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Birth of a Book Fair Pro:
How I Got Lucky and Smart at My First Convention

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Never having been to a book fair, I didn’t know what to expect when I strolled into the Toronto Metro Convention Center for the ALA (American/Canadian Library Association) conference in June 2003. Nonetheless, I had some preconceived notions of how it would work. With 10 carefully prepared homemade press kits tucked away in my free Barnes & Noble tote bag, I was going to easily find highly placed people who handled some aspect of book selection for large booksellers or distributors. They would ask me about my book, I would present them with one of my press kits, and the orders would start rolling in.

It didn’t take long, wandering among the hundreds of publishers’ booths on the convention show floor, for me to realize that was not the way it was going to happen.

I had come to the conference on the spur of the moment; given my busy schedule, I hadn’t taken the time to find out anything except time and place. I didn’t even understand that the convention’s main purpose was to let publishers introduce librarians to books they could add to their collections in the coming year.

But I absorbed that fact as I continued to roam the aisles, picking up bookmarks, advanced readers, flashing bouncy-balls, and more tote bags to carry everything in. I had one advance copy of my book, and not so much as a single bookmark to give away. Furthermore, the convention rules stated that you were allowed to solicit business only while inside a booth, and my publisher had none. What a dunce I was. The trip to Toronto seemed to be a disaster. What could I possibly do here to help my book?

A Base of Operations After All

Near the end of the first of my two days in Toronto, I happened upon the Publishers Marketing Association booth. Something about the name tickled my memory. I strolled through the large booth, looking at the titles displayed there, all arranged by category: Spirituality, Science, History, Education (I was going backward). At one end of the booth I passed a counter where an author was discussing her book with a convention attendee. “Please add it to your collection,” she was telling him. Suddenly I stopped dead. There under “Cooking” was a large, square, bright-red volume with a colorful photo of a Christmas cookie on the cover. My book!

It turned out that my publisher had mentioned displaying with PMA when I told him I was going to ALA, but his e-mail got buried and forgotten in my inbox. Seeing my book in a booth had a surprising psychological effect on me. Suddenly I belonged there. Suddenly I was legitimate. Suddenly I had a home at the conference. Emboldened by my newfound feelings, I approached the booth attendants: two cheerful and professional-looking women who turned out to be Jan Nathan and Tabatha Moniz.

I explained to them that it was my first conference–and my first book–and that things weren’t turning out the way I’d expected. I didn’t know how to get the best out of the conference, I told them, and I asked whether they had any ideas. “Well, I have a spot open tomorrow morning. You can come and sit in the booth,” Tabatha said, indicating the counter where the other author was displaying her book. “Yes,” I agreed instantly. Things were looking up.

But there was still the problem of the free stuff. By now I had seen that the better your free stuff was, the more people stopped at your booth, and the more exposure your book received. I didn’t have the time or the budget to offer buttons, bouncy balls, or bookmarks. All I had was that advance reading copy and those homemade press kits. Then it came to me. Since my book is devoted to Christmas cookies, I would give away recipes from it! What else is so much fun and so useful and costs so little?

I dashed to the nearest copy center and printed up copies of one of my best recipes along with some of my press kit materials (my synopsis of the book, a list of all the recipes in it, and a sample of the photography). What I ended up with was a homemade black-and-white brochure that looked–well, homemade. But I was betting on the fact that most people love to bake Christmas cookies and that giving away a great original recipe would be an excellent way to generate interest in Christmas Cookies Are for Giving.

Adapting to the Environment

Nine a.m. the next day found me sitting behind the counter in the booth, eagerly awaiting the first conference attendees. Tabatha came over with a big bowl of hard candies “to add more interest to the display.” In the beginning, I was timid and waited for attendees to walk up to the booth before I asked them, “Would you like to take home a cookie recipe?” If the passersby got as far as hearing my question, they would usually take me up on my offer, but too many walked right on without coming into the exhibit. If they decided at first glance that they weren’t interested, they conspicuously avoided looking at me so that I wouldn’t address them. I decided I had to be more proactive.

I got out of the booth and stood in front of it and a little to the side. Since the booth was near intersecting aisles, I could now latch onto people going in four different directions. All I had to do was catch their attention; when they heard my “Would you like a free copy of a cookie recipe?” most of the time they came over and took one of my new brochures.

But too many people were still walking by without giving me the time of day. They tuned out as soon as they heard the phrase “Would you like . . . ” and saw what I was holding. In a world of free flashing bouncy-balls, a black-and-white photocopied brochure just could not compete. So I changed tactics again.

I had to ditch the “Would you like” and hook them a lot quicker. I switched to “Did you get your cookie recipe yet?” I would rush through the “Did you get” so I could reach the more interesting “cookie recipe” before I lost their attention. This worked. At the mention of a cookie recipe, people who appeared completely bored and ready to write me off suddenly looked at me, raised their eyebrows, said, “Well, no, actually, I haven’t!” and accepted my material.

Still, I knew I could do better than just hand out free recipes. I needed to interest people in my book as I was doing so. That was when another idea dawned on me. Not only was I giving my poor coauthor, Kristin Johnson, short shrift; I was also forgetting that I was talking to librarians. My spiel had to reflect what they would be most interested in. “The book starts out with a heartwarming short story with a Christmas theme,” became my opening line, and then I rushed on to say, “and after the story you’ll find the magic recipe featured in the story and almost 50 more recipes! All with full-color photos.” Suddenly I had a booth full of librarians picking up the advance reader’s copy and leafing though it. “Wow!” they were saying. “What a neat book!”

Stir In a Little Chocolate . . .

Once people were in the booth, I took to starting conversations with, “If you like chocolate, you’ll want to try that recipe when you get home.” And the attendees often responded by saying, “I’m a total chocoholic!” And so the ever-observant PMA staff replaced my jar full of hard candy with chocolate, further increasing traffic.

I knew for sure that things were going well when hopeful attendees started approaching me saying, “I heard someone over here was giving away cookie recipes?”

At the end of my hour, Tabatha told me, “You’re doing great! Would you like to stay for another hour?” Finally I ran out of flyers, the next author arrived, and my time was up.

And so in the end the convention was profitable and educational for me. I learned a lot about generating interest in my book and tailoring my message to my audience. I also gained confidence in my ability to sell the book, and in the book itself, because I had the pleasure of hearing professional librarians tell me that they loved the concept, that the book looked interesting and well done, and that they were going to order it. I was on a high for days afterward. I could do this again any time. London Book Fair, anyone? Do I hear Frankfurt?

Mimi Cummins is coauthor of Christmas Cookies Are for Giving: Recipes, Stories, and Tips for Making Heartwarming Gifts, published by Tyr Publishing in September 2003. For more info, visit www.christmascookiesareforgiving.com, or e-mail info@tyrpublishing.com.

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