Fall Book Fairs Attract Readers and Authors

Festivals also give boost to literacy, libraries

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Demand for books is never higher than during the fall season, beginning with the back-to-school blitz and ending with the winter holidays.

To satisfy some of this demand and, in some cases, to parlay enthusiasm for books into enthusiasm for the industry's pet causes, publishers and booksellers set aside the months of September, October, and November for community and consumer book fairs.

This year's crop of fairs, including the Southern Festival of Books, the Rocky Mountain Book Festival, and New York Is Book Country, exhibits a wide variety of formats and themes; but the motivation behind each fair is to bring the written word to an engaged and sympathetic reading community.

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The sixth annual Northwest Bookfest, held in Seattle Oct. 25-26, is a good example of the kind of multi-faceted show that has become the standard since the first consumer fairs of the early 1980s. It offers 175 exhibitions, including publisher and bookseller booths, hands-on bookbinding demonstrations, Scrabble tournaments, a children's section, and visits from 200 authors, such as Tobias Wolff, Jamaica Kincaid, and Anita Hill.

"We tried to create for the Northwest a giant celebration of books," says Bookfest director Kitty Harmon.

"We want to acknowledge the importance of reading as an activity that has the power to change people's lives, particularly at a time when electronic media are having a greater effect on people's lives."

The fair's organizers solicit donations from patrons for literacy groups in the region. Last year, the Bookfest raised $35,470 solely from these donations. Other book fairs, like the Texas Book Festival in Austin, are entirely committed to this kind of fund-raising. The Texas Book Festival was able to donate $127,000 to 40 public libraries throughout Texas last year.

Another approach is that of the fair here in New Brunswick, N.J.

The New Jersey fair is not a personality-driven event, as are the Miami and Texas fairs. Author appearances are almost an afterthought. The sponsor of this sixth annual fair, the New Brunswick City Market, is a civic organization with very specific goals for its eight-block event on George Street.

"We are hosting this event to draw people into New Brunswick, to see the wonderful things that have been happening here, and to attract people to come back again," says Christine Whalen, public relations and special events coordinator for the New Brunswick City Market.

With an estimated 20,000 visitors, the single-day event is certainly a successful attraction. But the fair's visitors seem mostly drawn to the books on sale, not the City Market's plans for a revitalized downtown area.

Discount books a big draw

The majority of the exhibitors here are representatives of used bookstores and book remainder warehouses offering hardcover and softcover books for discount prices.

"I'll go to a writer's tent if I know the writer," says Michelle Nichols, a video operator for the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority, who is visiting the fair for the third year in a row. "But I'm a consumer. I'm here to buy."

She holds up two plastic bags loaded with books. "Dr. Seuss for five bucks. The complete Shakespeare for five bucks. Not bad," she says. "It's great for Christmas shopping."

While the remainder tables are doing a brisk business, the few publishing houses attending the fair are satisfied simply with the community-relations opportunities that the fair provides.

Although book fairs are occasionally successful as charity events, these shows do not generate profit for the vast majority of the publishing houses and booksellers who attend. Visitor turnout is high, ranging from the 2,500 people who attended the Small Press Book Fair in Manhattan Sept. 20-21 to the 300,000 people who are expected to attend the Miami Book Fair International Nov. 16 to 23.

But the costs of renting exhibition space, shipping books, and staffing the exhibits are also high, while the total number of books sold at the fairs is too low for either publishers or booksellers to recoup their expenses. Most consider themselves fortunate to break even.

"We certainly don't lose money or we wouldn't go back," says Tom Southern of Ten Speed Press in Berkeley, Calif. "But we're not making lots of money at these shows."

"I'm not sure that they're helpful in a very measurable way," Mr. Southern says. "They are a kind of advertising, but it's hard to trace their influence directly to increased sales."

Public relations a factor

"We try to be as supportive of the consumer shows as possible," says David Nelson, vice president and director of sales at Houghton Mifflin, "But we have to be selective about the shows we attend. I'd say that a lot of what we do at consumer shows is public relations and flag waving. We just want to be represented."

Like publishing houses, booksellers come to the shows to capitalize on public relations opportunities.

"We look for public exposure and we highlight our differences from the chains; the things we carry that they don't," says Tammy Jordan, vice president of marketing for Book People in Austin, Texas.

Beyond the simple meet-and-greet aspect of book-fair community relations, however, industry heads are beginning to use these shows to supplement broader marketing strategies.

"Publishers have very little brand identity among customers," says Julie Chantner, marketing director of Chronicle Books, a publisher specializing in art books and cookbooks.

"But a book fair is a chance for us to put all our books in one place, so that people see what we do. I think it adds credibility to your brand when people find that you're the publisher of the five cookbooks that they like best, for instance."

In addition, book fairs provide publishers with the opportunity to take their books directly to the reading public, to learn why their products satisfy or fail to satisfy prospective customers.

"You really get some market research done at these shows," says Southern of Ten Speed Press. "If someone doesn't like one of your books, you can ask her why, and what more she'd like to see. Some people are very smart in their responses."

"Our show is a way for publishers from other places to see what the Bay Area people are doing," says Bob Martin, director of the San Francisco Bay Area Book Festival.

Mr. Martin believes that the success of the San Francisco show, and of the other shows mounted around the country in the coming months, is ultimately based on the way in which a book fair can mirror the diversity of the reading public.

"Every community has its own authors writing and its own books, so the potential of a book festival is that it can draw a wide variety of people who will all feel comfortable," Martin says. "Unlike a lot of other public events, book shows can be all-inclusive."

Schedule of Fall Book Fairs

Oct. 3-5 Southern Festival of Books

War Memorial Plaza/State Capitol Building

Nashville, Tenn.

Oct. 3-5 Mid-Atlantic Mystery Book Fair and Convention

Holiday Inn, Philadelphia

Oct. 25-26 Northwest Bookfest

Pier 48, Seattle

Nov. 1-2 Rocky Mountain Book Festival

Currigan Exhibition Hall, Denver

Nov. 1-2 Texas Book Festival

State Capitol Building, Austin, Texas

Nov. 9-10 San Francisco Bay Area Book Festival

Concourse Exhibition Center,

San Francisco

Nov. 16-23 Miami Book Fair International

Miami Dade Community College Wolfson

Campus, Miami

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