Friday, June 23, 2006

anatomy of a struggling book fair, and some suggestions

Some people have asked for a report on the Portland Book Fair, so here goes... I can't help but say that the fair seems to be on its last legs, with both dealer and customer attendance down, and none of the energy required to keep going in this difficult market.

I sold only a few dollars worth of books above the relatively inexpensive booth fee, so counting the cost of the books themselves and other expenses, I lost money. This is not an unusual occurence for me at book fairs, so my slow sales are not an indictment of the fair, but most other dealers said their sales were similar, with a few exceptions who said sales were ok.

Scouting wasn't much fun either. I bought about a dozen books, mostly cookbooks or gardening books for myself and Samantha, and one architecture book for sale. There were lots of good books there
at reasonable prices for reading, but the customers weren't there. The room was pretty empty for much of the day.

Meeting new customers is always the third reason to do a book fair, and on this count, I fared better. Not only did I meet a few interesting people, but they contacted me after the fair. I take this as a good sign, and look forward to working with these folks. It will take a bit of business from these folks to make up for the two clutzes in my booth who each dropped a $700 book. Both books cracked a hinge or were otherwise slightly damaged, so I'll send them to the "junk for eBay" pile. Neither nimble customer flinched when they dropped their book, and neither apologized. Whatever happened to "you break it, you buy it"? Next book fair, I'll be putting up a "you break it, you eat it" sign.

Bitching about book fairs is a time honored activity for booksellers, and guessing the cause of a slow book fair has taken up millions of hours of our time. Good weather, bad weather, the stock market, competing television or sporting events, an illegal war, the increasingly illiterate US population... But why was this fair slow, especially in comparison to the pretty energetic Concord NH fair of just two weeks earlier? Even amongst the busy dealers and eager customers at that fair, word was that Portland is waning, lots of room was still available, and there is no energy.

This is surprising to me in that Portland as a city has really grown in the last few years. The population seems less provincial and a bit wealthier than in the past. I was interested to hear that the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) had just finished a week long annual meeting in Portland the day before the show. The arts in general are growing in profile in the region. So where were the customers?

I have no easy answer to this, but I'll be back at the fair next year, and I'll make some suggestions now about how to get Portland back on the book fair map.

1. the three sets of players with interest in the fair must all work, together or separately, to bring in more customers. The promoter, the Maine Antiquarian Bookseller Association, and the individual dealers need to actively get more dealers and more customers there.

2. local dealers not present should be encouraged to attend. Most of the larger maine open shops were note exhibiting. I'm sure they all have differing, valid reasons for not doing so, but they should personally be encouraged to attend. After all, where better to target potential customers for the fair than at the local shops in Portland, Camden, etc.

3. use the internet. The MABA has a tiny box in the corner of their website with no real info about the fair, and a link to the promoter's website, which also has limited info, as it is really aimed at dealers. MABA should create a simple page which is aimed at the public, which explains the book fair in terms of what they might find there; books in all fields, reading copies and rare books, old things and new things. Have a picture or two. Individual dealers can link to the page and email it to their customers.

4. Dealers need to take things more into their own hands. Instead of complaining to the promoter, who is busy thinking about things like tables, labor, security, etc., so we don't have to, dealers should look for ways to publicize the show themselves. Lots of newspapers up here will run anything they get in the form of a press release. Contacting your local paper with a press release is almost free of charge (maybe the MABA page I suggested could be in the form of a press release so dealers could just print it out and send it).

5. Reach out to like-minded organizations. There are organizations out there that may be inclined to help spread the word about a book fair. The Maine Publishers and Writers Alliance, local public libraries, the Maine Arts Commission,, etc. These organizations maintain online calendars, and it is not difficult to get listed. Many orgs also have email lists they might send to.

Well, this is just a beginning. I hope others might take this list and run with it.


Scott Brown said...

Great post about bookfairs. It inspired me to post some thoughts of my own at the Fine Books Blog. If you haven't explored the world of chicken blogs, my wife has charted the lives of our backyard chickens for more than a year at Dirt By Amy Stewart.

I'm enjoying your blog. Keep it up!

sarahsbooks said...

Seven or so years ago, when I first started selling there, the Portland bookfair was really hopping and had a reputation as a great fair where fine things were exchanging hands. I think that fairs have natural peaks and valleys, and for me, this year's fair was so-so, although I still made back my expenses four times over and am very happy with that, given what I brought to the show (I didn't feel I had anything really spectacular to offer this year - I didn't find anything great over the winter, the way I usually do). We in the MABA group have gone over and over in our meetings how to bring attendance up at the bookfair, and how to coerce more Maine booksellers into either setting up or attending. More suggestions are always welcome! Interesting blog, btw, I'm enjoying it...

ijk said...

To follow-up on Sarah's post: MABA is exploring what we can do to promote/grow this show. Personally, I think it is an important event for the Maine bookseller community and needs to be guided back to being a thriving show. I have some ideas...we shall see.

Broadly, I think the shows that will thrive and grow are the ones that do more than offer a venue to see/handle books. Too many *buyers* have it in their heads that or the like provides all they need from a variety standpoint...shows need additional hooks to draw in fresh blood (e.g. presentations, demonstrations, appraisals, etc.).

I am, of course, biased...the Portland show is a few blocks away and by far the most convienient of the handful we do. It is also the only fair in Maine and I think worth working hard to save/turn around. Time will tell. Great and thoughtful post.
Ian J. Kahn
Lux Mentis, Booksellers
Antiquarian & Fine First Editions
211 Marginal Way, #777
Portland, ME, 04101