Monday, June 3, 2013

In a Trade Show State of Mind

Trade shows are a necessary evil of doing business. Some folks love them (mostly folks who don't have to do setup), and there are lots of good things to say about them, but after so many years of attending them, exhibiting at them, and missing my children's birthdays because of them, I am allowed my occasional outburst.

Different shows have different personalities. The big trade shows are not so much about buyers buying books as they are about rights, marketing, and deals between agents, authors, and publishers. There are huge numbers of people at these shows, dressed for business, heads up, shaking hands, smiling their best business smiles, conversing loudly in their best business voices. Bargain shows, much smaller affairs, are rows upon rows of tables with books loaded on them. People are quietly hunched over, heads down, looking at the books, all of which are samples of quantities at the exhibitors' warehouses. When it's time to do the deal or make the purchase, the buyer steps around the table and sits with the sales rep or the owner and works it out, then moves along to the next table or booth. Rare book fairs are quieter still.

Book Expo, the London Book Fair, Frankfurt Book Fair, and the Beijing Book Fair are trade shows for the entire book industry and then some. Thousands of attendees for these behemoths include literary agents, trade buyers, used book buyers, bookstore owners, authors, and everybody else looking for opportunities to grow their businesses or careers. Exhibitors include publishers, trade and remainder wholesalers, distributors, freight companies, manufacturers of anything remotely book related, service providers, software companies, and, more and more often, self-published authors. Book Expo almost fills the Javitz Center in New York, about a city block. Frankfurt feels like, and may actually be, ten times that size. No one buyer can work an entire show of that size in the time allotted. Attendees know why they are there and focus on their agenda.

Trade shows are costly events. Even the smallest exhibitors can't get away for less than several thousand dollars. Attendees have flights, hotels, and everything in between. Budgets being tight, it becomes harder to justify these expenses.

And yet...

I was recently sitting with a customer in the booth of a wholesaler client when the wholesaler pulled a box off a hand truck and said these were new arrivals, titles that they had not had time to add to their inventory (hence not on the lists I send you). He cut the tape, opened the carton, and pulled out about a dozen samples. Among them was a copy of a particularly great title. My customer immediately ordered way more than the stated quantity, thereby ensuring that she would get all copies. So, one customer got all of one of my hottest titles of the last quarter, without anybody else seeing it. For this edition, not ever. So it is hard to do anything but recommend that you should attend trade shows.

Like many friends and colleagues, I make it a practice to walk the entire show, at least once. This is a quick walk through, looking left and right as I go, seeing what I missed, taking notes, not stopping for too long anywhere, trying to avoid getting into long conversations. Some of these notes might never be referred to again, but some turn into new lines, new leads, or new business plans. Now and then I run into someone who I have not seen for years and the reconnected relationship becomes important again.

At the bargain shows, such as GABBS, CIANA, and CIROBE, and regional shows, and maybe the rare and antiquarian shows, most of the attendees and exhibitors have been doing business with each other, or at least meeting with each other, for years. There is a feeling of family or tribe, with all the familial ups and downs. Loud arguments between family members, a little brawl now and then, enthusiastic sharing of fantastic and nasty jokes, shunning of collectively perceived ne'er do wells. There are meetings at trade shows that turn into actual marriages. Children grow up in these businesses. Sometimes one sees the adult child of a long-gone wholesaler manning his or her own booth, or taking the reins at the venerable parents' institution. There are moments of silence for members of the tribe who shuffled off the mortal coil between shows. Or at one. Doing business with the same people for decades is more than business.

The big shows don't have quite such a communal feel (though the fist fight I alluded to above did happen at one); but it's there in places. The big shows are islands in archipelagos. If you're a remainder buyer you can spend the whole show going island to island in that one archipelago, where everybody knows one another. If you go to the next archipelago, the language changes and the customs and rituals become unfamiliar. There's something called "returnable." Very strange.

When the show ends, we go off in our separate directions, knowing we will all see each other again at the next show, maybe thousands of miles away, in a foreign capital, where we will discuss books, print runs, customers, publishers, and, perhaps more importantly, what Manchester United did to Liverpool, or the Steelers did to the Ravens, or our children did to make us proud.

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