Getting the Most from Conference Exhibits (Focus Session) Saturday June 16, 5-6pm, Hilton Minneapolis, Directors Row 3
John Costello, Exhibits Manager, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA and Ken Wissoker, Editorial Director, Duke University Press, Durham, NC
(JC as moderator opens up the discussion, followed by discussion and commentary by KW, then the floor is opened up to questions and answers and commentary.)
JC: What I hope everyone gets out of this hour-long discussion is a better sense of making conference exhibits a better fit for each one your university presses, with strategies to increase promotion and success. I would like to cover all the major talking points in the conference program description over the next few minutes then cede the floor to Ken who can relate his own experience. After we speak I would love to open up the floor to questions and discussion.
I come from the Books Marketing-Promotion side of things. I have been Exhibits Manager at The MIT Press since September 1999. The MIT Press sends books to approximately 130-140 conferences per year. The vast majority of these opportunities are combined or free exhibits. Combined exhibits are basically where we pay on a per title or per table basis (free books are usually donated to a society or local library or attending graduate students to help defray costs) to a company that represents our books for us at a meeting where it is not financially viable to secure our own space or send a representative. What does viable mean to The MIT Press? Usually a meeting where projected at-meeting sales will at least cover investment costs (booth(s)/table(s), sending books, rental furniture and representative travel including food and lodging) or a meeting where there is a very strong present and future acquisition possibility. The best meetings combine both.
The MIT Press staffs and attends approximately 30 conferences per year. As Exhibits Manager, I attend 8-10 per year. Multiple staff attend a handful of meetings with both strong at-booth sales and acquisition. Who goes to what meeting and why? A lot depends on what a presses' goal is for a particular meeting, what depth of books a press possesses for the specific conference, and what attendees desire from conference exhibits (to buy books directly, too see new titles, to shop for texts, to submit a book proposal). History is a great determiner, so tracking sales and getting feedback from attending staff helps enormously. I provide a "fill in the blanks" basic conference report for each meeting we attend: name of conference, dates, location, number of attendees, who attended for The MIT Press, commentary on facilities, booth traffic, titles that received lots or little attention, number of publishers in attendance, number of university presses in attendance, where and when the next conference will be help and general commentary.
At-meeting sales are a large determining factor in determining who goes to what meeting. Any conference that generates less than $4000 in at-meeting sales is a good candidate for one person. Acquisition is usually the focus and acquisition editors or their assistants go to approximately 2/3 of our 30 attended meetings per year.There are a handful of conferences that generate $5000+ (with a high of $30,000)that scream for a marketing presence, others that are pure text promotion and some that are scheduled on top of other major conferences we attend.
The goals of the university press need to be taken into account on meeting-by-meeting basis. One formula never works for all meetings or disciplines. Decide what your goal is before you attend. Sales? Acquisition? Text promotion? Flying the flag for the future?
Through experience, hiring gaduate student or temporary help can be tricky. Sometimes someone outside the press can be hired for a nominal fee or free books. Some presses have staff available in different cities. The downside of outside help is usually low non-specific knowledge about specific books and press policies (can I buy a book that is unavailable? how do I submit a book proposal?). Outside help can process a sale but do little else. The upside of outside help is that an acquisition person is freed up to meet authors, prospective authors and series editors. They usually are away from the booth a relative short amount of time.
Should discounts and special offers at meetings be increased? The MIT Press runs a 20% discount which extends for thirty days after a conference is over. This policy has been in place for many years. 20% doesn't buy what is used to but it does provide a good incentive for buyers at-meeting. Some come to the booth to see new titles and might buy later or shop for a better deal (amazon? local?). With pre-meeting quantity recommendations from acquisitions, plus experience, I will ship titles accordingly. Do attendees often buy at a specific meeting? Are attendees interested in new titles only? Is an author keynoting or speaking at the conference we are about to attend? All these questions go to quantity shipped. I like to have enough books on hand without having too many (or any) left. The MIT Press does not offer a 50% last day discount since we ship quantity to encourage sales throughout conference duration. Some presses ship single copies for display and sell off display copies on the last day to save on shipping. Whatever works. Often it is best to get a book into someone's hands quickly instead of hoping they will buy it in future.
Books that sell the best in the conference setting: highly anticipated titles by a paricular crowd, a book that has been in release at least 4-6 weeks prior to a meeting(word of mouth has been generated and a review or two may have come out), a book's author is presenting or keynoting at a particular conference or is a "star" of the field.
Advance mailings and program ads: An advance mailing for The MIT Press usually corresponds with a text promotion and doesn't get planned for a specific conference. Attendees will often stop by our space to peruse a book if a meeting takes place soon after a promotion was mailed and are aware a book has (or is to be) released). Program ads are a great at-meeting promotional tool. Often attendees will come by the booth on day two of a conference once they have digested their environs and the program to ask about one or more specifically advertised titles. A program ad is highly recommended and sometimes just alerts attendees that you and your books are available. Other promos: Try an author signing or, if in the budget, a coffee or snack break. An author signing seems to work best with a known author who has a new book. An author signing also works best if you know you can sell at least 15 copies of a book in one hour. It can be a disappointment for author and press alike if no one shows up or attendance is low. Gauge these opportunities wisely and go with a proven winner.
How deep into the back list?: Depending on space consideration, new available titles in any discipline are the most important. Books from five-seven years old have often lost their effectiveness and topicality. Know your buyer's budgets for books and their general buying history. Have an in-depth look at the conference program ahead of time to see a possible focus that is something you publish in. Know if an author of yours is speaking or whether a book has won an award of direct relevance to your intended audience. Back list availability can often be monitored by keeping records of past meetings. Realize that you are but a mobile book store and you cannot keep all titles of a discipline in stock at any meeting immediately and forever. Let authors (and acquisition editors) know that your goal is to promote your newest and most popular titles. This can help avoid potential anger and embarrassment. Make older titles available at discount to interested attendees, even if it is not on hand.
How to obtain good booth position: The best way to get booth position is to apply and pay for booth or table space as early as possible. The next best way is to annually attend conferences that are your strengths. Often organizers give best booth position to presses who annually get booths, advertise in the conference program or sponsor special events. Definitely look over preview maps and request space near entrances and away from any obvious obstructions.
Some things I have noticed and learned over the years... - At-meeting sales far outpace after-meeting sales (mail-in, internet etc.)It is best to have a book or multiple books available at-meeting. Usually conference attendees buy a book because of need or interest. Don't let that interest wane with time. Lots of at-meeting sales are driven by specific talks or an author's talk or presence. Don't lose the opportunity. - If an attendee does not buy a book immediately (to either ship or taken at booth)there is a great likelihood that the sale is lost. People lose order forms, forget why they have them, procrastinate or simply lose motivation and urgency when away from the conference atmosphere. - It is not worth attending a meeting if your press does not consistently have new titles to offer in said discipline. New books and a solid back list keeps customers coming back to you and your press year after year. - Getting booth or table space for one title or a handful of titles never makes financial sense. Make authors and editors understand that a conference is a showcase of strength. Thirty books in any given field, with a consistent influx of new books, is a good rule of thumb. Think about other ways to get your book noticed: partnering with another university press, a combined book exhibit or a flyer and book copy to a presenting author might work best when strength of list and/or finances are not your best friends. - If possible, it is nice to have at least one copy of a backlist author's book available if the author will be present and the book is still viable (books older than five years can sometimes just take up space). - help your press promote topical journals at topical conferences - train staff to succeed and have fun at conferences - realize the limits of space, budget and time. You may only be in a certain for three days so be prepared for what you want to accomplish and don't go overboard. - bring copies of vital paperwork always: air and hotel info, office contacts, exhibition contracts, extra order forms etc can be lifesavers - get to know fellow exhibitors who can help you in a pinch and offer advice or a roll of tape -plan far in advance to be prepared in advance. Last minute usually leads to foul ups and over-spending. - know when you are a big fish in a small pond, a small fish in a big pond or a fish out of water and plan your conferences accordingly