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Don’t Waste Your Money: Creative Strategies for Investing in the Right Publishing Events

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by Kristen McLean, Director of New Business Development, Nielsen Book

Kristen McLean

Doesn’t it seem like every time you open your inbox, there is another conference announcement, trade show reminder, or early-bird invite?

These events are an important part of our culture, but conferences and trade shows can be expensive propositions for publishers, especially if you are exhibiting. With travel and show fees, booth expenses, and collateral, a single show can represent a significant chunk of an independent publisher’s marketing budget for the year—even sending a staffer or two to a one-day conference can take a big bite.

On the other hand, a great conference or trade show can be an extremely efficient way to speak to your core customers, acquire new contacts, get the latest best practices, and expand your horizons with new ideas and creative input.

The trick is taking a strategic approach that will give you the best ROI.

Start by asking these two questions:

1. Where is your business in its developmental arc, and what kind of relationship building would support your deeper business priorities?

Starting here and thinking beyond the topline of “more revenue” will often sharpen your thinking right away.

Everyone wants “more revenue”—what is your path to get there? Is it investing in breakout content for your list? Finding new customers in related markets? Getting larger sales from existing customers? Adding new products or lines of business? Finding new internal talent?

For instance, if you have a young press and you want to grow quickly, you might want to build your reputation with writers and agents, investing in an appearance at a rights fair like The International Rights Centre at London Book Fair, or a writer’s conference like Romance Writers of America (RWA) might make sense. There is a writer’s conference for every specialty—make sure you pick wisely, and go for conferences where pros and credible agents attend. These are great places to raise your profile by speaking.

Alternately, you might want to cultivate booksellers, librarians, or teachers—the people who can put your books in the hands of readers. In such a case, look at pitching an author at ABA Winter Institute, or exhibiting at an ALA conference to connect with those important gatekeepers in an intimate way. Check out EDexpo or the International Reading Association to tap into schools.

If you are a mature press, you may want to focus on bigger shows where the majority of your current clients are in attendance so you can see them face-to-face. Chances are, BookExpo America, the Frankfurt Book Fair, or the Bologna Children’s Book Fair is still going to be your crossroads, although how you configure your attendance for maximum return is important.

Perhaps you have reached a business plateau and need to shake things up a bit or gain specialized knowledge to jump-start your growth again. How about trying a show that is in a related area, such as digital content (Books & Browsers, Digital Kids Summit), product licensing (Licensing Expo, Women in Toys) creative thinking (Sandbox Summit, 99U, C2Montreal), or professional education (Firebrand Community Conference, Adobe Summit), to infuse business with fresh inspiration?

Bonus: Most of these shows and organizations have networking events and smaller regional get-togethers, which is a fantastic way to network without the big ticket price. Look for a meetup or networking event near you.

Bottom line: Don’t just do the same old, same old. Be strategic and think ROI—maybe attending a different event this year will bring new rewards?

2. What is the right configuration for my company to be in attendance?

Once you’ve decided on what kind of event would best build your business, you need to decide how to attend. Should you exhibit? Rent a private meeting space? Make advance appointments and walk the floor? Apply to speak? Place your books with a group exhibitor like IBPA or Combined Book Exhibit? Host a small dinner or co-sponsor a mixer?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer here; your best solution will be a factor of cost versus impact.

Just keep asking yourself “What will get me the most bang for the buck?” Sometimes the highest price tag isn’t going to give you the highest reward.

Speaking is a great way to gain credibility as an independent press, and it typically has the bonus of coming with free passes to the show. Put together a genuinely interesting panel or presentation proposal on a catchy topic—not a sales pitch—and submit it to the show you want to attend. Invite prominent people you want to network with to join you on the panel, and kill two birds with one stone.

Likewise, hosting a dinner can be very effective and much more affordable than taking a booth. Talking in an intimate way with one or two key people will often yield more opportunity than hundreds of strangers parading by your too-expensive booth. Who do you want to network with? Create your own opportunities.

Finally, think carefully about who needs to go. Do you have a junior rep with a winning personality—a real go-getter? Maybe sending that person with good marching orders and targeted goals will get you further than sending someone who is more broken in and less inclined to step out of their comfort zone.

Bottom line: Think creatively. How can you attend the right event, meet the right people, and do business without burning down the barn?

Keep in mind the Designer’s Rule of Three: “There is good, cheap, and fast. You can only have two out of three at the same time.” Cost-effective strategies like a speaking slot or planning a dinner require more lead time for success.

So start planning now for 2017. Ask yourself these questions, and chances are pretty good that you can accomplish more work with fewer resources, and come out ahead in every way.

Kristen McLean is the director of new business development at Nielsen Book, a part of Nielsen Entertainment, where she is responsible for developing new lines of revenue from existing products, as well as creating new initiatives that expand Nielsen’s value to its publishing clients. In the past two decades, she has attended trade shows on five continents, and she thinks some of the best trade show conversations happen in hallways.

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