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How to Behave at a Book Fair: Tips on Getting the Most from the Experience

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Before I attended my first book fair, I asked around for advice. What should I expect? How should I approach the experience? The best tip I got was: wear comfortable shoes. You will be in constant motion for most of the day. High heels and tight footwear are better left at home. Wear gel insoles if you have them. Your feet will thank you later.

To add to that helpful hint, I attended a few book fairs myself, including this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, where the sights and sounds reminded me of the first day of high school: the halls smell like new books and you ask yourself, Where did all these people come from?

Book fairs are, of course, designed primarily to let booksellers, publishers, and distributors display their wares and make deals. Since prominent authors are often involved, you may see book signings with celebrities. There will be a kick-off meeting and an opening speech by a dignitary the first evening. But the real book fair experience starts the next morning, and whether the fair is large or small, there are several things you can do to maximize your benefits.

What to Do; What Not to Do

Be prepared.

Book fairs provide numerous opportunities to network. Research publishing companies and distributors before you get there. Go to your local library or use the Internet to discover basic facts about current titles, submissions guidelines, and editors’ names. When you get to the book fair, find the publishers that interest you in the catalog. Having done some legwork, you will be able to use valuable time efficiently.

Purchase the book fair catalog. It is money well spent, as it contains up-to-date Web-site addresses, mailing addresses, and a brief description of the types of books each publisher produces.

Make a list. Book fairs can be overwhelming. If you plan your day ahead of time, you will be better off later (for detailed advice on planning, see “The Matrix Method for Working Large Trade Shows” by Robin Bartlett in the Newsletter section at www.pma-online.org). List all the booths of interest to you and make your way to each one of them.

To blend into the scene, dress for success. Some people are creative in their garb, but I advise against wearing attention-grabbing costumes unless a book truly calls for it. If you present yourself professionally, chances are people will treat you that way too. Wear comfortable clothing without stains. This may sound basic to you, but I have been shocked by what people think is acceptable attire. Even an author who rarely sees the light of day should leave the pajamas under the pillow at home.

Study the brochures on display at the booths. Talk with the staff people and collect their business cards. Ask for names of relevant editors. More than likely, publishers will have sales reps at the booths. Sometimes the publishers themselves will be there. Identify yourself and ask everyone you talk with what their position is.

Do not present your book to people staffing booths. They won’t know what to do with it. It is better to collect business cards and follow up when everyone’s back in their offices. Handing out bulky media kits seemed fruitless; the chances of your information getting left behind are pretty high.

Study the booths themselves. A company’s presentation often reflects its character and capabilities. Collect front and backlist catalogs and flip through the displayed books. With a sample copy of a book in your hands, you can see what the publisher considers important.

Make friends. Hand out your business card to everybody you meet. Set a goal for the number of people you want to get to know and exceed it. Don’t listen to negative self-talk. Approach people in a friendly, polite manner. Probably they are as nervous as you are.

Listen to presentations. I made the acquaintance of one of my long-time heroes merely by approaching him after he spoke. I offered him my business card and invited him to my home the next time he came to town. You never know who will come to dinner!

Bring food, water, and a bag that carries your provisions well. Convention center prices can break the bank if your wallet is thin. Your bag may be subject to a security check so leave all dubious items at home.

Be articulate, and know your audience. A publisher needs to understand that you have marketing savvy as well as a great product.

Follow up with your contacts a week after the book fair ends. Call on a Tuesday morning around 11:00 a.m. rather than Monday at 8:30. Be polite and explain that the person you met at the booth suggested that you call.

Attending book fairs can be a fruitful experience if you are prepared, open-minded, and thorough in your investigations. For best results, treat each fair as a fact-finding mission.

Christine Louise Hohlbaum, the author of Diary of a Mother: Parenting Stories and Other Stuff, has been featured in national publications and on NPR and offers an online course–”How to Market Your Book,” http://get-me.to/bookPR–to help other authors land media spots. To learn more, visit www.DiaryofaMother.com.

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