Four years ago, when we knew our daughter would be attending The New School University in NYC, I looked forward to combining graduation with Book Expo America. Wouldn’t you know? BEA moved to Chicago (where I live) this year. If you’re reading this, I’m in NYC preparing for graduation later this week. Because of the logistics involved in that and several other things, I spent only one day at BEA last week. So I wanted to share how I managed to get almost everything done that would’ve normally taken all three days.
Luck. Because of the change in venue, a number of people I usually meet up with were not in attendance. The number of attendees, as well as the square-footage of the exhibit hall, was down. And while I missed some of my colleagues and exhibitors, I was able to meet with everyone on my to-do list except one person who wasn’t working her booth that day.
More luck. I received an email from the local self-publishing author group I belong to, announcing that Housing Works needed volunteers for their booth at BEA. Housing Works is the charitable partner of BEA. An off-shoot of ACT UP/NY, they are committed to ending the AIDS epidemic and homelessness in NYC. In fact, they hope to create a duplicable model for the rest of the country. To support their programs, they run 13 thrift shops and a fabulous bookstore/café in Soho. I’m a member of both ACT UP/NY and Housing Works, so I was thrilled to spend the morning helping in their booth. Yes, we were the only exhibitors with free condoms.
Planning. Attending Book Expo America is no different than attending any other conference or convention: you need a plan. Browse the event website or brochure and ask yourself, “Why would I want to attend?” It doesn’t matter if it’s your first or tenth time attending. Unless you’re okay wasting time and money, you need to be clear about your goals. Make a list. Seriously. Then figure out what exhibitors and sessions will further your goals. Match then up on your list and print it out or keep it on your phone.
Caffeine. I don’t do coffee. I’m a tea drinker, mostly green tea. I made sure my first stop – even before registration – was the Starbucks in McCormick Place. Always buy the biggest drink you can at Starbucks. You’ll spend too much time in line to not buy a venti or trenta.
Comfortable shoes. My Fitbit was very happy that day, and my feet didn’t suffer. Also, you can’t bring a rolling suitcase onto the exhibit floor. Bring one anyway and keep it in the coat check area to fill up with books and flyers so your back doesn’t give out.
Business cards. Hand them out to everyone you talk to. When someone gives you their business card, be sure to take a moment to write on the back of it: how you met, what you talked about it. Nothing’s more frustrating than unpacking after an event, pulling out a business card and wondering, “Why do I have this card?”
Serendipity. The one thing you can’t plan for, but it will always, always happen. Last year I shared a table at the Starbucks in the Javits Center with a woman who asked me to submit an article to her magazine. This year I ran into an agent I’d talked to at another conference’s pitch slam last year. I hadn’t actually pitched anything; I was just looking for feedback on the format of a book I was considering writing. He was so excited about the concept he asked me to keep in touch. I won’t lie: I hesitated to approach him. But I did, and we’ll meet up again at that same conference this August. I have a proposal ready for my book on straight women in the AIDS community, but I’m far away from having a sample chapter. By the time I see him again, I just might have that, too.
So, like I said, I accomplished most everything I wanted to that day. Serendipity also got me contact with a woman to interview for my next book and two invitations to speak at libraries. Neither invitation is likely to have been extended had we not met face-to-face. And last, but not least…
Follow-up. You’ll find that the success of attending a conference is almost 100% in the follow-up. Those business cards you collected? Email those people within the week and refer to your meeting. Use “X Conference Followup” in the subject line of your email, so they know right away who you are. Don’t wait for them to contact you. Be assertive without being aggressive. Your professionalism will be remembered.
So now I have emails to send to the people I met as well as the one I missed. I can’t wait to find out if this conference was a success.