Should You Exhibit at Trade Shows?

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July 2015
by Brenda Avadian

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People often ask whether it’s worthwhile to exhibit at a trade or association show such as BookExpo America, the Frankfurt Book Fair, or the American Library Association convention.

Photo of BEA“Worth” often refers to the cost of exhibiting, which can range from $150 for display of a single title with IBPA to thousands of dollars for a booth plus airfare and hotel.

However, there’s so much more than costs to consider, including the potential for serendipity and gaining traction for your book(s). For this reason, it makes sense to consider exhibiting at one or more major shows if you have a marketable product to present.

A simple test for marketability starts with four questions that each need a Yes answer.

  1. Does the book fill a need, answer a question, or, at least, relate to a trending topic?
  2. Is the book professionally produced? (Has it been edited by a professional? Does it have a professionally designed cover and interior?)
  3. Is the book available through a wholesaler or distributor? (A professionally produced book is not enough; as Smashwords CEO Mark Coker has noted, “There’s a glut of high-quality e-books”; competition is getting fierce.)
  4. Are you willing to play by the current rules and offer books on returnable terms with trade discounts? (Wholesale discounts are typically 55 percent off the cover price. If you work with a distributor, the discount will be greater, typically around 65 to 70 percent with co-op advertising agreements.)

Unless you have a strong platform already, and/or your book has received major press coverage, and/or you’ve made a connection resulting in hundreds if not thousands of advance orders (it has happened), you, like the rest of us, must answer Yes to all four of these questions to conclude that exhibiting at major book fairs makes sense.

According to Bowker, the number of print books published with ISBNs in 2013 was a little over 300,000. This number does not include e-books, audiobooks, and reprints of public domain material. Let’s estimate conservatively that about 450,000 print books, e-books, and audiobooks are published in the United States each year. Divide that number by the days in a year and you’re competing with 1,233 books published every day, or 41 books an hour, 24/7.

Exhibit Opportunities

IBPA offers members affordable exhibit opportunities at three major shows each year—BookExpo America (BEA) in May, the American Library Association convention (ALA) in late June, and the largest international trade show, the Frankfurt Book Fair, in October. (If you decide that you want to reserve a space for your title at Frankfurt this fall, note that the IBPA deadline is August 29.)

Association Book Exhibit (ABE) at BookExhibit.com and Combined Book Exhibit (CBE) at CombinedBook.com, as well as other companies, offer opportunities to exhibit at association meetings and state library meetings. IBPA, ABE, and CBE cover the most exhibits.

Attending in Person

Investing in a face-out display of your book on a shelf at a show is one option. But you may amplify your results by being present, signing copies, and meeting face-to-face with potential buyers of books and rights.

I try to attend all shows within driving distance if I have one or two titles to display. If I have more, I try to attend when my schedule allows. Often, you can reduce costs by getting a complimentary exhibit ticket for the show. Share a room with a fellow publisher and you’ll save even more while making another connection in the industry.

I’ve attended both trade and association shows during the last two-plus decades. And I’ve presented at some association meetings where other companies (those that sell my books in their catalogs) displayed my titles, in addition to exhibiting with one of the companies mentioned earlier.

Today, with the glut of information, it takes more than seven impressions to break through. Writing and producing the book are major efforts, but they equal only a fraction of what you need to do to ensure traction in today’s marketplace.

Marketing and promotion are essential, and as with parenting, the real work begins after your book is born.

It’s important to review in advance who will be exhibiting at a show you decide to attend, and to plan whom you want to meet. Let as many people as possible know in advance that you’re attending.

Patience is important on exhibit floors. Sometimes overeager publishers and self-publishers push their way forward, demanding attention from busy exhibit personnel or exhibitors.

Don’t piss people off. Exhibitors invested thousands of dollars to exhibit, and their time is valuable. Stand back and wait until the person you want to talk with is not busy. If that person remains busy, move on. Or ask someone in the booth who is unoccupied about the best way to get attention for just a minute.

When you do connect with people, ask them whether they’re willing to answer a question or to share just a few minutes of feedback. Then really listen. Asking questions about what you hear is fine, but do not challenge people if you disagree. It’s a real turnoff.

In 1992, my humorous career development book, Drive North in Your Career! The Five Types of Career Drivers, captured the interest of people representing Pocket Books at ABA (today’s BEA). They talked with me about acquiring mass-market rights.

WOW, how exciting! But I kept putting off following up, although I spent plenty of time talking about this opportunity. This remains one of my biggest regrets in publishing.

Along with being patient, it’s important to be humble. Humility can be powerful in our world of Trump-style self-promoters.

Investing in a virtual or in-person coach or mentor who has had success at trade and association shows can help ease your learning curve as you try to decide whom to approach at a book fair, what to say, and how to handle the exhibit area where your book is displayed.

When Your Book Will Be There but You Won’t

Photo of Brenda Avadian and Eric RiddleThere will be times when it makes sense not to attend a show. Because of schedule conflicts, I’ve missed the last few BEAs. But I have faith that the yellow cover of STUFFology 101 featuring a woman’s hairdo filled with assorted mental clutter made at least a few impressions on IBPA’s display shelves.

As for Frankfurt, I have yet to attend, but I’ve sold translation rights around the world. IBPA makes this easy for publishers that exhibit with it, since its post-Frankfurt report includes contact information for publishers and agents interested in each participating publisher’s titles.

Given the expense of going to Frankfurt, when I decide to attend, I’ll buy space for displaying a handful of my newer titles, and I’ll do some groundwork, such as reaching out to agents and publishers well before the event. I’ll start with the agents and publishers who have bought rights to my books over the years. Then I’ll use a global rights resource such as PubMatch.com that lists publishers and agents representing titles in different genres.

Last year, IBPA’s post-Frankfurt report noted that four publishers and six agents from seven countries had expressed interest in STUFFology 101 at the Fair.

Recently, we agreed to terms with a Korean agent representing a publisher who found us by searching for a category of titles on Amazon. Clearly, it’s important to take advantage of all the opportunities that arise.

Two Bonus Tips

If you’ve read this far, you deserve two bonus tips—a distillation of what I’ve learned from my book-fair coaches and mentors.

If you have a newer title or edition, exhibit at ALA and BEA. Libraries as well as bookstores prefer stocking newer titles. Soon after we published STUFFology 101, I went to ALA with my coauthor. Predictably, librarians were not waiting expectantly for micropublishers to approach them. But serendipity may occur.

A chance encounter at ALA with the national sales director for one of the leading audiobook producers in America resulted in the sale of worldwide English audio rights for STUFFology 101. The audio edition was released in time for the Christmas holiday season and is now available at WalMart.com, among other places.

If you have a title that is selling well in the United States, consider exhibiting at Frankfurt one way or another, regardless of the title’s publication date.

Overseas publishers may want to acquire your title for widely varying reasons—perhaps it will fill a gap in a genre title lineup or it resonates personally for a publisher. The pub date may not be an important consideration for them.

Summarizing: These days, to raise your titles above others in the crowded marketplace of books published every day, use trade and association shows after answering yes to four questions, and follow up.


About the Author:

Photo of Brenda AvadianBrenda Avadian founded North Star Books, a Los Angeles–based micropublisher, 23 years ago, and she reports that she tenderly coaxes one book at a time to achieve sales reaching five figures, as well as rights sales. She writes more than 100 articles annually and recently began writing a monthly column for U.S. News & World Report. To learn more: “About Us” at STUFFology101.com and TheCaregiversVoice.com.

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