Having finally unwound from attending my first regional independent bookseller’s trade show, I would
like to share a few observations. Excuse me while I get my soapbox in place….
The pace was intense, with scarce time to think or analyze. For many booksellers, this is the only
event they attend, the only chance to view and get copies of the latest offerings (sales reps don’t
visit the smaller stores and outlying locales).
The large publishers were there in force, and their promotional authors-bags soon could be seen
bulging with signed copies of give-away books and galleys. Mid-sized publishers were represented, but
small publishers were few and seemed to get lost in the crowd.
This immersion in the booksellers’ world was enlightening, especially being thrown face-to-face
with the gritty truth of where we-as small, micro, and nano publishers-fit into that large world. This
is not a pleasant realization, and you have to be willing to look with eyes open, and ego well in
Frankly, booksellers have little need or desire for us or our books. Sure there are wonderful
exceptions, and we tend to gravitate and base our decisions on these friendly booksellers. But they
are not the majority. There are simply more than enough books out there, being published in
overwhelming numbers, throw-away fashion, by the mega-five. When you are surrounded by these (usually)
beautifully done books, you can see why a bookseller is not likely to take on a book that doesn’t look
quite so grand, one customers have never heard of and will probably not buy. In many cases, the
booksellers are so buried in mainstream books that they have no room for anything else.
I wish I had attended a trade show before publishing my first book. Just as the independent
booksellers are trying to come to terms with having to compete with megabucks Amazon and the large
chains, we small publishers have to come to terms with who and what we are competing with-including
the uncomfortable fact that there is little to no respect for the small and micro publishers in the
book world (pointed out bluntly by ABA’s Carl Lennertz who commented that the reason the small press
community was pretty much excluded in the first BookSense book promotion list was because they don’t
give away enough review copies).
I may decry this large scale censorship by money and size, and I do, but I also know I have to see
the whole picture before I can find my place within it. And I have to see it through THEIR eyes, not
my own. Discouraging? You bet. But that’s good. I think we need more dissuading in the small press
world. We don’t need more people selling how easy it is to publish a book. But we’re not likely to get
that discouragement from outside. There is no money in it.
This visit to the regional trade show has cemented my already growing conviction that our biggest
problem in the small press world is not one of how-to, it is one of quality-perceived and actual.
Booksellers don’t have time to sift through the unknown for the occasional gem that will sell; nor to
convince the busy shopper that the not-so-good-looking book is worth reading. There are exceptions
among booksellers, yes, but they are too few and too far between. I know I won’t be publishing another
title until I feel its packaging can stand side-by-side other books with confidence and hold its own.
And that its content will equal the best and surpass the majority. You can sell mediocrity-examples
abound from presses large and small-but as a reader, I’m tired of it. As a publisher, I know if my
covers aren’t of the best, my books will have little chance, no matter how good the content.
I will get off my soapbox now, with apologies. But I do encourage anyone who hasn’t yet done so to
attend a regional trade show, with eyes open. You have a year to save the money, and it will be worth
it (costs vary a lot, but I recall estimates from a previous list discussion of between $500 and
$1,000 total). Consider this a required cost of business, just as a good editor would be.
You can glean ideas by watching, listening, and talking. I’m very thankful that one of our
regional booksellers encouraged me to sign up for everything (being on a limited budget, I thought I
would skip anything that cost extra money). The events were good, yes, but the best part was standing
in line-a lot-with booksellers and talking. And sitting at a table with them, and talking. I was
fortunate to be a regional author signing books, so had a ribboned badge. But even if you aren’t, you
can wear your own nametag along with your show badge. Don’t sell-just listen and converse. I think I
made more progress connecting with booksellers those three days than in years of mailings.
Sue Robishaw is the author and publisher of five books, including the children’s story, “Rosita and
Sian Search for a Great Work of Art” and the engaging manual, “Homesteading Adventures, a Guide for
Doers and Dreamers.” You can write to her at ManyTracks Publishing, Rt. 1, Box 52, Cooks, MI 49817 or
reach her by e-mail at email@example.com. Her Web site address is www.up.net/~manytrac.
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