BookExpo America 2002 in NYC

BEA (formerly called ABA, for American Booksellers Association Trade Show & Exhibit) is attended by booksellers, buyers, vendors, librarians, journalists, authors, publishers - anyone whose vocation has much ado about books. It is the largest gathering of book people in North America, and is a combination selling show, educational forum, promotional event -- and party. A special Small Press section is designated for independent authors and publishers, with booth space available for $850.

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Making the Most of Exhibiting at BookExpo America
Blake Stevens owns and manages Collector Grade Publications in Cobourg, Ontario. The market for his books is limited and very specific. Stevens publishes gun books. The Sten Machine Carbine, The Bren Gun Saga and Kalashnikov, the Arms and the Man, are just a sampling of the titles produced by this completely independent publisher. The "coffee table" books are high quality, well illustrated, and historically meticulous. When Stevens formed his company in 1979 he faced the problem confronting all new independent publishers -- distribution. "I started by traveling around the country to gun shows. I got sales, but it was one or two at a time and strictly retail. Then some other exhibitors started buying in bulk from me. That meant I could no longer sell against my new customers, and I needed another vehicle to promote Collector Grade." To Stevens the answer seemed obvious -- the greatest collection of book retailers were to be found at the major book shows -- so for three years Stevens attended BookExpo America and the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs.

"The first thing to understand is that it is very expensive. You have travel, accommodations, and food, all on top of the space rental. Also, I realized early on that independent publishers at the major shows face a visibility problem. Generally we were shunted off to the periphery of the fairs. That meant a decrease in the amount of passing traffic. You really had to work at meeting people." But perseverance paid off. Contacts were made at the fairs and today, Stevens does less than 1% of his business in his homeland of Canada. The other 99% comes from the rest of the world.

Stevens went into the shows with clearly defined objectives and succeeded in meeting them. That is important because many people go into shows without a great deal of thought or experience - a sure recipe for disaster. But with some pre-planning and some understanding of the rules of the "show" business, it doesn't have to be that way.

There are two types of show. A CONSUMER show is open to everybody. A TRADE show restricts admission to people from a particular trade or associated trades (the general public is excluded) and the visitors will be fellow professionals. The forthcoming BookExpo America (BEA) to be held at New York's Jacob Javits Center from May 1st-5th is one of the largest Trade shows in North America, and in the publishing world is exceeded in size only by the Frankfurt Book Fair.

While there are small differences between a "consumer" and a "trade" show, the rules for success as an exhibitor are similar for both. Exhibiting at any show is not cheap. Bruce Robertson is a former show producer and now sells space in a variety of different shows. "The show I'm selling at the moment costs $1,200 for a 2 1/2 day show and that's pretty much the average." What do you get for that? Not a lot. "You get a 10 x 10 ft piece of concrete with drapes, nothing else. Exhibitors are obligated to put down a piece of carpet." If you want an electric outlet - an essential according to most experts- that's an extra $100. If you opt for a corner site expect to see the price jump by 10% to 15%, but "well worth it" according to Robertson who says "shows are like real estate, the important thing is location, location, location, and the corner site gives you two selling sides."

BEA is charging $3,100 for a standard 10' x 10' booth during the three-day exhibition period of the show. (There is also a special Small Press section with furnished booths available for $850. Email Jason Krulewitz at for more info.) Christopher Lush sells space at BookExpo. "This is a very big show which mixes the small independents with the giants such as Random House or Collins. That means smaller exhibitors have to be very careful in making sure their stands are attractive and well laid-out, and that potential customers are identified BEFORE the show starts. Tell your existing and future customers that you will be at the show and where you can be found." Lush also suggests that an advertisement in the show catalogue will pay immediate dividends during the show and research has shown that visitors tend to keep the catalogue, so it provides continued exposure throughout the year.

Margit Weisgal runs Sextant Communications in Maryland, and is a show consultant and trainer. "When you include ALL the costs, including travel, design of the stand and the amount of material you will provide for visitors to take away, costs can quickly run up to $6,000 to $7,000 for a 10 x 10 booth. That's a lot of money. You could buy a lot of advertising for that, so it is essential to plan carefully before signing up."

Surveys point out that most show attendees turn right upon entering and keep moving in that direction until they reach the end, and then reverse and leave by the door through which they entered. "That means most stands get two whacks at the customers", Robertson claims. When asked about the most common mistake exhibitors make, he had a one-word answer: "Chairs." Weisgal agrees. "Chairs are terrible, they say to the customer, don't bother me, I don't want to talk to you." Robertson has seen some exhibitors not only sitting in a chair, "but also reading the paper, you just know that guy is wasting his money. Of course exhibitors will get tired after a long day, they need a break, but don't take that break at the stand -- go sit in the exhibitors lounge."

The most important part of planning is to understand why you are at the show. Increased visibility for your company name and advertising are useful byproducts, but are not enough to justify the expense of a show. "The only thing that makes a show worthwhile is to sell your product or meet people who will buy your service or product within the next year," says Weisgal. "On average, an individual working a stand can talk to between 7 to 15 people an hour, and that easily beats any comparison with the numbers seen by an agent making sales call. In that respect shows represent good value"

Before you can talk to those potential customers you must get them into your stand. Dr. Allen Konopacki of Chicago's Incomm Center for Research & Sales Training says an attractive stand is just one ingredient; the staff people in the booth are just as important. "A prospect's impression of an exhibit starts 20 to 30 feet before they enter the exhibit. A staff member who is standing in front of the exhibit will turn people away so stand to the side." The other major deterrent to visitors is staff talking to each other. "People are unwilling to interrupt salespeople talking to each other. Strangely enough, prospects do not show the same reluctance to approach a salesperson who is alone or busy. In a retail store customers are quite happy to ask questions of an employee who is stocking shelves."

The analogy with a retail store is well chosen because, as Robertson says, "A show is just a moveable shopping mall, and your space is your outlet in the mall, so treat it as that and you will be halfway to succeeding." Weisgal agrees: "People go to a mall to buy, the store owners are there to sell. A show is the same. You have to sell." That means accepting some basic rules:

* Make your booth as attractive as you can. "Exhibitors stand in their booth and look out at the people passing by, really, Weisgal says. "They should be looking at it as the public does. Look at your stand honestly. Ask yourself, 'If I were walking by would I stop and go into this stand? Would I like to buy something from this merchant?' If not, figure out why, and come up with ways to make it more appealing." Christopher Lush agrees: "You must have an exhibit which is eye appealing enough to make people stop. Once they've stopped, the people manning the booth must engage them in conversation."

* Keep your booth tidy and welcoming. Robertson has two quick tips: "Put a nice piece of carpet down. It improves the look and is easier on the feet." (Of course, it will also add to the cost of the stand.) "Then clear away newspapers and coffee cups. This space is your branch office, an extension of your business, and if the stand is messy, people will think your business is messy too. Make sure the people manning the booth are neat and tidy as well. Don't allow smoking or eating, this is a place of work."

* Don't stop people coming into your booth. One of the things that angers Weisgal "is to see a stand with a table covered with a pile of products or hand-outs blocking the front of the booth. Imagine going into a store and finding the entrance blocked by a display. You want people to come into your stand. A table stuck across the front puts people off, and it makes conversation very difficult. If you really need a table, put it against the back wall. Perhaps you don't need a large table -- perhaps you can use small pedestals or some such. Be different, be imaginative."

* Be careful with the handouts. It's a familiar sight to anyone who has attended a show: visitors leaving with a large plastic bag stuffed with expensive glossy handouts. What do you think happens to that literature? Right, most of it gets junked. A study conducted by the U.S. Trade Show Bureau says 60% to 80% of that material is thrown away. In fact major convention centers and hotels often arrange to have extra dumpsters delivered because they know there will be a big increase in garbage. Make sure YOUR handouts are directed at existing customers or people who have a real potential of becoming a customer.

* Don't be afraid to use gimmicks and be imaginative. "Sound and light are two very important ingredients for attracting customers," says Robertson. "It doesn't have to be loud raucous music, it can be a voice track or a video, but people hear a sound and they are drawn to the source of the sound, if that source is your stand, you've got them interested, and then you have to capitalize on that interest."

* Guarantee visitors before the show starts. "Do extensive mailing before the show," says Lush. "Use your mailing list, and everyone that has visited you before and left a business card should get a letter of invitation. Take space in the show catalogue so people know where to find you."

* The show does not end when the show ends. In some ways the end of the show is the beginning of the work. One thing on which all the experts agree, follow up after the show is vital if you want to achieve the best results. Everyone who has visited your stand and left a business card should get a note two days after the show ends. That note thanks them for dropping by and includes another brochure that reinforces your name and products. "That brochure is much more likely to be read than the ones picked up at the show," says Weisgal.

Organizers expect 20,000 industry people to visit BookExpo America. That's a lot of potential customers, but not all of them will be interested in YOUR publications. So, one important duty of any exhibitor is to evaluate your results after the show. Blake Stevens did that, and while he won't be at this year's BookExpo, he's happy with the results he obtained from his show trotting years. This year he has decided that further show attendance will not improve his distribution network, so he's staying home. You must reach your own conclusion, says Margit Weisgal: "Set your goals, know what it cost you to exhibit, know what business the show brought in, and the question of whether to show again next year is easy."

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Brian Slemming is a freelance writer living in Ontario, Canada. During a career which has involved everything from driving a London cab, to producing TV news programs, he spent a period in the sales business and spent many long hours on a variety of trade stands.