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Regional Booksellers’ Show

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I was in Indianapolis recently to help formalize the transition of the Mid-America Publishers Association (MAPA) into a chapter of PMA (Welcome to these new members!) and to attend the Great Lakes Booksellers Association (GLBA) regional show.

My expectations for the show were very low. I had not been to one in years because, like many publishers, my books are displayed at these shows by the rep groups that work each region for me. I did not see any point in showing up myself.

I have now completely changed my mind, and I am going to argue here that independent publishers can benefit hugely from attending, and better yet exhibiting, at the show in their own region, and at as many other regions as they can if they publish books of national interest.

The GLBA show drew about 850 participants, of which about 550 were booksellers or library buyers and 300 were publishers, wholesalers, reps, authors, and other types who don’t buy books. As a seller, I like that ratio of buyers to sellers. It is very unlike the situation at BookExpo America, where actual customers are so very thin on the floor. (The BEA show is also indispensable, but for different reasons.)

We are all guilty of sitting behind our desks building interesting but wrong theories about developments in the book market and the place of our own books in it. Attendance at a regional show clears one’s mind of such nonsense in a hurry because the usual hype that obscures the actual business of bookselling is strikingly absent.

At the GLBA show, Random House had a booth, but it consisted of some tables and a sign tacked up on the curtain behind — just like everybody else’s booth. There was no mad rush for freebies and autographs. The size of the show, and the pace of it, were such that calm and serious conversations between publishers and booksellers were taking place everywhere. Business was being done and solid information exchanged.

For instance, my company recently has published some titles that have sold quite well into the education market and the trade. I wanted to find out how far we could go in shaping books for the needs of educators before we lost the interest of the book retailers.

Six or seven booksellers — not clerks working at chain stores but people actually involved in the buying process — were happy to discuss this issue with me at length. What I found out was that many independent booksellers are starting to develop special sections for teachers, but that they were only interested in particular kinds of books and particular subject areas. I hope to make good use of this information.

There were also several regional wholesalers in attendance. Their displays of books are an excellent guide to the current market because they show in a very clear way which titles from the independent presses are really selling. (Again, not hype but performance.) New trends start regionally; a great place to spot them is at the regional wholesaler’s stand.

Should you display at your regional show as well as attend? At the GLBA, there were nowhere near as many independent press booths as there should have been. Those who did display were constantly busy, and they were writing orders. One small press came all the way from New Orleans. His Drag Queen Cookbook many have been a little exotic for the Heartland, but a lot of booksellers now know where to get a copy if they need one.

A ten-by-ten-foot booth at the next GLBA show (Cleveland, October 3, 1998) complete with a table, two chairs, and a sign, will cost $450. Although firm commitments have not yet been made, PMA will in all likelihood offer lower cost display space at the GLBA show, and help organize publishing seminars and other events on the proceeding day, just as it has done this year for a number of these events.

Click here to find contact information for the regional shows.

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