalist publishers and the traditionalist booksellers / book-mongers / book-talkers / book mavens (to use our friend Bethanne Patrick’s moniker) to come together. Oh, yes, and press people, too: it can be useful to have someone who writes in the press about books to meet an author, grab a copy, get the background, right? Most fundamentally, booksellers are ordering books for their stores. Publishers are taking orders. Business is at hand.
BEA’s categories for attendance include:
- American Bookseller Association members;
- Digital service providers;
- Literary and rights agents;
- Publishing (house) personnel;
- Non-editorial media members (cable TV programmers, for example);
- Publishing consultants (my Porter Anderson Media is such a company);
- Book-related non-profits;
- Film and television people;
- Book club operators;
- “Friends, family and children” approved to accompany accredited attendees.
A much wider net than you might have imagined, right?
As McHenry put it, “Publishers place their bets. You can preview half of next year’s bestseller lists by looking at the BEA posters and displays.”
That’s exactly the idea and the purpose of the trade show.
Don’t Cross It Off Your List Just Yet
Now, let’s go back to McHenry’s wider points, which largely add up to her line “Aren’t you glad you didn’t go (to BEA)? Cross it off your list.”
I say not so fast. McHenry cites agent Janet Reid telling writers that trade shows are not the place to pitch literary agents. This is absolutely correct.
Agents are there to meet not with authors but with — as our colleague, the author and literary agent Don Maass , writes in a comment  to McHenry — “audio publishers, foreign scouts and publishers, L.A. agents and producers.” This is all happening in the International Rights Center (IRC). Each trade show devotes a serious amount of space to its IRC. And, as Don mentions, in-person contact with your fellow publishing players is a key here:
I also walk the convention floor for impromptu meetings, greeting and bumping into publishing buddies. I snag catalogs of interest and the occasional galley giveaway. I stop at booth signings by our clients. It’s all about face-to-face connections. Nothing will ever completely replace that.
Even my journo associate Gayle Feldman and I, when dividing up coverage assignments for The Bookseller and The FutureBook in London, allow each other time to “work the floor.” I can walk from the 34th Street end of the Javits Center in New York northward across the trade-show exhibition hall and be stopped 25 times by encounters with folks I know. This is important contact.
[pullquote]There are some terrifically talented and dedicated people working in traditional publishing and they know precisely what works. It may not, however, be the same thing that works for independent authors.[/pullquote]
And what all this comes down to is that a publishing trade show is not something I’m convinced that authors should dismiss out of hand. Do you want to pay $1,720 for a five-day table on the floor? Maybe not. That might not be the way your career is running at this point. But is it worth going in for a day to see the industry gathered in one massive spot doing its business? I believe it is.
Normally the price of basic entry is not steep. One of the smartest self-publishing authors I know is Victoria Noe, of the Friend Grief  series of nonfiction books. She’s at BEA every year, talking up her work, meeting vendors in a totally professional way, learning the business, putting a friendly, competent face to the “self-published” label for industry folks.
When McHenry talks of a trade show being dauntingly big, she’s not wrong. But that’s another reason I’d like to see more authors there. I don’t think many writers understand much of what I and other commentators are telling them about historically unprecedented levels of competition.
Walk into one of these trade shows and you understand much better what’s going on in the world of “visible books,” alone — before you add in the hundreds of thousands of annual titles that we can’t “see” because they carry no industry identifiers.
The Bookseller’s Philip Jones and I spent last week looking at questions of how big the self-publishing sector of the industry is today .
Touring the Plantation
Next year, BEA moves to Chicago, 11-13 May. If some Writer Unboxed folks would like to have a look (indie or trad), I’ll see if I can arrange a chance with our friend Rosato and his administration to walk a group through and show you what’s going on in various sectors of the show. This year, Rosato had a delegation of more than 500 publishing people from China. Tours were part of their agenda, too. (I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and interviewing Feng Tang , a terrific novelist just starting to be translated to English by AmazonCrossing.)
I’m not persuaded that our well-intentioned efforts to create meaningful events for independent authors at these things have come together well yet, and that’s through no one’s fault. I’ve seen these show administrations work with genuine commitment to try to find viable approaches to answer the needs of indies in these settings. But what if we’re asking these massive shows and their hardworking leadership — Thomas, Rosato, Boos, et al — to do way too much? What if they’re being asked to meet the author corps far more than halfway?
There isn’t an easy fit for the non-aligned author at a trade show, McHenry is right, because the settings and goals of the shows were never designed to accommodate that role. Big rounds of routine craft and business classes for writers are available in many other places, certainly at writing conferences, year ’round. Asking trade shows to mount the same such programming might not be making as much sense as we (myself included) originally thought it would.
But perhaps something that explores the sheer scale of the industry in an inclusive way could be more valuable for all parties. That might be the kind of guided tour I’m talking about. It might be something else. Reflecting the interest that our Writer Unboxed colleague Jane Friedman has written about  among independent writers who want traditional contracts, it hardly makes sense to assume that there’s nothing for an indie to learn at a trade show: that’s the very industry that Friedman’s writer has in mind.
I liked how Samira Ahmed on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row  described it recently: In the UK in 2012, just that one year, she said, there were more books published than there were in the 18th century, the 19th century, and the first half of the 20th century combined. Think about that. I believe that we all need to find ways to better understand the avalanche of content here, not to feel overwhelmed but to help us learn to start navigating it.
A Trade Show Buddy System: Let’s Explore It
I’ve argued for years for a buddy system in which an independent author and a traditional publishing worker (not necessarily an author; how about a sales person, a good business head?) are teamed up to spend a day or half-day together at a trade show, learning from each other, talking, having lunch together — more importantly having a Campari together! — all while in the center of the industry’s commerce, every facet of the biz close at hand to examine, assess together, trade viewpoints.
[pullquote]We somehow may have fallen into a kind of egalitarian fever that says that all things must be good for all parts of the business. Are we asking too much?[/pullquote]
I’m not sure our expectations of these shows have been right. Would we ask a Buddhist temple to suddenly provide meaningful services for Christians? Probably not. Would we then say to these two great faiths, “just cross each other off your lists”? I hope not.
I’d like to explore this whole question of expectations more thoroughly. What if the best thing we could do at a trade show is offer special social-media training to traditionally published authors, the ones who are brought in by their publishers?
I found myself in a #FutureChat  session for The FutureBook last week (11 a.m. Eastern each Friday), saying that there are some terrifically talented and dedicated people working in traditional publishing and that they know precisely what works. And it may not be the same thing that works for independent authors.
Isn’t that okay? That doesn’t nullify the value of what the traditionalists or the independents are doing. It may just mean that publishing and its needs are different for these sectors and that we somehow may have fallen into a kind of egalitarian fever that says that all things must be good for all parts of the business.
Are we asking too much of these shows?
My provocations for you today are three:
- Why do we tend to expect everything in publishing to be good for everyone?
- Why is it not okay for a trade show to serve one sector and not all sectors?
- Why wouldn’t anyone involved in books not want to have a look at the business’ largest, most ambitious gatherings?
Writer Unboxed co-founder and editor-in-chief Therese Walsh has been concerned for some time that the site doesn’t provide payment to its regular contributors. While it’s an ongoing debate in the industry! the industry!, the going wisdom is that writing professionals need to be paid something for their services, and Walsh graciously has been working to sort out something for our regular voices here. She’s trying out — with my appreciation — this new contribute-what-you-like approach here. I applaud her generous effort and the Writer Unboxed community’s warm welcome to those of us who are regular contributors. Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!