A Life in Bookselling—Trade Show to Trade Show
In the late eighties, when I was just out of college and still inclined to think of the future as wide open with potential, I helped a friend start a feminist bookstore in Boston. We both had more idealism than business sense, so naturally the venture did not last two years. But it was a fun couple of years and among other things for the first time I got to see the business from the perspective of an owner, not a sales clerk. But among the many rather naive (that’s a polite word for “silly”) business decisions we made there was one good one—we pooled the shop’s resources and went down to Washington, DC for that year’s American Booksellers’ Convention—the largest national book show in the industry. It was the first time I had ever attended a book trade show. Unfortunately, I was too inexperienced to get anything out of it.
Silly me. I thought bookselling conventions were all about the books.
I have spent over twenty years as a bookseller, in all types of bookstores. I’ve worked for small regional chains and large independents, in stores crammed into tiny mall spaces, and in stores with window displays that ran the length of a city block. I’ve worked in bookstores in big, book-loving cities, and in small (book-loving) towns. In that time I have attended about a dozen different industry trade shows and with each new season, my attitude about them has evolved.
A tradeshow is not a book festival. It is a place for people in the publishing and bookselling industry to meet and do business. Oh sure, there are lots of authors, and lots of books. But ultimately the point of any tradeshow is to find ways to do business, to sell more books more profitably, and to capture as much of the market as you can. If you are a publisher, that means convincing as many bookstores as possible to carry your books. It you are a bookseller, it means finding new books and products your competitors don’t have, and making the best deal possible for them. The show dinners, author signings, and bags of giveaways are extraneous. A bookseller goes to a tradeshow to become a better bookseller.
I’m sorry to say that it took me a couple of years to learn this. In my defense, it is awfully hard to refuse free books, and there were a lot of advanced readers copies (ARCs) and free samples handed out at these shows. If I close my eyes, I can still recall the tired ache in my arms from that first Washington DC show, as I hauled armfuls of books to the on-site shipping center and sent them home. For awhile there, half the books on my plank-and-milk-crate shelves were cheap oversized paperbacks stamped with warning labels like “proof copy—not for sale.”
Then in 1996 I attended a convention in Chicago, where I saw an early demonstration of what would eventually become a print-on-demand service. It was amazing. I watched a book go from manuscript to bound, finished copy within the space of about 20 minutes. I felt like a monk watching Gutenberg print a Bible, and I knew—instantly—that the industry was going to change. Suddenly, attending a tradeshow meant more than just seeing who was publishing what and when. It was about what was to come for the publishing industry, and I knew I had best pay attention if I wanted to be able to sell these books of the future.
After Chicago, I stopped spending so much time on the exhibit floor at tradeshows. Instead, I became obsessed with attending every possible seminar, panel, roundtable discussion, or workshop that was offered. Instead of taking home lots of free books, I started taking home lots of free hand outs. I sat for hours on folding chairs listening to “experts” about such fascinating topics as increasing profit margins, developing business plans, creating marketing campaigns, and controlling payroll expenses. I thought there was a PowerPoint presentation solution to every problem I faced running my little bookstore. I would come back from trips to New York, Chicago, Atlanta, or Miami with suitcases bulging not with books, but with print outs and worksheets. (Much to the disappointment of the bookstore staff, who would have appreciated more free books and rather fewer copies of PowerPoint slides).
Then at a southern trade show in Atlanta, I found myself having a drink with a bookseller from Tampa, Florida, and because we had already told each other what we were reading, I asked her how business was. She told me about a display the store was doing to make sense of the polarized and often vicious political debates that were going on at the time (and still are, come to think of it). “We’re having an ‘Open Mind’ sale,” she told me. “Buy one political book and get a second of the opposite political point of view at 50% off.” “Has anyone taken you up on it?” I asked, curious. “No,” she smiled, “but we’re getting good press about it.”
I thought it was a brilliant idea and told her I was going to steal it for our store. She laughed and said, ‘Be my guest.” And I realized, suddenly, that many of the best ideas I came away with from tradeshows came not from the free books or the handouts, but from just talking to other booksellers. The most valuable resource at a tradeshow wasn’t the seminars or the stacks of free books, it was the people. Later, I remember standing on the show floor watching crowds of booksellers move along the aisles frantically filling tote bags with booty and feeling utterly un-tempted by the piles of freebies and giveaways (although I think that year someone was handing out buttons that said “Impeach Cheney” and I did make a point of begging for a few of those). Instead, my eyes were drawn to the sales reps and publishers, and I started asking them about their territories—what stores did they visit? What was the coolest display they had seen? What did other booksellers seem to be reading? I went to the showcase dinners and paid more attention to the people at my table than to the people handing out whatever award was being given. I went to the seminars and panels, but was more interested in the audience question and answer period than I was in the official handouts. I wanted to know what other stores were doing. I wanted to know what they were reading, and I wanted to know what worked.
Nowadays I’m more inclined to avoid accepting free books than to go looking for them at these shows. I still attend the annual fall tradeshow hosted by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance—this year’s was held the last weekend in September in Atlanta. I’m no longer a “frontline” bookseller, since my store closed about three years ago (it would have closed even sooner without all those stolen good ideas). Now, instead, I help the organization plan and run the event. So what had been, twenty years ago, a giant room full of free books and ten years ago a kind of intensive adult education course, and five years ago a kind of bookseller-geek-social-event, was now for me a complicated problem of logistics: how to create a tradeshow that could satisfy all these needs, be a space ideal for showcasing the new fall titles, an efficient and intensive “school” for struggling small businesses, and a space where booksellers could exchange information and connect with each other—since, like in any other part of life, it always helps to know that you aren’t in it alone. It wasn’t as easy as it looked from the show floor.
The week of this year’s show passed in a kind of blur contending with all the little problems that face any production—publishers who didn’t like the location of their assigned tables and had to be moved, rooms that were supposed to have wi-fi access and didn’t, an author who didn’t tell anyone he was doing a slide show as part of his presentation, and had an ancient first generation Apple computer with outputs that hadn’t been in use since the mid-90s. I was called down at one point to fix a presenter’s projector despite my protests that I knew nothing about AV equipment and made the mistake of actually fixing the problem. (When in doubt, try the F12 key). From that point on I became to go-to person for all technical issues, and I was reminded that this was why I have always refused to learn how to run my girlfriend’s band PA—once they think you know how to do something, you’re stuck with the job.
I did come away with a few free books, despite my best efforts to avoid accumulating a lot of heavy stuff. But more importantly, I came away with a lot of great ideas—like the bookseller who plans on displaying O.J. Simpson’s despicable book, If I Did It, in a large trash can and donating the proceeds of any sales to their local domestic violence shelter. Or the shop that created an entire half-hour AM radio book talk show and paid for it by selling advertising to local (and now national) publishers. Ultimately I still spent most of my time just talking to people. Because a bookseller tradeshow isn’t just about the books. It’s about how you are going to convince people to read them.
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities early when as a young child she asked her parents if she could exchange the jewelry a well-meaning relative had given her for Christmas for a dictionary instead. She earned her B.A. in Russian and Middle Eastern History from Boston College, supporting her college career with a part-time job in a bookstore. Since then, she has been in and out of academic institutions, but has always managed to work with books no matter what. She began working for Bristol Books, an independent bookstore in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1993, and three years later became its manager, which is where she stayed for the next fifteen years. Currently she works for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. Nicki is a book reviewer for several magazines, an occasional on-air book reviewer and commentator for the Wilmington public radio station WHQR, and a co-host on the television program “Let's Read” on UNCW. She is one of the founders of The Cape Fear Crime Festival, an annual book festival for mystery readers and writers, and currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers Network. She manages all this by the grace of a very patient partner and the loving support of three dogs and two cats. She can be reached at