From On-Line to Selling at Antiquarian Book Fairs


with Lee Kirk, Ken Karmiole, and Nancy Johnson

We asked several IOBA members for their perspectives on selling at book fairs. The focus of this article is not on the large international and member only trade association fairs, but on the smaller regional fairs where booths are open to all sellers with a good reputation. Many of these fairs sell out of booth space, so if you are interested in exhibiting at one, get on the waiting list early.

Madlyn Blom of OldBagLady Books has some advice for first-timers. She exhibits at The Florida Antiquarian Book Fair – or the St Petersburg Fair as it is more frequently called – which is the Southeast’s oldest and largest antiquarian book fair, and one with an excellent reputation. 2014 will be its 33rd show. It features more than 115 dealers in books, maps, photographs, prints, ephemera and autographs:

Are you thinking of selling at your first antiquarian book fair? If so, I bet you have a number of questions so I’m going to tell you what I’ve experienced at many different fairs and the St. Petersburg, FL Antiquarian Book fair in particular.

Why do all the packing/pricing/selecting/work and spend all the money? It is disruptive to your organization; it is expensive and it is exhausting physical labor. Worst of all, you have to restock the unsold books (and usually the books which do sell are only a fraction of the ones you bring, so there is a lot of restocking.)

book fair st pete 138On-line only book sellers are generally quite isolated professionally and haven’t interacted face-to-face with customers in some time. The fair provides an opportunity to meet actual customers and talk about why and what they collect, information which will assist you in future purchasing decisions.

You can actually ask for their contact information – unlike Amazon, book fair promoters want you develop your business! You can hand out your book marks, business cards and/or catalogs with every purchase, hold a drawing to get names, anything except “walk all over” your neighbors’ business. Rule: if you hear a customer ask another dealer about a book that you actually have, do not walk into that dealer’s booth and start talking to that customer! Wait until s/he walks away….

The on-line only dealer can upgrade their knowledge by studying the other books being offered for sale by both store dealers and other on-line dealers and their prices.

You can connect with other dealers in your specialty area or specific locales. And meeting the people face-to-face with whom you email, sometimes daily, is worth (half) of the booth rental fee!

Then there is the opportunity to buy books! I used to “do” the Michigan book fair two times a year and there was a dealer there who would, quite regularly, rent a booth but bring only one book. He would be first in line among the dealers to place his lone book on his table and then go shopping as other dealers were busy opening their boxes. As these dealers concentrated on setting up their booth – unpacking, paying attention to the lighting, and all of the other booth display details, like which book should go next to that book – he was looking and buying. He measured his success in dollars spent, not dollars “earned”. {Editor’s note: This is not a recommended practice: in fact, many book fair managers will not let you back if you do it once, since empty booths are unfair both to other sellers and especially to those who will be attending the show – the customers! Sometimes if you are coming a long way, keeping things light might make sense, but don’t overdo it.}

book fair st. pete viewMost fairs, and in my opinion, especially the St. Pete book fair, are easy to set up for and they often provide extra reasons for attending (appraisals, author book signings, auctions). If you are doing a local fair, your customers can see you in a professional setting! A good picture of you at the fair makes for a great hook for an article in your newsletter or on your web site and it can also provide you with information needed to take to your local paper for an article about your business.

Finally, if this was a “good” fair, you can leave with a pile of cash, more books than you came with, a notebook full of new customers and business cards from all your dealer friends and maybe a few more books signed. Well… ALL of this has never happened to me but I have come away with one or more of these goals achieved! And, in addition, I’ve spent some “vacation time” with my spouse!

So, my advice: sign-up, pay-up and show-up. Expose your stock to new buyers and recalibrate. Have fun.

Lee Kirk of The Prints & The Paper is primarily an ephemera dealer. Many of the regional book fairs include a significant number of ephemera dealers – even the names often reflect that. Lee exhibited at the Rose City Used Book Fair, a relatively new fair sponsored by the Portland Used Booksellers’ Association (PAUBA). This fair’s slogan is “An unpretentious book fair.” Here is her list of reasons. . .

Why I sell at book fairs: To visit with seldom-seen colleagues and hobnob about the business. This often leads to ideas, sources, and congenial dinners. I can also extend invitations to visit my at-home business for buying purposes.

To interact with the public (refreshing for those who work at home). You can also tune in on current interests and views. Interests tend to change with the times, and I’m often surprised at what becomes collectible. I also find that shows are useful in presenting ephemera to a younger generation who may not know that such material is available. I always have a few who gush over the variety and uniqueness of ephemera.

To acquire new clients for “wants”. I have a “want” slip to be filled out. I sometimes request that they send an email with wants, but they rarely do. Having the information to make first email contact is helpful.

To acquire new merchandise. One often buys more than one sells. That’s expected. My buying is usually focused on my client’s needs or my specialties.

To make oneself visible. Pass out business cards and catalogs, brochures, whatever you have. Advertising the hands-on experience.

Oh yeah – and to sell inventory. This, in the long run, is the least important aspect of a fair. The follow-up is usually much more profitable.

Of course, a book fair is a lot of work no matter how you cut it. We are getting too old to haul stuff very far, so we’re cutting back to fairs close to home. In fact, right now I’m working with a local non-profit with the thought of holding a book fair that would benefit the organization, and their presence and influence could help advertise and embellish such an event.

Ken Karmiole, of Kenneth Karmiole, Bookseller, Inc of Santa Monica  is an ABAA member who participates in the large national and international shows, but also emphasizes the importance of regional book fairs to the health of the bookselling industry and as a valuable experience for all booksellers. His comments focus on two of the larger regional West coast shows – Pasadena in Southern California and Seattle in the Northwest.

SELLING/PARTICIPATING AT REGIONAL BOOKFAIRS: I am a strong believer in participating in regional book fairs. While it might not be true for all booksellers, they make a great deal of sense for my business. Fairs work for me, a generalist, who does a great deal of business with the specialist trade and who looks at book fairs as a place to buy and sell, both equal in importance to making a book fair successful. Also, fairs can result (although these results are quite varied) in new clientele and are important for business exposure and new opportunities for buying privately.

Seattle and Pasadena are the only two surviving major West Coast regional fairs and these shows are valuable for both generalist and specialist dealers. If you are a specialist in press books or photography or travel books, for example, and you had a number of good customers in Seattle or Southern California whom you could expect to visit your booth, participation might be economically viable. Also, as a specialist dealer your expertise is much greater than the generalist dealer, and you should find some good buying opportunities in the booths of the other exhibitors.

The generalist, like me, has a guaranteed audience with the other exhibitors on the floor as well as the visiting dealers who do not exhibit but still attend as buyers. I always notify everyone on my mailing list local to the show, and love to have private collectors and librarians visit.

IMG_1444

Participation at regional fairs is relatively inexpensive. Seattle and Pasadena are quite similar in cost. A standard 10 x 10 booth is $850 in Seattle ($500 for a half-booth) and $875 in Pasadena (the Bustamante show), where a half-booth is $437.50. Both fairs have a Friday set-up and then run Saturday and Sunday. If you want to keep your costs down and/or don’t want to bring a great deal of inventory, a half booth can be the best option. I’ve done over 200 fairs in the 37 years that I’ve been in business and some of my best shows have been with a half-booth and 120 to 150 well selected books, keeping in mind the audience (the dealers, collectors, and librarians) that I expect to see at that particular fair.

I enjoy looking at the stock of my colleagues in the trade, and even if this doesn’t result in much buying, there is always something to be learned, looking at something you’ve never seen before, a special copy, a special binding, or a great presentation copy. Typically the interaction with the other exhibitors results in some business, if not during the fair weekend, then down the road. A dealer might mention a collection that is being acquired and give you an opportunity to take a first look, or you learn about a new client that is looking for the type of book you regularly acquire, and often sales are generated in the following months. Of course, being an exhibitor rather than a visiting dealer allows you a full day (the set-up day) of perusing and buying some goodies before the fair opens to the public. It has always been time well spent in my experience.

Fairs are a great place to move along inventory, such as those books that don’t mean that much to you, perhaps acquired a long time ago, remnants from a collection that was quite profitable or books outside your main areas of current interest. I’ll take a smaller profit than normal, making some price reductions, but generating that all important cash flow, and making room for something else. Although I am a dealer that specializes in antiquarian books (pre 1800), like most of us, when something out-of-field, but nevertheless interesting, is offered at the right price (cheaply), I buy it. I just can’t help myself. Somehow nice leather bound sets, limited signed editions of illustrated books, and even the occasional book in a dust jacket (!) enter into my stock. I’m happy to take a quick profit on these books and fairs are the best exposure for their sale.

I recommend that you try one of the regional fairs. You are there to do two things, buy and sell. Price your books intelligently, i.e. very competitively. Describe your books accurately. Don’t sit in your booth the whole show, get around and mingle. Have a good, hopefully profitable, time.

And finally, a few passionate comments from the perspective of a book fair promoter and manager.  Nancy Johnson organizes the San Francisco Antiquarian Book Print & Paper Fair  which is held in February every other year (the coming show will be Feb 1 and 2, 2014 at a new location – the Festival Pavilion in Fort Mason Center. This is a huge fair, comparable in size and quality to the fairs run by ILAB and is an opportunity for sellers to reach a large audience, including some very serious collectors.

The whole is a sum of its parts: Brick-and-mortar sellers, mail order by printed catalogue, book fairs and online retailing. The world of book commerce is comprised of all these parts, and it must have all those components.

As the passionate producer of the San Francisco Antiquarian Book Print & Paper Fair, an enthusiastic exhibitor in Antique Shows & Book Fairs and a lethargic online seller (member of IOBA, to which I was introduced in 2006 at this same Fair), I wouldn’t trade in-person sales for all the sales in the big jungle. So I’m definitely biased. I know that many members of IOBA are equally passionate about online and lethargic-to-down-right-disinterested in doing a show in-person.

How can I convince you? After all those books are heavy, there is booth rental to pay, fuel, airfare and shipping are not cheap, those hotels keep going up in price, and if you have the whole world looking at your stock online, why just settle for a local or regional audience?

First of all as much as we would like, the entire world is not looking at our stock. For many of our books, unless they are rare or hard to find specialty books originally printed in small quantities, we’re competing pure and simple on price when we offer books online. At a book fair, you may still be competing on price but not because 200 sellers have the same book with a dollar price variance. Your competition will be primarily because attendees at a book fair want all of it (slight exaggeration). Book fair attendees come eager to buy and the browsing, the lusting and the eventual selection of items to purchase is part of the appeal. Listen to the real chatter among the customers and your fellow exhibitors. Skype and IM will never duplicate that verbal exchange.

P1020093 2Interestingly enough, the concept of “show rooming”, a term now used to describe “the practice of visiting bricks-and-mortar retailers strictly for the purpose of researching future cheaper e-commerce purchases” doesn’t apply that much to book fairs. The visitor is there to buy or at least get interested in buying. Probably because most of the material at a Book Fair is pre ISBN and definitely pre bar code, you won’t find customers with their hand-held scanners.

Think of a book fair as an expansion of your online site to a real site and back to your always up online site. Look at your stock and pack up the unusual, even the odd-ball, the book with the stunning graphics and linen paper that is best appreciated in person, and yes, the book that sits on a page no one has virtually browsed. During set-up hours, get to know your fellow exhibitors, exchange information, and network! After the Fair opens to the public, tell the fair-goer, if he or she asks for a title you are not displaying, that yes, you have that book! Personally introduce that person to your site, perhaps even a tour of your own website on your portable device, and hand out bookmarks, business cards and the very effective catalogue. You may not make a sale right on the spot, but it is going to be better advertising for your online sales than any other promotion you can do.

To sum this all up, there is an old booksellers’ adage: You can sell your way out of a fair, buy your way out, or drink your way out. That is, a fair can be profitable because of sales made there, or some great buys, or simply because of contacts that were made. No two fairs are ever the same: at some fairs, the bulk of your sales might be to other booksellers; at other fairs, all of your sales might be to the public. A sale of an inexpensive item can lead to a profitable years-long relationship with a collector or institutional buyer. Paradoxically, fairs are an opportunity to sell books in exceptional condition – books that have to be seen to be appreciated – but also essentially interesting books with a lot of condition problems, where detailing the flaws online just doesn’t work very well. But most of all, book fairs offer a way to break out of your routine, to look at your inventory with a fresh eye, to handle a lot of exceptional books, and to have a good time!

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website