A member of the Visionary Fiction Alliance, a group of authors, readers, and aficionados of visionary fiction, asked if the big book conventions or fantasy conventions help indie authors and small presses. I shared the following story on the Visionary Fiction Facebook page.
Or shared most of it. My post must have been too long for FB; the ending got cut off. I’m posting what I said on FB here, so readers can get the whole thing.
This is the complete story of my one time attendance at the BEA–Book Expo America back in 2009. Does it answer the question? As a statistician, I only can say that a sample of one case does not a valid conclusion make.
In 2009, I attended the Expo, a very green author with two books in print. In 2015, I’ve got ten books out and two more in production, with stack of manuscripts on my hard drive. My books have also won thirty national awards and I’ve been a bestselling author, often for days at a time. (Sales are the trickiest part.) Now, things might be different.
Would I go to BEA or any big fantasy or other convention? Probably not, as will be explained below, but if I did, it would be after great deliberation and analysis. I’d want it to be in LA or some California city: the event has been held in NYC in recent years and will be this year. These conventions are huge. To get an idea of the scale of the exhibit, look at this floorplan of the BEA main hall in 2015. Purple squares are rented space; turquoise is available. Hover the cursor over the space to see who rented it. Notice the huge Chinese presence: this event’s attendance is worldwide.
One new development might change my conclusions. In 2015, Book Expo America will be combined with the debut of BookCon, a new consumer event featuring the big name authors in popular writing. The new event will be a combined trade show, BEA, followed by the consumer event. BEA-BookCon 2015 runs from May 27 to 31 for the combined events. The addition of BookCon to BEA may tip the scales for a smaller author or publishing house. Wholesale orders could be placed at BEA, but books were not sold to customers. Joining a retail event like ComiCon, which drew 130,000 attendees in 2013, to BEA with retail sales possible could totally upend everything I say.
Or not. Depends upon what they require of people showing at the event. Will indie authors and micro presses be allowed? Participants will have to have stock on hand to sell. Hundreds of print books? Thousands? A way to download eBooks on the spot? With BookCon, the big, big time will become even bigger.
BookExpo America event director Steven Rosato notes in his blog, “BEA Orlando, BEA Dallas, BEA Atlanta—well, I will start looking at prison camps first.”
He’d rather look at prison camps than Dallas? I’m glad I got to got to BEA in 2009. It’s a world-class event, and getting worldlier.
Here’s my tale of entering the big time:
* * *
I went to the BEA–Book Expo America–when my book Numenon came out in 2009. BEA is the largest book fair/convention in the country, then and now. The year we went, it was in LA at Staples Center. Check out the images on their website, keeping in mind that Barry and I are country mice. We went into instant culture shock in the multi-story parking lot.
Seeing that LA is only 2.5 hours from our ranch, as opposed to being on the other side of the continent. We went.
Getting in cost $150. I can’t remember that was just for me or $150 each for my husband and I. We were hosted at a booth taken by the IBPA, Independent Book Publishers Association. They’re the biggest and oldest organization representing indie authors and presses. The organization was known as the PMA back then. The IBPA hosts the Benjamin Franklin Awards, which may be the most prestigious contest for indie books. They READ every word of a book they’re judging. It’s very tough. The IBPA does great things for Indies and is worth joining.
Book Expo America DID have little cost in addition to the $150 entry fee: any author exhibiting there had to do a book signing and GIVE AWAY fifty copies of his/her book(s). We originally published Numenon as a hardback, to that cost was not inconsiderable.
My signing was scheduled at the IBPA booth. I don’t know why I was there as opposed to the “signing room” with all the major authors. Probably because we decided to go at the last minute and the main room was full. The “signing room” was a very large, corridor-like room with long tables running down both sides. Each author had about two feet of the table’s pristine, white-clothed real estate within which to sign books.
Carrie Fisher was there with a new book. A line of people wanting an autographed copy stacked up in front of her, moving from her perch, out the door, disappearing into the massive main hall beyond.
Here’s a funny story: we used a book consultant in producing my first two books. She’s the one who told us about the BEA and got us to go. One of her other clients, an adorable and ancient MD, had written his memoir. He had a colorful life as a Hollywood doc and I believe was a Holocaust survivor on top of that. He was signing his book at the same time as Carrie Fisher. She was swamped. He sat in front of a pile of his books, all alone.
Carrie looked over at him and shrieked, “Dr. Whatever! OMG! It’s Dr. Whatever! I love him! He’s my favorite person in the world.” He was her doctor. She jumped up and ran to the beaming physician. They embraced.
She went back to signing her book, but sent her line of I-want-your-autograph people to him after she signed her book. He was flooded with loving new fans and had a wonderful BEA experience.
I was sure that my signing would be a bust, even though BEA hires people with big signs to roam the aisles and point the crowds to authors having signings. I didn’t think they would help me. I was a two-book nobody and–Staples Center is HUGE, HUGE, HUGE! They had the main floor, a bridge over to another floor where the cafeteria was, more floors. Nooks and crannies full of authors and books.
I was in culture shock just parking the car. Where we live, cattle in the streets are the biggest traffic problem.
The big publishers, Random House and all the rest, monopolized the main floor with magnificent, specially-designed structures displaying their books. BEA is for booksellers–book stores, etc.–so the reps of the big 6 (or 5 or 3, now) publishers were all over taking orders from stores. Their presence was very professional and took up lots of very expensive floor space.
Smaller publishers, not the majors but substantial publishing houses, and I mean every friggin’ one of them, had smaller displays and booths arranged in rows radiating from the central core/temple area. The IBPA’s booth wasn’t too far back, but it was small and down an aisle. I would be forgotten.
On the other hand, the atmosphere was electric! I leapt into the crowds and didn’t look back. The bigger booths offered wine, appetizers, seating areas, famous authors on call, and FREE BOOKS. Everyone had to give away fifty, remember. MANY famous authors were there. OK, maybe not so famous, but I remember Carrie Fisher and I got meet Mark Victor Hanson and his entourage.
Crowds filled the space like circling flocks of birds or schools of fish, ignited by a celebrity sighting. Before my signing, I joined a stampede, unable to resist the gang mentality or my own excitement! Captain Kirk was there! With a new book! I didn’t even know William Shatner could write, but I always liked the fact that he rode horses.
I cruised the aisles myself, ending up with several shopping bags of books that looked interesting. All free–giveaways of new books and galleys is good business. All the publishers offered their bounty freely. The only catch was, due to union rules that no one but union members could use wheeled carts to move books or anything else, I had to heft my gleanings in bags that ended up weighing about fifty pounds each. But it was fun!
The seek-and-find mission distracted my attention from my feeling of impending disaster at my booksigning. I expected my signing to be about the same as that older doctor’s without Carrie Fisher’s intervention. I was way back in the aisles, in a small booth with an unknown book about the richest man in the world and a Native American holy man. I would be unable to even GIVE fifty books away. I’d have to take them home. (That mind-set is a residue of my social standing in third grade.)
IT WAS A DELUGE! Smiling people swamped the little booth, demanding that I sign my precious Numenon before giving it to them. Never in my life have I felt so popular! Being an author was wonderful! WONDERFUL! We were so smart to come to BEA! This was wonderful. The sales this exposure would generate would finance our retirement.
Only one thing marred it: Wandering around the aisles, I met a veteran of the Marines who had written his life story. He was published by a military press. Most regrettably, he’d been hit in the head by a missile as he was driving his tank in Iraq. He lived but was almost blinded, lost most of his hearing, and suffered terrible injury, from which he was rehabilitated as much as possible, which was what his book was about.
Nick Popaditch was an heroic and impressive figure in his dress uniform. His beautiful wife, a Native American woman, accompanied him. We chatted for a while and I invited him down the aisle a bit later, offering him a copy of Numenon.
I’d forgotten all about the couple when they appeared at my signing. He held her arm and walked slowly, more magnificent standing than he’d been sitting in his booth. Also grievously injured.
I’d forgotten to put a book away for him. In the melee, all of them had been given out, every single one! I gave them a copy of Stepping Off the Edge, my previous book, but the couple was visibly disappointed. I mailed a copy to the address he gave me, for Wounded Warriors. Never heard anything. They left, disappearing from my life.
I will plug his book; I found it very moving and inspiring. Nick Popaditch, Once a Marine.
Well, the Popaditch‘s didn’t get my book, but the rest had been a triumph. I had a blast with the holiday/cocktail party/star-struck/as-many-free-books-as-you-could-carry-away atmosphere. My book signing had been a great success! The books would go out into the world, and come back as sales and fame for me and my writing. What could be more fun?
My husband is very quiet and reclusive. He hated every minute of BEA.
* * *
When we got home, I looked at Numenon’s sale page on Amazon. Multiple copies of Numenon “signed by the author” were up for sale by many sellers. Also on eBay. Those excited people who came to my book signing were penny-ante booksellers grabbing free stuff to sell. They didn’t care about my book; they were trying to earn back the $150 it cost them to get in. I felt really ripped off.
OK. Much processing later. So I gave away a bunch of books. A well-known consultant to the book business once told me that books fail because there aren’t enough of them out there. “The book has to be visible. Give them away to get them into people’s hands. Give away LOTS.”
When it all shook out, I don’t know that I got a single review from those books or got anything at all.
Would I do it again? I would if I was Carrie Fisher and already had a following. Or if I was really rich and just wanted to go to a party about books and snag a couple of bags full for free. (Aside from Nick Popaditch‘s book, I don’t think I read any of those I picked up.)
That’s my experience at BEA. I did have a great time. I might have had a better time had I gone to some of the award presentations, starting the year before and in future years, when my books began to win prizes. That’s what you’re supposed to do if you win an award: pump it for all it’s worth. Get your face in front of cameras. Announce it everywhere. Scream it for the yarboards, or halboards. Rooftops. That’s called marketing. I’ve never gone to any of the ceremonies, wasting opportunities.
The IBPA puts on a great award ceremony for the Benjamin Franklin Award. Be sure and go, if you win. I was a finalist for that with my first book, Stepping Off the Edge in 2006 (or 7). Looks like the ceremony is separate from BEA now, but it used to be held in a location near the BEA at the same time. Also, the Independent Publisher has a great ceremony for winners in the IPPYs, its book award. Here’s a blog article by Lisa Shea, who won two awards in the IPPYs. She went to the ceremony and give a rundown of what it was like. I’ve won three IPPYs awards over the years, but didn’t go to their award ceremonies. Looks like I missed something.
Why didn’t I go to the award ceremonies? I’m not a “goer”: I didn’t attend any of my graduations after high school. The only reunion I’ve gone to was for the employees of the Santa Clara County Planning Department, where I worked for a long time. Loved those folks.
Would I go again if a fairy godmother gifted me? Sure, especially if I had an award to pick up. Otherwise, I’d want to build up my brand and visibility with every tool I had before venturing forth. Which is what Indie authors should be doing anyway.
I hope this tale is illuminating. I don’t know if conferences devoted specifically to fantasy or genres would be any different. I’d say: build your brand, your sales, your visibility, then evaluate going.