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The Book Expo Experience

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As a small publisher at Book Expo America, I first approached BEA like Alice Down the Rabbit Hole … always the wrong size, confused about which way to go, and watching the Rabbit tell us we’re always late for one deadline or another. Yet BEA 1999 was a very successful show for us, and I want to share our experience and decision-making with our fellow independent and small presses so that you can avoid my errors and enjoy our successes.
This was the second year that Sherman Asher Publishing-an independent press that publishes literature, memoir, poetry, and books on writing (and is expanding into bilingual books, literary non-fiction, and speculative fiction)-took a booth at BEA. This was the fourth year I had attended. At our staff meeting subsequent to BEA, we revisited the decisions to exhibit from the very basics….

Why Exhibit at All?

Exposure. There is no question that a presence at this national show gives products a more than regional reach. Our press has been expanding and needs to reach more areas.
National Market. People hunger for meaning in their life and literature and poetry address this need. However the number of people who actually buy poetry at any one location is small and thus reaching a larger audience is critical for our growth.
To Make Contacts. There are the reviewers, printers, rights people, and various serendipitous connections to make. Setting goals for networking is the most productive activity at this type of show. At past shows, our goals were to get distribution, find competitive printers, and get a first-hand look at what other presses were printing. Now our goals are more review opportunities, a focus on sales of rights/options, looking for possible titles for backlist purchase, and other business opportunities.

Ways to Exhibit

Having decided to go, we explored our options:Staffed Exhibits. For two years, when I had only three to six books, I used the PMA-staffed exhibits and the Rocky Mountain Book Publishers Association (RMBPA) display. Although I heard later that people recognized the book titles and covers, I received no sales from these venues that I could determine nor could I see an increase in wholesales. If I still had a small list, I would use these exhibits again because it gave me a reference place to send people to see the books. Publishers who have business and self-help books seem to receive more sales with this method.
Distributors. I don’t have a master distributor but those who do can have their books displayed in that venue. This also includes a catalog and opportunities for advertising.
Small Press Table. For presses with 10 or fewer books, these tables may represent a good investment. I have never liked the placement-segregated from the larger presses-too much like the children’s table at a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Now that the Chicago venue is all on one floor that feeling of being shunted aside is less a problem. This year in LA, the small presses were in the traffic pattern on the way to the autograph sessions giving them much higher visibility.
Booth. With 18 titles and a national agenda, this venue seemed right for us. We reserved a booth space in the Rocky Mountain Book Publishers aisle, taking advantage of their priority location and the benefits of membership. We reserved early to get the $1.00/foot discount.

Lessons Learned

Now that Book Expo 1999 is behind us, here’s my advice for future shows:Have Fun. First and last, you need to remember why you went into this business. You love books. Take time to eat, drink lots of non-alcoholic beverages, rest, read some of the fabulous books you pick up, enjoy the company of fellow PMA members and other booklovers.
Consider Shipping Costs. Last year our expenses were very high because we attended a trade show immediately before BEA and had to ship our display from one venue to the next. On the plus side, I was not so exhausted during setup because all the books and boxes were at the booth when I arrived. This year I drove to Los Angeles and schlepped boxes and displays first by myself and then with the help of my husband and one staff member, Nancy Fay, our Editor/Marketing Director. This is the classic dilemma of the small press: Do you want to spend time, energy, or money?
Ponder the Furnishing of the Booth. We asked ourselves what does our customer want? Being from Santa Fe, we decided to create an oasis of welcome. We decided that buyers of our books take care of their health and need water, a place to sit, to rest, and some giveaway items that have some use or meaning in addition to the lure of our beautiful books. Thus we furnished the booth with a water cooler, a tall chair we could lean against, regular chairs for customers who had appointments, and an accessible display. We practiced setting up the booth before going to check for color and ease of access. We prepared our signage and made sure we had consistency of our message. We found our frequently updated checklist of supplies (including stapler and staples, rubber bands, glue, sticky notes, and the critical breath mints) invaluable.
Use Buttons and Catalogs Wisely. We agonized about whether or not to print our catalog cover in color. Simply put, it costs $1.00/catalog. Many very successful small houses do not have color on their catalog. Finally we decided to try and were very surprised and pleased at the response. Both at BEA and the preceding week at the LA times Festival of Books, customers responded very positively to the catalog. Last year I had trouble getting people to take one, and this year, they flew out of the booth. Our buttons carry the message: “Change the World One Book at a Time.” We have trademarked this phrase and used it on the catalog, over the booth, and on the buttons. We asked people to wear the buttons and were delighted to see, on breaks or scouting the floor, these bright blue buttons adorning so many lapels.
Learn to Close Sales. My biggest lesson was how to ask for what I wanted. I had started out asking people to take a button, for example. They complied by dropping it into their bags. This year I practiced until I could say, “Wear a button? Do you need help putting it on?” We offered booksellers the option of receiving the catalog instead of taking it. This brought us many more cards for our database. I asked bookstores more directly if they would like to take advantage of the show special discount. I called on them to support small presses by buying from us directly rather than through a wholesaler. I practiced saying, “Should I write this up now?”
Think about Staffing. We needed two and a half people for our 10-x-10 booth. One to be present in the booth, one to escort authors to signings and meet with contacts, and someone to cover breaks and help with setting up and dismantling the booth. This show is extremely tiring but we were able to attend the parties and author breakfasts in part because we stayed close to the exhibition hall in a hotel I found on the Internet.
Plan Your Author Signings. We took full advantage of the author autographing program this year and scheduled four author signings, three in the autograph area, and one at our booth. Unfortunately one of the time slots was first thing Friday morning. Attendees were not on top of the event and missed this author. Next year I will try to get a better time or have an already famous author. I was able to afford this abundance of authors because each had another reason to be in Los Angeles.
Follow-up, Follow-up, Follow-up. Each booth staff person had a notebook in which we stapled business cards (a trick I learned from PMA’s Jan Nathan) along with a specific action plan. “Don’t write ‘send stuff,'” my Marketing Director begged. What promises did you make? What was the reason you kept the card? Take the time to write legibly. Don’t ship the notebook home. Keep it with you to get to the orders and contacts as soon as possible.

Outcomes

Here are the results that I know of so far:Sales. I am pleased to report that we wrote orders at the show. The overall total did not cover our costs but met our goal to exceed last year’s totals. In 1998, we saw an increase of orders from wholesalers after the show. It’s too early to see if that pattern is repeated this year, but we are keeping the fax machine stocked with paper.
Contacts. My Marketing Director made appointments and scouted new review sources with good success. We were able to meet with representatives from our wholesalers to work out problems. We had nibbles for foreign and movie rights.

Next Year?

It’s not too early to begin planning for next year.

 

    • I have already signed up for a booth with the Rocky Mountain Book Publishers Association.
    • I am writing my follow-up letters and notes.
    • We are tracking our sales and requests for information.
    • And last but not least important, I am buying new and even more comfortable shoes!

Judith Sherman Asher is the CEO of Sherman Asher Publishing, “Changing the World One Book at a Time.(tm)” You can contact Asher via e-mail at 71277.2057@compuserve.com. You can also try to visit their Web site at www.shermanasher.com, though the site was down temporarily at the time this newsletter went to press.

This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor June, 1999, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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