Saturday, June 17, 2017

303. BookCon, Where Booky People Try to Geek Out

         The last post told of the preparations by my young assistant Silas and myself as first-time exhibitors for BookCon 2017, the last two days of the biggest book event in the hemisphere, when the book trade, having networked for two days at BookExpo,  invites the public in.  Our booth was in the somewhat remote BookCon section of the show floor, reserved for small fry -- indie authors and small presses -- who chose not to rub shins with the biggies at BookExpo.  The post ended when the gates at the Javits Convention Center swung wide open at exactly 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 3, and the first attendees poured in, some of them rushing in our direction.

Day 1 at the Javits

          It began as a trickle of visitors who rushed right past us and the other booths selling books to buy postcards and other non-book items at the Strand Bookstore booth next to ours, and at Book Beau across the aisle.  Then, by mid-morning, the trickle had become a steady flow, and people began noticing the other booths as well.  Besides the anticipated hordes of female millennials, some of them in very short jeans or jeans with holes in the knees, there were moms with kids in strollers, people in motorized wheelchairs, black women with buns atop their head, young guys in skinny jeans, bored older males accompanying enthusiastic women, one woman in a burka with only her eyes visible, and clusters of girls in head scarves who giggled and darted about like other girls their age.  Many had totes with lettering: I READ YA, ROGUE BOOK NERD, GET LOST IN THE STACKS.

Our aisle at a quiet moment, with me on the left.

         As our aisle filled up, everyone's gimmicks went into full swing.  I flashed my silly signs, reaped smiles; across the aisle author Jill Hynes offered free bookmarks to anyone within reach; another booth had on its counter a little gizmo that flashed lights; and the Kirin Rise Studios booth opposite us, manned by two husky males in black T-shirts, had some sort of whirligig that drew visitors while emitting a soft clickety clickety clickety.

         Among the attendees, wild effects abounded.  Some wore unicorn horns on their forehead, or crowns or flowery headbands, or what looked like sprouting mouse ears, all of them probably giveaways from booths already visited.  Young women strolled by in fancy long dresses like belles out of Gone with the Wind.  Another woman sported a white parasol that looked like it was covered with mothballs, and yet another wore a weird yellow-and-blue cloth or fake-fur helmet that clasped her head on either side, a headdress that my helper Silas identified as a “spirit hat.”  Both men and women of all ages appeared with curlicues of black face paint on one side of their forehead, an adornment administered by another booth previously visited.  One tall young woman so adorned wore a long black dress and a white face mask that made her look absolutely spectral.  But if some attendees were obviously onstage, others hurried by with a determined look on their face, bound for who knows where, while many  lingered and browsed.

No, I'm not sticking my tongue out; it just looks that way.  Note my 
new motto: GEEZERS ROCK.  And the little card pinned to my shirt:

         This parade went on past our booth for an hour, without our making a single sale.  Then, as if out of nowhere, buyers began to appear.  The first was an Asian American mother with a school-age son -- the last person I expected as a buyer – who bought No Place for Normal: New York, my stories about the city, probably in hopes of helping her boy with his English.
         At intervals – sometimes annoyingly long intervals – others followed.  An older woman came and perused our books.  “Where are you from?” I asked.  “Can’t you tell?” she said with a thick Southern accent. “Ah’m from Alabama.”  I welcomed her, delighted to have an out-of-state visitor, and she explained that her daughter – to her amazement – was obsessed with gay male coming-out stories.  “Are you gay?” she asked bluntly, and I said that I was, hoping she might buy my gay-themed novel The Pleasuring of Men.  But no, she wandered quietly off, perhaps not attuned to the diversity of New York.  (Should I have asked her if she was heterosexual?  Probably, but gentility prevailed.)  Then my spirits rose again when a professor from Rhode Island appeared and, heeding our “Buy two, get one free” offer, gladly took all three books.

         The strangest encounter of the day was a fiftyish woman who appeared and volunteered an account, with wild gestures, of her earlier years in the city.  She had come in the 1980s as a young woman hoping for a glorious jo, stayed at the legendary Chelsea Hotel (see post #299), and when no glorious job appeared, spent the next ten years as a prostitute working with a pimp.
         “Wow!” I said.  “You’ve got a story right there.”
         “I’m trying to write it,” she said, “but I’m stuck.  And there’ll be a sequel, too: my life in the 1990s as a white girl in Harlem.”
         “That’s another story,” I said.
         “It is, but I’m stuck on the first one.”
         She then drifted off, and I had a hunch that those stories would never get written.

The three kinds of buyers

         By the end of the day I had buyers classified as Impulse Buyers, Cautious Buyers, and Vanishing Buyers.  Impulse Buyers came, took a quick look at the books, grabbed one, glanced at the blurb, thumbed through the pages a moment, and (God bless them) bought the book.
         Cautious Buyers, more numerous, looked at the cover, read the blurb on the back, looked through the pages, read the blurb again, looked again through the pages.  By now our hopes were high.  Some then wandered off, while others bought.
         Vanishing Buyers came, looked at the books with seeming interest, pondered, then announced, “I’ll be back,” or “I’ll bring my mom,” or “I’ll bring my friends,” or “I’m going to an ATM, back soon.”  “We’ll never see them again,” said Silas, who had experience selling software.  To reinforce his view, he told how he had once gone to buy a honeycomb from a local farmer at the Union Square Greenmarket.  Finding he was short of cash, he told the farmer he’d go to an ATM, then return.  When he did indeed return to buy the honey, the people at the stand were amazed, explaining that once people leave, they almost never come back.
         Usually Silas was right: when they’re gone, they’re gone; no sale.  Some probably meant to return, but got distracted by other booths, other events.  And some, having spent some time at the booth and raised our hopes, probably were embarrassed not to buy a book, therefore exited with a promise to return.  But there were two exceptions, both on the Sunday following.  An older man, probably gay and himself an author, returned as promised with his publisher, who had a booth nearby; taking us up on “Buy two, get one free," he scooped up all three books.  And a woman who said she needed to get money from an ATM returned minutes later and likewise took all three books. 

A busy BookCon scene.

Day 1: Taking stock

         So what did I know by the end of Saturday, June 3?  I had sold 15 books, hoped to sell as many more, to reach the minimally acceptable number of 30.  And I had reaped a number of insights:

Female millennials aren’t interested in my books.  No surprise.

People want things.  Postcards, magnets, totes – something they can hold and show to others: souvenirs.

Buyers want the author's signature.  They often asked me timidly, almost apologetically, if I would sign the copy they were buying, and were deeply grateful when I did.

The crowd effect.  If one person comes to your stand, it may attract another, then another; a stand with no visitors attracts no one.  (A thought for the future: bribe your friends to come and pretend to buy books.)

Gimmicks don’t sell books.  Silly signs and banners and free bookmarks and whirligigs get attention, but only books sell books: the cover, the blurb, the content, plus a few cogent remarks from the author, if desired by the buyer and appropriate.   

No claustrophobia.  The Javits is vast; no matter how great the crowds, it never felt  crowded.

          Since I obviously wasn’t going to achieve my goal of 40 or more sales, alas, prudence dictated that I take home 10 books, so as to ease the final take-home load Sunday night.  But Silas and I vowed from then on to scan the attendees' badges and get contact info; preoccupied with other matters, we’d forgotten to do this consistently. 

Day 2 at the Javits

         In many ways a repeat of Day 1, but with fewer attendees.  Once again, with our table arranged most fetchingly and lots of candy heaped in the bowl, we waited for the first buyer … and waited and waited.  Then, after 12 noon and once again out of nowhere, came a dynamic math and science teacher from Colorado Springs who wanted to orient her students toward literature as well; to that end, after giving it a good look, she bought Bill Hope, obviously not put off my the narrator’s torrent of words and his faulty grammar.  She asked me to sign it, so I did, wishing her class a good read.

         After that, others came as well.  Two women from West Virginia, one now a South Carolina resident, were drawn to the New York stories; I thought they would share a copy, but no, each bought one for herself.  With them and many who followed, I noticed that the book that got immediate attention was indeed the New York stories, because the cover had bright colors and the magic words “New York.” 

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

         Unique was the visit of Sweet Young Thing, who looked at my books, took to one of them, and asked if she could have it.
         “Of course,” I said, “for fifteen dollars.”
         A look of surprise and dismay.  “It’s not free?”
         “No, miss.  But it’s only fifteen dollars.”
         Crestfallen, Sweet Young Thing wandered off, leaving me with a twinge of 
guilt at having destroyed her innocence.  The big publishers often scheduled book giveaways at a certain time, and she had probably taken full advantage, thus fostering the illusion that all the books were free.

         Whenever there was a flock of attendees close at hand, I flashed my silly signs:


Usually they brought smiles in passing, and some people lingered to see the whole series.   But one older woman came over and asked, "Why are books sexy?"
         "Because they're fun," I said.
         She looked unconvinced, so I went through the whole series of signs.
         "That one is better," she remarked and then, a sign or two later, "Ah, that one I like."  Having settled the matter in her mind, she walked off.

         Some of our neighbors continued to puzzle us.  The booth promoting TRADE SECRET TRILOGY / 13 CUTS had few visitors; we still didn't know what they were up to.  And for some reason the two husky men in black T-shirts manning the Kirin Rise Studios booth across from us had put away their crowd-drawing whirligig and sat in their unvisited booth hour after hour, seemingly unperturbed.

         Meanwhile much was happening around us, both close by and at a distance.  Every so often we would hear a great muffled roar from far away, probably a throng of excited fans responding to some event with a celebrity author.  But whenever music was played, it was barely audible where we were, so I had no opportunity to display my sign GEEZERS ROCK.  And when I kept seeing a long line of attendees stretching out into a hall nearby, including many older women and one with a cane, I finally went to investigate and discovered that they were waiting for a precious minute or two with a popular author of romance who was signing their books.  I didn't envy that author; all those signings must have left her fingers cramped.

         Quick trips to the men’s room let me see young people sprawled in groups on the carpet, many of them with their nose in a tablet or a smart phone.  And if some booths were besieged by attendees, there were others, even big ones, where a lone exhibitor waited in vain for visitors, so sad a scene that I almost went over to one or two of them just to say hello and give the exhibitor a moment of company.  But my own booth beckoned, so I resisted this generous impulse.  Some of those near-deserted booths may have been there primarily for BookExpo, with BookCon and its hordes a sequel of slight importance.

         At other quiet moments I said hello to fellow exhibitors whom I had already been in touch with by e-mail.  In the same aisle with me was Jill Hynes of Staten Island, displaying copies of her debut novel, I’ve Been Running for Miles … and Found Myself, whose title can only be fully grasped once you’ve read a good part of it.  Piper Evans, the protagonist, is indeed a runner, but the Miles she is running for, or rather after, is an aging rock star whom she has a crush on and pursues relentlessly, and often futilely, from concert to concert.  I have read the book and reviewed it on Goodreads, and can affirm that the real point of it becomes clear only at the end, when Piper takes stock of her obsession and achieves a resolution.  It is all about true maturity and self-knowledge, something the young women flooding into BookCon could well come to terms with, though such awareness probably ripens only with time.  The “hook” for readers, as Jill explained to us during a visit to our booth, is the protagonist’s being a single mother, which indeed hooked more than one reader.  Even for those who, like myself, have little knowledge of, or interest in, the rock concert scene, the book is an excellent read.

         In the next aisle over from ours was the booth of novelist David V. Mammina, a dark fantasy author from Long Island who proclaims himself “self-published and proud" -- a statement that I relish, having self-published one book myself.  I haven’t read his novels, but their testing the boundaries between fantasy and horror, while also featuring plot and character development, should appeal to the young people flocking to BookCon.  His website ( is ingeniously organized.  It asks which genre you prefer – sci-fi, mystery/crime, horror, or young adult – then lets you state the length, setting, kind of protagonist, and other features that you prefer; finally, with all this in mind, it presents an appropriate title.  If these genres appeal to you, you can’t do better than search out a title on David Mammina’s website.  David was very helpful in giving me tips for successful exhibiting at BookCon, and told me that, having tried other venues, he had settled on BookCon because its attendees really like to read.  He is a prime example of the truly independent author who bypasses the gatekeepers -- the agents and acquisition editors who erect barriers for so many new authors.  Yet he assured me that, even now with all his experience, he's still learning.

         In the booth right next to me, on the opposite side from the Strand, was Janelle Gabay, who lives with her husband and three children in Florida and exhibited for the first time at Chicago in 2016.  She has authored two self-published books of fantasy science fiction where mortals and immortals mix -- thriller fiction that should appeal to the young women flocking to BookCon.  First Born (2016) and its sequel, First Awakened (2017), will be followed by a third novel so as to create a trilogy.  Janelle says that driving long distances inspires her; her office is her car, with voice dictation a must.  She is another great example of an author who bypasses the gatekeepers to get her books published and into the hands of readers, and all this while raising a family. World, take note: Indie authors make things happen.

Day 2: Taking stock

         So where was I at, after two days of this madness?  Exhausted.  As the closing hour of 5 p.m. on Sunday approached, Silas and I with our last grains of energy desperately begged people to feast on our candy, so we wouldn't have to tote it home with us.  At 5 p.m. we and the other exhibitors were packing up our books and other stuff and, within minutes, heading for the nearest exit.  As Silas and I did so, workmen began rolling up the carpet right behind us.  And once we got out of the Center, took a taxi to my West Village building, and got everything up the four flights of stairs, we were both in a state of near collapse.  Silas then went home, fell into bed, and slept eleven hours straight, which he told me he had never done before in his life.  I got what sleep I could, but it was several days before I could get the experience out of my mind enough to have a full night’s sleep.  On Monday, the first day after the close, I was so tired that every time I tried to count the books that I had left, I got a different total; frustrated, I finally started giggling and couldn’t stop.  BookCon is not easy on exhibitors.  Vast and intense, how could it be? 

          Yes, we were worn out, but at least we didn't have to go back for the big Monday move-out, when all the vast carpeting is rolled up, empty cartons are returned to exhibitors to be used again, and the super-glitzy stands of the big publishers are dismantled and their books and other stuff carted of by forklifts to the loading docks nearby -- an epic spectacle that I had once hoped to view but now was happy to forgo.

The numbers game

         I had taken 20 copies of Pleasuring and 20 of the New York stories to the show, and 40 of Bill Hope.  I had sold 15 books the first day and 11 the second day, for a total of only 26, four short of the minimally acceptable total of 30.  Under any other circumstances, selling 26 books in two days would vault an indie author to pinnacles of bliss.  But this was BookCon, the once-a-year blockbuster event drawing multitudes of buyers, and I had hoped for more.  Was my adventure, then, a waste of time?  Not at all, for I had learned a lot.  Who were my readers?  Of all three books -- to my vast surprise -- older women.  Some older men as well, but above all, older women, meaning women older than millennials.  And where else could I have connected with a dynamic schoolteacher from Colorado, or two ladies from West Virginia, or all the others who bought my books?

         Which book did best?  I was offering three: The Pleasuring of Men, a historical novel about a young male prostitute in 1860s New York that could be labeled gay romance; No Place for Normal: New York, stories celebrating the weird and wonderful craziness of New York City; and Bill Hope: His Story, a historical novel in which a young pickpocket in 1870s New York spills out in a torrent of words his life in and out of prison.  According to my less-than-perfect accounting, my sales were as follows: 
5 Pleasuring, 7 Bill Hope, and 14 No Place for Normal: New York.  So the self-published New York stories did best!  Yet to my and Silas's surprise, several women who bought only one book took Pleasuring.  And how many leads did I capture?  With Silas’s help, 14.  It should have been more, but we got distracted the first day and forgot about this strange high-tech phenomenon known as lead retrieval.

More insights

Lead retrieval works.  On the second day, when we asked everyone who bought a book if we could scan their badge to secure contact information, no one objected.  As a result, I know their name and e-mail address, age range, and genres of interest.

Aisle traffic is essential.  Though I had posted my exhibitor profile online, no one sought me out because of it.  My sales were all a matter of chance, of people coming into the aisle and for some reason noticing my books.  My sales (though maybe not everyone's) depended completely on traffic in the aisle.  With a more central location on the show floor, I would surely have done better.

Is there a young adult option?  Could some (not all) of my books appeal to young adults?  They weren't written with this in mind, but my first sale on both days suggests this possibility, and the genre preferences expressed in my lead retrievals confirm the widespread interest in YA.  Something to ponder.

Reed and Javits

         Reed Exhibitions, the organizer of this huge event, did an excellent job.  So many things could have gone wrong, but with the exception of some initial glitches in the BookCon website, and the delay in setting up the BookCon booths, to my knowledge nothing did.  There were online complaints back in 2015, the second year of BookCon, but Reed has learned by doing.  There was lots of useful pre-show advice, including two videos of the 2016 show in Chicago telling you what to expect and how to appeal to attendees.  During the show their reps were on the floor and from time to time touched base with BookCon exhibitors, asking if we had any questions or suggestions, and urging us to give feedback at the end.  Their attention was appreciated.

         And the Javits Center?  With an anticipated 25,000 people flocking onto the show floor over two days, massive littering might have been expected.  But there were waste baskets everywhere, and employees turned up at frequent intervals to empty them and sweep up any stray bit of litter in sight.  Never has so vast a public space been kept so clean.

Will I or won’t I repeat?

         Should I exhibit again at BookCon in a year?  On the basis of this year’s sales, no.  At least, probably no.  Not that I expected to break even financially.  So what would nudge me the other way?  Above all, a more central location, assuring a greater traffic flow and therefore more sales.  Also, BookCon's offer of lead retrieval; it works.  And the indoor setting, protection against the whims of the weather.  Also, being past the BookCon for Dummies stage, I wouldn’t pester Reed with constant e-mail queries; it would be much easier.  Just as appealing is the chance to connect with real flesh-and-blood readers, and with other indie authors as well.  But I still need a bit more of a nudge.  What might it be?  The possibility of promoting some of my books as young adult?  Maybe, but that's chancy.  So I’ll keep my mind open; a convincing idea may come.

          So much for me.  And BookCon?  At its busiest, it was wild, it was crazy, it was New York -- just the kind of event that this blog celebrates.  EMBRACE  THE  MADNESS  said one of my signs; to the best of our ability, and with a full blast of energy, we did.

Coming soon:  Americans Are Ghouls.  Mummies, science, voyeurism, and our lack of respect for the dead.

©   2017   Clifford Browder

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