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.
- 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.