How to Get Noticed at a Gigantic Publishing Conference

On Wednesday morning I walked into the Javits Center on New York City’s West Side — touted as “one of the largest convention centers in the U.S.” — to attend Book Expo America. BEA is the largest publishing trade show in the U.S.

One of my goals in attending BEA was to get new book marketing ideas. After all, what better place to get ideas than a convention gathering most of the major publishers in the industry? I planned to wander the show floor, checking out publishers’ displays and giveaways, to see if I could borrow any particularly creative ideas.

As I stood in line at registration in the cavernous glass-topped lobby, eventually, I looked upwards and started contemplating the enormous banners hanging from the ceiling.

via GIPHY

  • “New from Sarah Dessen!” screamed a banner nearby.
  • “A new series from #1 bestselling author Chris Colfer!” shouted another banner in the distance.
  • “The highly anticipated adult debut by #1 NY Times bestselling author Leigh Bardugo,” announced a dramatic black banner to my right.
  • “Bestselling magic,” proclaimed a tall, skinny banner right over my head, “Rainbow Rowell with Faith Erin Hicks — on sale 8/27/2019.”

Standing there in line, waiting for my badge, I had plenty of time to gaze at those banners. I hadn’t even entered the show and I already had plenty of publisher promotions to look at. I started wondering how much they cost. They certainly cost thousands of dollars; perhaps tens of thousands of dollars.

But they weren’t particularly creative. And my biggest question was, do they really help sell books?

My conclusion was… not really. Though I didn’t necessarily think the publishers intended them to sell books. They were probably designed to reinforce “brand awareness.” To emblazon an already popular author’s new book even more firmly in the minds of the booksellers, librarians, rights and literary agents, and journalists attending the show.

What if you don’t have the budget for gigantic trade show banners?

So what would a low-budget, under-the-radar, guerrilla publisher like me be able to accomplish at a show dominated by big-budget, publicly traded conglomerates like Penguin Random House and Harper Collins?

Quite a bit, as it turns out.

Although trade shows have traditionally been a place where new products are unveiled and hyped, that raison d’etre is being eroded by the Internet. You don’t necessarily need an expensive in-person display to spread the word about a new product anymore.

While one of the primary purposes of a major trade show has been usurped by the Internet, however, the other major purpose has not: convening a large group of people from across the country or the world in one place at one time to discuss a common interest.

That’s the major opportunity that conferences still provide. It’s easier than ever to connect with people via video or webinars or online conferences, but there’s still something different about meeting individual people face to face.

For a guerrilla marketer — or author or publisher — a single conversation with one person might be vastly more effective than a gigantic banner that thousands of people see. Because that conversation opens a new door or provides entree to a new community or potential partnership.

Let me tell you another story that illustrates how powerful this can be.

The Artist at the Wednesday Night Party

On Wednesday evening, I attended a comics industry shindig at a hip “drinking establishment” in a converted 19th century warehouse on 11th Avenue. (Are all hipster bars located in converted warehouses?)

As I made the rounds, chatting with little groups of people I knew from various stages of my publishing career, a librarian friend of mine came up to me and said, “You’ve got to meet my friend! She’s the artist I told you about, who works at my school.”

I remembered that she had told me about this young woman, an aspiring graphic novelist, who had attended art school and was now working as a para-professional at a junior high school. I looked across the room and saw the artist sitting on a low settee near a couch and a few armchairs overflowing with people.

The artist wasn’t looking at anyone. She was holding a sketchbook and sitting there drawing, in the midst of the party. People all around her were guzzling cocktails and gossiping, while she worked on a piece of art.

“Cool!” I told my librarian friend. “I’ll come over in a minute to say hello.”

It took me more than half an hour to extricate myself from various conversations before I could make my way to the other side of the room. And within that half hour I already overheard someone whispering to a colleague, “Check out that girl over there. She’s really talented.”

By the time I finally made it over to her and introduced myself, I knew I was at least the third or fourth person to be purposely seeking her out.

“Hi!” I said. “Margie told me I should meet you!”

“Nice to meet you,” she responded with a shy smile. “I’m kinda introverted, so I’ve just been drawing.”

I asked her about what she was working on, and she explained the storyline of her current project. It sounded interesting. I was pretty sure there were publishers in that room who would be intrigued.

After speaking with me for a few minutes, she said again, “I’m not that good at schmoozing, so I’ll just keep drawing.” And with that, she put her head down as if to say, “Thanks for the chat — I’m done talking now!”

I smiled. She was doing her job. She showed up and put herself in the middle of a bar filled with publishing bigwigs, then proceeded to ignore them and draw in her sketchbook.

In a room of people who love art and storytelling, an artist drawing pictures is like a lightbulb surrounded by moths.

Put Yourself in the Middle of the Action

Conferences bring together movers and shakers. And attending a conference usually has almost no barrier to entry, other than the registration fee. You pay the entrance fee, and then you can literally put yourself in front of those movers and shakers.

Simply by being in the middle of the action, you become part of the action.

The same thing happened for me. Although I had intended to examine publishers’ marketing collateral and go to panels to get some good ideas for my clients’ projects, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the marketing collateral wasn’t that important.

It was the chance conversations that mattered.

Over the course of two days at the conference, I had at least seven or eight pivotal encounters.

  • I spoke in person with several different distributors and came away with the desired result: “Let’s continue the conversation.”
  • I told a journalist from a leading trade journal about what I’m doing, and he asked me to follow up and tell him more.
  • I met a blogger from a key industry website, told her about Bounce Back, and she also asked me to follow up after the show.
  • I reconnected with a Hollywood licensing agent whom I knew years ago.
  • I ran into a highly regarded publicist who has extensive experience on Kickstarter campaigns (just the sort of expertise I need!)
  • I chatted with an organizer of a number of major comics festivals who perked up when he heard about Misako Rocks’s manga teaching experience; he’s interested in finding out more.

So, How Do You Get Noticed at a Gigantic Publishing Conference?

It doesn’t start with banners or ads or a fancy booth. You just need the right person (or handful of people) to hear what you have to say.

A single conversation can move you forward leaps and bounds.