Beijing, Bologna, Frankfurt, London, New York City---what do all these cities have in common? These are the sites of the biggest and best book fairs.

book fair Jul 01, 2020

Typically, most of us Americans when we think of book fairs we think of the primary school book fair. Lots of books on display—mom and dad, grandma and grandpa are all invited. It’s really just an opportunity to get their money—I mean, really, who can turn down those baleful eyes asking for a BOOK. A book!  “Of course, you can have a book, all the books you want, if you promise to get off your tablet and read the books.”

But when you're a book or rights agent, or a publisher, or an industry professional, the book fair takes on a whole new meaning. A book fair is an industry exhibition that brings all the players together under one roof. An industry book fair is where the behind-the scene-activity of a book takes place. Introductions are made: rights are sold: titles are pitched; relationships are renewed or severed; the latest industry trends are touted; sellers are taking orders from wholesalers and indie buyers;  publishers are introducing their latest coup—the First Lady memoir, the hottest thought leader’s latest words of wisdom, the how-to books, industry moguls telling you how they made their fortunes, celebrity tell-alls, fiction, and fiction and fiction—thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, you name it. A book fair is amazing! Especially Book Expo America (BEA). In true US marketing style, BEA is bright and bold and has a boatload of giveaways and celebrity book signings. I used to ship boxes of giveaway books home. In fact, before anybody even knew who Harry Potter was, I received an ARC (advanced reading copy) at a book fair many years ago (still have it if you want to make me an offer—not in pristine condition though). I also picked up Hunger Games LONG before anybody was saying “And may the odds be ever in your favor.”

But for me, and for most agents, a book fair is really hard work. Book Fairs are huge events and by huge I mean aisles and aisles, miles and miles, on a concrete floor.  And that doesn’t include the additional walking miles, mind you in business clothing and shoes, to and from the fair to the hotel to the fair to the reception and then, if you go to Frankfurt, it’s seven buildings worth of book industry. It means long hours with back to back appointments for 2-3 days straight, skipping lunches, and snacking on junk food when an appointment is late or a no-show.  Ughhhhhh.

And did I mention, there is a lot of walking? And you’re indoors breathing recycled air, assaulted by lots of smells, crowded booths, a cacophony of voices all yelling to be heard over the appointment right next to you, and just when you thought you were done for the day there are the after-hours “cocktail receptions” with tiny canapes and cheap champagne (so they tell me since I don’t drink) where you’re making small talk with people you don’t know but should schmooze because you’re “networking.”

When you do finally get to dinner, it’s late and it’s expensive and you’re too tired to enjoy the food and when you get back to your room to fall into bed if you’re really lucky you’ll fall asleep unless the jet lag has you totally discombobulated—and just when you do fall asleep it’s time to get up for another day of pitching.

If you’ve never been to a book fair it all sounds glamorous and I guess the first time you go it is, and then it’s just plain hard work. And please don’t give me that “waaa, waaa, waaaa…poor you having to travel to exotic places and stay in hotels and eat out.”  If you’re a veteran book fair go-er you get it and I appreciate your empathy. To the rest of you, please just consider that we are sacrificing for you. 

Ok. As I read what I just wrote, it does sound fun and exciting and that is what keeps me going year after year. It’s all about closing the deal. Going home victorious because you hit your goal. I will never forget the feeling of negotiating my first six figure deal—it is the “I can’t believe I just did that” and “I am good at this” feeling of euphoria. It is a rush.

And on that note: ciao, zie jian, tschuss, and cheerio.

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