Writer’s Guide to Book Expo

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Reading

Tomorrow publishers, booksellers, writers and industry professionals gather in New York City for one of the most most magical–not to mention, massive–events of the book industry year. Book-lovers rush in droves toward that glorious concrete behemoth overlooking the Hudson River (AKA the Javits Center), united by a passion for the written word and the hope that they’ll discover that book they’ve been waiting for their whole lives. Book Expo America (BEA): where book meets world.

This year, Book Expo opens its doors to the public for the second time running with its BEA Power Reader program on the final day of the show. This one-day ticket offers readers and writers alike, a chance to scope out what’s new in the book industry for the coming year.

Which is why it’s about time DIY MFA put together comprehensive guide especially for writers to help them navigate this unique, exciting, and sometimes overwhelming event. There are a lot of websites out there with practical tips for Book Expo (my current favorite is this post at From Left to Write) but few articles delve into the nuances of how to make the most of this event on a professional level.

That’s where this guide comes in. I want to give you a deeper perspective so you can build useful connections at Book Expo, not just pick up mountains of Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) and swag. Don’t get me wrong, ARCs and swag are great but there’s so much more to Book Expo. We just need to re-frame our thinking a little.

Remember the All-Important W.I.I.F.M?

“What’s in it for me?” Sounds selfish, right? The truth is, this little nagging thought tugs at everyone’s mind at Book Expo, and whether they’ll admit it or not, deep down everyone is thinking this. Maybe you’re a publisher looking to promote and sell books, or you’re a book reviewer hoping to score the ARC of your dreams. No matter who you are, everyone has some sort of agenda. They key to building strong connections at an event like this is to stop thinking about what’s in it for you and think about what’s in it for the other person.

Let’s get real: this also business event. People go to Book Expo to make business connections and one of the best ways to do that is to try to align your agenda with that of the other person. The minute you start focusing on how you can help the other person, doors start to open up. Some obvious common sense tips:

  • Don’t offer something you can’t give. If you’re a reviewer, you can’t guarantee a positive review (duh) but you might be able to offer something else, like a Q&A or guest post opportunity for an author.
  • Don’t foist your wares. If you’re an unpublished author, do not pitch your book. Seriously. Don’t carry your manuscript or copies of your query letter (you’ll have enough to carry, believe me). This is a business event, not a pitch conference. Comport yourself accordingly.
  • Have a conversation. While I do have a general idea of what I’m looking to get from the show, I go into each individual interaction just looking for a good conversation. Usually as the conversation develops, the other person and I discover ways to help each other out that we hadn’t even considered before. These are happy moments of Book Expo gold.

Develop Your P.I.T.A. Radar

The last thing you want is to be a P.I.T.A. (pain in the you-know-what). What ends up happening, though, is that a lot of people try so hard to avoid P.I.T.A status that they end up just floating through the show and never really connect with the industry folk. There is a middle ground but you have to develop your P.I.T.A. radar.

While working in the Toy Industry some years ago, I had the chance to assist the sales team in our booth at various trade shows. (You think people go crazy over ARCs? Trust me, the insanity reaches a whole other level when free toy samples are at stake.) From this experience, I got feel for what it’s like from the “other side of the booth” and that has helped me tremendously in navigating shows like Book Expo.

Put yourself in the shoes of the person working a Book Expo booth. While sometimes things can be a bit hectic, there are moments of down time now and then. Depending on how busy (or not busy) your booth happens to be, a nice conversation with a fellow book-lover can be a welcome break. On the other hand, if you’re in the middle of talking to a group of important buyers, the last you need is a pesky non-buyer interrupting you to ask for an ARC or some swag.

Hone your radar and be aware of when the other person is trying to escape the conversation. In general, I limit myself to 3 minutes, and I’m very careful not to take up any more of the other person’s time. When 3 minutes are up, I’ll say something like: “I’d love to keep chatting but I don’t want to take any more of your time.” At this point one of two things usually happens:

  1. The other person says “that’s OK, I’ve got time” and we keep talking, or
  2. I ask for a business card, and now I have the opportunity to follow-up via email.

Either way, it’s win-win.

Say Something Nice

Writers sometimes ask me: “What if I’m just browsing the show? What if I don’t really have something to offer the other person, but I still want to make those connections? Then what do I do?”

The answer to that is really simple: just say something nice. Here’s an example:

“I read [Book Title] and loved it. Do you have any new books along those lines?”

Never underestimate the power of paying a compliment. Publishers work hard to produce and promote their books. Can’t hurt to say something nice about a book they (or their colleagues) have poured their hearts and souls into. Also, the more specific you can make your compliment, the better. The latter is key because it shows that you actually read the book and you know what you’re talking about.

Note that I’m talking about sincere compliments not hyperbolic flattery. Yes, we’ve all had that experience where the sheer presence of a favorite author morphed us into founts of blathering adulation. It happens. We’re all forgiven. But moving forward, try to keep your inner fan-girl (or fan-boy) under control.

When in doubt, use common sense.

I totally get it. Book Expo is awesome and there are tons of amazing books to discover and people to meet. Sometimes amidst all the literary super-dazzle (also known as LSD) even the best of us might start to hallucinate. When the crazy rears its ugly head, here’s a trick to help readjust your radar.

If at any point you’re not sure whether you should do or say something at Book Expo, just ask yourself: “What would a person with common sense do?”  Examples:

  • Would you raid your friend’s house, tear open sealed boxes and walk out with armloads of books?
  • Would you and your entourage of ten friends cut the front of a movie line when other people have been camping out, waiting for days?
  • Would you push/run/shove your way into a mosh pit free-for-all and waltz out not just with an ARC for yourself, but with copies for your thirty closest friends?
  • Would you take stuff (any stuff) from someone else’s turf without at least asking first?

Didn’t think so.

Overall, Book Expo is an exciting, enchanting and exhausting few days in the Big Apple. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Just follow these simple guidelines, you’re sure to have a great time and connect with tons of amazing people who love books as much as you do. After all, it all comes down to one thing: a love of books.

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