PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 2016
by Alexa Schlosser, IBPA Independent managing editor
Below, five members of IBPA’s newly formed Editorial Advisory Committee share their thoughts on and stories about conventions and conferences.
- Elizabeth Turnball, Senior Editor, Light Messages Publishing
- Georgia McBride, Owner, Georgia McBride Media Group
- Peter Goodman, Publisher, Stone Bridge Press
- Jim Azevedo, Marketing Director, Smashwords
- Leslie M. Browning, Founder and Publisher, Homebound Publications
Which meetings and conventions are most important for you to attend, and why?
Elizabeth Turnbull (ET): When choosing which meetings or conventions to attend, we first evaluate our goals. If we’re looking for new authors, we go to the North Carolina Writers’ Network Fall Conference. We’ll go to the annual Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) conference if we’re looking to connect with booksellers. And if we’re looking to connect with industry leaders and get our titles in front of reviewers, buyers, and librarians, we’ll go to a national event such as the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference or BookExpo America (BEA).
Georgia McBride (GM): Trade conventions—such as ALA, ALA-Midwinter, ALAN, and BEA—are crucial for raising awareness for the books I publish via Month9Books and Tantrum Books because they have wide appeal to the school and library markets. RT Booklovers Convention is the go-to event for my romance authors and their content. Similarly, we also look for a presence at fan and book conventions such as LA Times Festival of Books, San Diego Comic Con, DragonCon, NC Comic Con, Wondercon, New York Comic Con, BookCon, and others that allow for up-close engagement between readers and authors.
Leslie M. Browning
Leslie M. Browning (LB): For small publishers, I find the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) and IBPA’s PubU to be the most helpful among the mainstream conventions. AWP is the happy medium of being an educational and sales-driven convention.
Peter Goodman (PG): We always attend Association of Asian Studies since we publish books on Japan and China, with some academic titles or titles suitable for supplementary assignment. It’s very targeted and manageable, expertly organized (which is important), and always a source of good contacts.
Can you share a story about something you accomplished at a meeting that made it worth attending?
ET: One of our biggest struggles as a small press has been securing trade reviews for our titles. When we went to BEA2016 and the ALA Annual Conference this year, we made sure to schedule meetings with as many review editors as we could. We made it clear that we were only looking for 10 to 15 minutes of their time since they’re incredibly busy. We asked what we could do to make their jobs easier when considering our titles, and we thanked them for their help. As a result, our lead title for this fall—Healing Maddie Brees by Rebecca Brewster Stevenson—has received strong reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, and a starred review from Library Journal. Plus, we now have a stronger relationship with the reviewers and they know that we care about helping them, too.
GM: I’ve made connections with potential partners simply by attending and being available. Being there has contributed to the fostering of critical relationships with folks like Ingram and Apple, for example. I have also connected in person with partners and colleagues I had only previously engaged with via phone or e-mail. Additionally, having our brands represented at large events validates our level of commitment and also helps others see us as viable potential partners.
Jim Azevedo (JA): In 2014, I had the privilege of speaking at the Romance Writers of Australia and New Zealand Romance Writers conferences. Although e-book self-publishing is growing quickly Down Under, in 2014 it still wasn’t as widely accepted as it is in the US. The following occurred during a plenary panel I participated on that included literary agents, editors, and a Big Five publisher.
During the audience Q&A, an author who aspired to be traditionally published explained she received several rejections, in part because her story included vampires. The author was disheartened because her story depended on these characters and a rewrite would strip it of its essence. Unfortunately, the panel’s Big 5 publisher agreed with the rejections. He diplomatically explained sales of vampire-related books had diminished and most publishers wouldn’t take the risk on an unknown author in the genre.
Deflated, the author sat down. Before the moderator could move on, I informed the author and audience that thousands of indie e-book authors, just like her, were told “no” time after time; many of them are now international bestsellers. If she decided to try self-publishing, I advised, she could write whatever she wanted to write and let the readers decide what they wanted to read. To my surprise, “Woohoo”s and “Yeah”s erupted throughout the room. As publishing professionals, we owe it to the authors to inspire and empower them—not defeat them.
What do you wish you had known before you attended your first one?
ET: The very first conference we ever attended was BEA. We’d recently decided to bring on new authors, and we wanted to learn more about the industry and make connections. Within 30 minutes of arriving, we were completely overwhelmed. We didn’t have answers to the vendors’ questions, and we felt unprepared. We also didn’t know that people typically make appointments to meet, so many of the people we had wanted to reach were booked and unavailable. Our advice: Do your homework before you go to a conference; decide what you want to accomplish, and begin working on it well in advance.
GM: There are always going to be hidden costs. Budget and then build in a significant contingency. Placement and opportunities for exposure often are out of your budget as a small press. I advise finding alternate ways of letting attendees know you’ll be there. Booth giveaways, author signings, and freebies always draw a crowd.
How do you determine your budget for the meeting? How do you decide between attending versus exhibiting?
ET: We’ve decided that for larger conferences, we’d rather attend than spend a lot of money on an exhibitor table that we can’t fill or have look professional. But for regional conferences, we rent one table, make it look as good as we can, and dress it up with a big smile and a friendly word to the other attendees. You’d be amazed at how far that takes you.
JA: We consider multiple criteria to determine if a conference is worth the budget spend: Is the conference reputable? Does the event cater to an audience that is eager to learn the best practices knowledge we can provide? Does the conference necessitate traveling a long distance? How many days will we be away from the office? Does the conference cover travel and expenses? If the conference is sponsored by—or allowing exhibits by— author services firms known for predatory practices, then that alone can be a deal breaker for us. We’re looking for conferences that truly care about the welfare of authors and publishers. When I commit to a conference, I intend to be an active participant. I don’t want to decide between attending or exhibiting. I want to do both and then some. I’ll make myself available to present workshops, participate on panels, have roundtable conversations with authors, and attend networking events.
LB: I make the decision based on our working budget and what the potential yield is. I think it is wise for a publisher to attend the trade shows where possible in order to keep up-to-date with the latest trends, but sometimes exhibiting does more harm than good. I tend to exhibit only at those shows where we can sell our books and recoup our investment. That way, we get PR but break even (if not make a profit).
What are some mistakes you have made or have seen others make?
ET: One of the biggest mistakes I see smaller publishers make at conferences is that they don’t work the floor. They spend a lot of money on an exhibit, present a bare bones table, and then sit down waiting for people to come to them. There’s too much going on for people to notice us little guys; we need to go to them! Step out in front of the table; smile; have something fun to hand out to people. Grab passersby’s attention and then go from there––but whatever you do, don’t sit down.
JA: One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen is when other speakers fail to prepare. Attendees are spending precious time and hard-earned money not only on conference registration, but also on travel, hotel, and other expenses. They’re attending the conference, and your specific workshop, to learn something valuable. Don’t let them down. The other most common mistake is when speakers make their presentation a sales pitch. Our focus is always to educate.
Two mistakes I’ve made are not choosing conference sessions I want to attend ahead of time and not attending the networking events. For conference sessions I attend, I’ve learned that when I wing it, I waste time trying to decide what session to attend, what time it starts, where it’s located, who’s presenting it, and so on. Now I download the schedule ahead of time and highlight the sessions I want to attend. Networking events can be uncomfortable, especially for those of us who lean toward introversion, but it just takes a little time and a smile.
PG: Being too passive, not having a clear purpose, or not setting appointments ahead of time. It’s fun to go and see people and talk, but the show can easily turn into just socializing without enough action items at the end of the day. Also, taking too many books instead of deciding on just a few key projects to draw attention to.
LB: I’ve seen presses start up and try to attend every major expo in their first year and, in doing so, spend a great deal of their start-up money on travel only to fold within two years. I don’t think a publisher should consider exhibiting at a show until they have at least a minimum of a dozen well-produced titles. As an indie press owner, I have to be practical and check my ego at the convention floor door.
What wisdom would you like to share from your experience that we have forgotten to ask?
PG: Have a good supply of business cards, but make sure you collect them as well. At the end of the show, if not at the end of every day, go through all the contacts you made, and for each one assign some kind of action to take. So often the plans and projects discussed fall by the wayside due to lack of follow through. Be persistent after you’ve identified the things you’re really interested in. Always get names, and on the backs of the business cards write down what you recall about the person or the conversation. Do not rely on your memory.
Alexa Schlosser is the managing editor of IBPA Independent magazine. For the past five years, she has worked with various trade and not-for-profit organizations, developing content for both print and digital publications.