Trade Fairs: They’re all about the booksellers

A couple weeks ago at the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association (MPIBA) Trade Show, I helped out at a booth for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the local Mystery Writers of America. While I was there, it struck me that many beginning authors and writers don’t know much about book trade fairs.

Are we talking about the Frankfurt Book Fair and BEA?

I’ll use the term “trade fair” for any exhibition or conference where publishers push the latest and greatest in their frontlist, usually books with the most potential for selling well. They’re showing them to people who have buying/ordering authority.

A trade fair can be small, such as when Scholastic came by my local middle school, and it can be local. The MPIBA Trade Show was for local Rocky Mountain Area booksellers. If you want to find smaller trade fairs in your area, search through local Independent Bookseller organizations. The BookExpo America (BEA) Conference is probably the biggest trade fair in America. I’m calling it a trade fair but it’s also an industry conference, as is the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is globally oriented.

Sounds like a great place to plug my book or pitch my next project!

Hold on there, cowboy. Just like other industry exhibitions, these fairs may be closed to the general public (just like those shiny Tool shows on HGTV). You can pay to be an exhibitor, but that’s pricy for the average author (cheapest booth price for BEA is around $4000, a first-time/discounted exhibitor package at Frankfurt is around $2500, depending upon the Euro exchange rate). Exhibitor badges are usually tied to exhibitor space or booths. Some fairs have days when they’re open to the public (for an entrance fee), but much of the networking here is above the individual author level. For instance, Frankfurt is usually the place for negotiation of non-English rights for published books, series, and lines. At BEA, most attending authors are being showcased by their publishers and it’s tough to get an open autograph session. Even if you can get general entry, I hope you’ve figured out that these fairs are not forums for stalking your favorite editor/agent and pitching to them in the restroom.

Of course, once I say that, I find this exception. The following is an advertisement on the Frankfurt Book Fair web page. If you’ve got the money, there’ll be publishers who can talk to you about vanity publishing or self-publishing (not the same thing, but that’s a topic for later):

Advertisement for Authors, Frankfurt Book Fair 2010
Advertisement for Authors, Frankfurt Book Fair 2010

How can authors support trade fairs?

If your publisher asks you to attend a trade fair and support their booth, do it! If you’re asked to speak at a trade fair or be on a panel, you’re probably already well-known (and not reading my web site), but there’s always a chance that a debut author may be asked to attend. If so, congratulations! Your publisher thinks you have a lot of potential. Remember to address industry issues—this isn’t the time to focus on yourself or your own pet projects.

What about the rest of us? The authors who aren’t topping the NYT Bestseller lists… yet. Local trade fairs are a good place to start, and the costs can be kept low if you work through a writer group or organization. For instance, the RMFWs and the local MWA chapter shared the rental of a exhibitor booth at MPIBA (many thanks to Mario Acevedo, who arranged this!).

When running a booth, try to offer something to interest local booksellers. They’ll probably want to know about writer organizations and how to contact them, in case they want to schedule an event. Be familiar with all the authors who are “exhibited” at the booth, because you’ll encounter niche booksellers. And they’ll have limited bandwidth; even though we spread out bookmarks and promo material for individual books, I noticed booksellers were much more interested in picking up organizational information such as the MWA booklet of published members, or signing up for the RMFW Published Author mailer (which has upcoming releases from RMFW members). They didn’t have time to research individual authors/books, but they were interested in bulk information sources.

Remember, it’s all about the booksellers. And right now, booksellers are the still the major avenue for getting our books into the hands of readers—although the times, they are a-changin…. Yet another subject.

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