Sunday, May 25, 2008

Advice for the Book Expo

Are you going to Book Expo America (BEA)? Need some helpful hints? Here’s what I learned from this wonderfully enormous book trade show. (For an overview of the conference, check out this post.) See below for advice about how to get free books, meet authors, and not break your back. If you’re looking for tips for authors, they’re at the end of the post.

Plan ahead
Make a list of the authors and publishers that you're the most interested in. Don’t be embarrassed to bring a spreadsheet (your friends will only make fun of you for a few minutes, and then they'll start using it.)

Authors sign books in two places… in the official autograph area and in their publisher’s booths. The advantage to the autograph area is that you can see several authors in a short period of time without running around the convention center. The advantage to the in-booth signings is that you can be walking around the exhibits and stumble upon your favorite author. It’s also a good way to discover an interesting book. Both formats work fine.

To make sure that you see all the authors you want to see, make a list before the conference starts. BEA has a variety of autograph schedules on their website that are vital to the planning process. I typically rely on the ones sorted by date and time, and the Friday/ Saturday/ Sunday schedules at a glance.

Go through BEA’s list (it will take a little time, but it’s absolutely worth every minute) and create a spreadsheet. Write down every author that sounds interesting to you and list the day, time, booth numbers (both for the booths in the autograph areas and the publisher booths) and the title of the book that they’re signing. If you’re using Excel or a similar spreadsheet program, when you’re done with your list you can sort it by day and time, so you’ll have a complete schedule of what booth to go to at what time. Even though you might have more authors on your schedule than you think you could ever see in a limited time period, put them all on your list just in case something else takes longer or shorter than you expect.

It’s important to know which book an author is signing because some authors autograph more than one book during the course of the convention. You want to know which book you’re standing in line for. BEA is not the place to bring previously published books for authors for to sign. The authors and publishers are there to publicize this year’s books, not last year’s.

It's also a good idea to make a separate list of all the publishers that you're really interested in. Sort this spreadsheet by booth number, so that you'll find the publishers as you walk up and down the endless aisles. Book Expo has pavilions, which are essentially groups of similar publishers. For example, all the travel publishers will be in the same general area. This isn't to say that all the travel publishers will be there, but if there's a pavilion on a subject you're interested in, that's a great place to start.

As you write up your publisher list, you'll notice that some large publishers seem to be sharing the same booth. This typically means that a publisher has multiple imprints (see this post for more about what an imprint is). You'll find that these publishers have one huge booth but are displaying many different catalogs and books because their company owns several smaller companies.

Get there early
There are a few high-profile authors that you need tickets for in order to attend their signings. As soon as you arrive (even before the exhibit hall opens) go immediately to the ticket booth in the lobby. The tickets are free and you can get up to four tickets per day (meaning 1 ticket for 4 different authors). They run out quickly, so be sure to get to the ticket booth early.

Don't take everything you see
There are tons of free handouts available at the BookExpo. Take only what you're interested in (or what a friend or colleague who didn't get to go would be interested in). If there's a free book or an ARC (advance review copy) that you already have access to, or have absolutely no interest in or use for... leave it for someone else. The same rule applies for fliers, tote bags, pens, and all the other freebies you'll see. Don't worry; you'll still acquire tons of free stuff.

Books are heavy
Obviously, you already know this. But, after you cram 50 free books into a tote bag, you'll realize that you can't physically stagger around the conference center anymore and you'll start judging books by weight, not quality.

Here's a tip for how to avoid breaking your back. As soon as the exhibit halls open on the first day, find the mailing center. It's usually in the back of the exhibition area and you can use it for directly mailing books home from the convention center. There are lots of empty boxes available. Write your name (or the name of your bookstore, library or organization) in big letters on the outside of the box and put it somewhere you'll remember it (like next to a pillar). Every few hours, come back to the box and dump out the books you're lugging around. At the end of the conference, mail the books home directly from the mailing center.

What if you live in the city where the Book Expo is being held? Shouldn't you just drag the books to your car instead of paying for postage? Nope. I tried this the first day of the Book Expo I attended which was in my home town and it was impossible, even with a personal courier service (my husband and his car) parked just outside the exit. I lugged 3 (or maybe four) BOXES of books across the convention center (the mailing center was in the back of the exhibit hall... nowhere near the exit). I didn't have a dolly or a cart (because they’re not allowed in the exhibit hall) and it was awkward, painful, and incredibly time consuming. The next day, I mailed the books home... and it was worth every penny not to go through that again. If it's not in your home town, don't even think about it. Just mail the books home.

Even if you decide not to mail the books... you should still set up a box in the mailing center so you have a place to put the books during the convention. If there's something extremely valuable (like a signed first edition by your favorite author that you don't want to lose under any circumstances) you may want to keep it with you. But, as the day goes on and your tote bags get heavier (and you pick up a surprising number of signed first editions by your favorite authors), you'll probably end up putting more books in the box (or boxes) than you expect.

How do you get free books?
You've walked up and down several rows in the exhibit hall and you don't see any publishers giving away books. You can't seem to acquire even two or three books... let alone the boxes I've mentioned above. Here's how:

Go to the booths of the large publishers. You'll find multiple copies of books laid out on the floor or on tables in big stacks. You can take these... and if there's a publisher that you're really interested in, you might want to check back at their booth later during the conference, because they'll put out different books on different days. Smaller publishers are less likely to have the funds to do this.

Ask for them. Publishers bring tons of books with them, but don't have the quantities to put every book out in a stack for everyone to take. If there's a book you're dying to read, find out who the publisher is, go to their booth and tell them what book you're looking for. If they don't have a copy with them, they may be able to send you one after the conference is over. Or not. But, it's always worth it to ask. And, even if you don't get to walk away with one, they'll probably have a copy on display that you can take a look at (which is particularly useful for picture books).

Go to the autograph sessions. The books being handed out (both in the autograph area and the in-booth signing) are free. Plus, you get the author's signature and a chance to talk to them. If an author has no line in front of them at an autograph session, and their book sounds interesting, go up and meet them. You may discover something special. I found this was a great strategy to find new picture books I hadn’t heard of.

Talk to the vendors

Don't just look at them as a source of free books. The Book Expo gives you a chance to share your opinions with the publishers and ask them about your favorite and forthcoming books. They may know an interesting detail about an author or the creation of a book that will help you "sell" a book when you get back home (in a bookstore, in a library, in a review, etc.) And they'll be interested to hear your feedback about their books and products. And ask them any questions you have. They know a lot more about their books than what's in the catalogs.

Talk to the other attendees

The book industry is fully represented on the floor of the convention center. Talk to the people that you're standing in line with and sitting next to at lunch. BookExpo is a great melting pot of booksellers, librarians, publishers, authors and anyone else you can think of that has an interest in books. It's a great place to get advice and new ideas.

Advice for authors

I’m not an author, but here’s what I would do if I were one. First, if I were anywhere remotely near the town the BookExpo was being held in, I would make it my business to go to it regardless of whether my book was being published this year, next year or last year. Once there, I would go out of my way to meet everyone connected with my publisher.

Authors already know their editors, obviously. But, as a book buyer, I don’t meet with editors, I meet with sales reps. (For an great description of what a rep does, see Alison Morris’ excellent post at Shelftalker.) The reps are the ones on the front lines doing the selling, and they’re also the people standing in the publisher booths talking to passerby during the conventions. Introduce yourself to them. If you’ve had a book published recently with that house (or it’s forthcoming in the current season), they probably already know who you are and have most likely talked to tons of buyers about your book. Talk to them and listen to their feedback. If every book buyer hates the cover of your book, or loves the main character, they’re the ones that hear it. Don’t neglect to talk to the publicists either, who are another crucial part of selling your book. Basically, if they’re part of your publishing house in any way, get to know them.

Be nice during the autograph sessions. Remember that the people waiting in line to see you are (for the most part) booksellers and librarians. Each one has the power to get your book into the hands of hundreds of people. Don’t be rude to them. They’ll remember. As a bookseller, I can tell you that when a customer loves a particular author’s books, it’s a real treat to be able to say that the author is just as lovely in person.

Don’t be discouraged if nobody is in line to receive a free autographed copy of your book. There are so many books and authors at the convention that sometimes even famous authors can have little to no line in front of them. Every person who does get a copy of your book, (no matter how many or few that number may be) has a chance to discover your work, so enjoy talking to the people who do come up to you. And remember, that it takes a little time to get established. Two years ago, I saw a big stack of free copies of Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney available at the BookExpo. A few people took them, but I passed the stack several times during the conference, and it didn’t move much. Now that Diary of a Wimpy Kid has been on the bestseller lists for a while, I’d imagine those same books would go in a heartbeat today.

Go to the booths of publishers that produce books in the field you work in. If you’re a writer of cookbooks, check out other cookbooks and see what other people are writing. If you write early chapter books, pick up a stack of early chapter books to get an idea of the current state of the genre. Talk with other authors and publishers who work in your genre to get advice, feedback and share tips.

Above all, have fun. It’s wonderful to meet old, new and potential friends, colleagues, and fans, to get to know your publisher, to interact with other authors in your field and make wonderful discoveries.

And, if (like me) you can’t go to the Book Expo this year, don’t worry. There’s always next year. If you have any helpful hints, I’d love to hear them. Let me know in the comments if you have advice for Book Expo attendees, and I’ll be sure to try it out next year when the convention is back on the east coast.


  1. Two additions:
    1) The books are usually not free in the autograph lines. You must donate a dollar to get in line. This can add up if you have many lines you want to be in. An alternative is to go early and find where they are selling "gold" stickers. You put this on your nametag and you don't need to keep adding dollars every time. (The availability of Gold stickers varies from venue to venue -- some venues don't use it.)

    2) Wheels aren't allowed on the exhibits area, true. But have you noticed the luggage area? At BEA last year in Washington, DC, I took the subway along with my empty rolling suitcase. Then I strolled the aisles with my tote bag gathering stuff. When it got too heavy, I simply dumped the stuff into my rolling suitcase. After a few trips, the guys as the suitcase area get to know you and all you have to do is wave and walk over to your suitcase and dump the stuff in. The subway station is right under the convention center, so at the end of the day I rolled my booty home. (parked my car out by the beltway.)

    The suitcase area is a busy place because many people do this. -wendieO

  2. The autographing fee is really just a suggested donation. I didn't see many people donating, and I didn't see anyone being prevented from getting in line who did not pay the dollar.

    Also, you can't always assume books out on a publisher's/distributor's table are free - particularly if it's a small press. Just because they have a big stack doesn't necessarily mean they're yours for the taking.

    And I totally agree with being selective with freebies. The first BEA I attended, I picked up EVERYTHING and ended up with mountains and mountains of books and swag - only a small portion of which I ended up having any interest in. This year, I was super selective and came home with just a couple of piles of items I'm really curious about.

    Also, your feet WILL hurt if you stand/walk around for 8 straight hours. And the halls in the LA convention center with the exhibits are not right next to each other - there's a pretty long walk - so planning of your schedule is important.

    I have tried to do BEA in one day twice now, and it really isn't possible...even though I got there at 9 AM and stayed until 5. Fun, yes. Exhausting, DEFINITELY!