A few weekends ago, I had the chance to go to YALLfest, a YA book festival in Charleston, South Carolina. It was one of the first book festivals I had ever attended (I know, I know) and I was struck by how much fun I had.
It sounds strange, but when I was an editor in a big publishing house, I rarely, if ever, had the chance to attend book festivals or conferences. Now, book fairs or trade shows, sure. But conferences or festivals? Hardly.
Why is that? In many ways, I think it’s because a conference, a festival, and a trade show exist for different reasons. A trade show or international book fair like Book Expo America, Frankurt Book Fair, or the Bologna Children’s Book Fair are primarily for publishing industry insiders, but conferences and book festivals are for other purposes. Conferences often serve to connect the writer with the industry, while book festivals can serve to connect the writer with his or her readers.
What readers and bloggers most often hear about coming out of trade shows like BEAs are THERE ARE SHINY ARCS AVAILABLE. Certainly publishing houses pull out all stops to make sure they have galleys and ARCs of their hottest upcoming titles ready to be picked up by the curious reader, but a lot of business happens at the Javits Center itself. Agents and editors meet up in the sekrit conference rooms below, sell each other projects (or at least try to drum up interest), foreign agents and editors come from other countries to possibly solicit titles they can sell in their own markets, and publishing houses give presentations of their lead titles to important sales and marketing people. The primary aim of these book fairs is to get buzz going—that is, that elusive je ne c’est quoi that gets people talking about books. The best marketing tool, despite all our advances in technology, remains word of mouth.
There are a lot of panels to attend at BEA, but not many of them are writing-craft oriented. The majority of them are industry-related; in the past, I’ve attended panels about digital publishing, the effect of social media on buzz, etc. but the most well-attended panels are almost always the buzz panels. I’ve always attended the YA buzz panel in the years I’ve been in publishing, which has always been standing room only. I’m not sure who determines which book goes on the buzz panel, but you can bet it’s always a great one to attend to see what publishing houses are trying to push as the next trend or “the next big thing”.
On the other hand, I always think of conferences as a great tool for connecting aspiring writers and industry people. I never attended conferences, but my agent friends frequently go to dispense their wisdom, give query critiques, and find potential clients. Writing-centered conferences like SCBWI or Backspace tend to focus more on the craft of writing rather than Publishing Insider-y type stuff (rights, buzz, lead titles, etc.). Here you will find more opportunities to get into the mind of agents and editors, what they look for on a book-level, rather than publishing-wide “trends” or the inside scoop on SEO (Search Engine Optimization, the definition of which I know, but the practice of which is still somewhat fuzzy to me).
Moreover, conferences are a place to connect with other writers. I think that, more than anything else, is the most useful tool. Writing can be a very solitary activity, and finding others in the same stage of their publishing career as you are is crucial. It lets you know you are not alone. One of my favourite things as a skydiver was discovering the community of skydivers, how after sunset, when the “beer light” went on in the hangar, we all sat around and talked. About the sport, about how to improve, about what to do if things go wrong, etc. The dropzone after dark a great place to learn and to teach. Conferences are very much the same. The passing on of wisdom of one of the greatest aspects of conference attendance.
And lastly, there are book festivals. Book festivals may or may be the most fun, but that may be because it’s where readers have the chance to connect with authors. YALLfest is a great example of this. I drove down to Charleston with a friend of mine who had just recently sold her book to Penguin. She was hoping to network a little and I was looking to meet up with some old publishing friends, as well as authors I’ve worked with during my time in the industry but never had the chance to meet in person.
Charleston was swarming with readers. SWARMING. It was fantastic; the panels my friend and I attended were packed to the brim with teenagers and adults, all of whom were there because they loved books and wanted to ask questions and connect with their favourite authors. I met up with PubCrawl’s very own Marie Lu for macarons between a few of her appearances (Charleston has amazing food, FYI, if any of you need any more incentive to come down to YALLfest next year) when a teenager approached her for an autograph. And then an impromptu signing line formed, all fans of the LEGEND series clamoring for a bit of Marie!
I think this is a prime example of why book festivals are fantastic. It’s not often authors can make it to bookstores for events, so these festivals are a great opportunity to connect writers with their fans, and fans with the people behind their favourite series.