Lessons from BookExpo America 2013

A handful of us from the BookBaby team spent last week in NYC for BookExpo America, uPublishU, and the International Digital Publishing Forum. As always, there was a lot of industry talk about “disruption” and “upheaval” — but the mood just keeps getting cheerier for small publishers and independent authors.

Here are four of the lessons we learned — or beliefs we reaffirmed — by talking with authors, publishers, and book retailers:

1. Don’t wait for an agent, acquisitions editor, or publisher

The publishing industry has had the benefit of watching and learning from the music industry’s previous decade of missteps. While they certainly have their clumsy moments when it comes to technology, rights management, and marketing, they really have shown a willingness — and an ability — to adapt.

But one of the ways in which the publishing industry seems to be modeling the music industry (for better or worse) is that they want to bet on a sure thing. So they’re keeping an eye on the indies and waiting to see what self-publishers can accomplish on their own. Once a self-published author has built up an impressive platform, the big publisher can swoop in and take them to the next level at a fraction of the cost it would require to “break” a debut novelist/writer into the mainstream.

So the lesson? Don’t wait! Write and release your books now; publish and promote today. The chances of being anointed by major publishers as a complete unknown grow slimmer by the day. But if you have proven sales, an impressive social media presence, and a growing list of fans, you might be able to get a book deal that benefits you AND your readers.

2. Write your business plan before you write your book

Many of the successful authors I talked to had similar advice: figure out the business/marketing details first.

  • Who is your audience? How will you find them?
  • What will they get from your book?
  • What will set your book apart from similar titles to make it an essential purchase?
  • What is the marketing hook?
  • What is the elevator pitch? Can you summarize your book in 3 sentences while conveying the depth of its content?
  • Will it be part of a series?
  • What is your writing schedule and deadlines? How will you measure your progress?
  • What are my weaknesses, and how can I get assistance in those areas?
  • How can I build my platform WHILE I write this book?

By answering these and many more questions, you’ll have a clear vision that will not only guide you through the writing process, but fuel you with enough energy to begin the book in the first place (if you decide it’s worth your time).

By pre-determining your book’s purpose, audience, plus a strategy to market it — you’re better positioning yourself to get a book deal. You’re thinking like a business person, and publishers want to know they’re partnering with a pro. They want to make a smart investment, and doing this legwork early-on will set you apart from the other folks who are just… writing.

If you don’t get a book deal (—and maybe that was never the goal—), you’ll STILL be better positioned to sell your book in a crowded marketplace.

3. Rest assured; there is a buyer for every book

Walk down a single aisle of the Javits Center during BEA and you’ll see more books than you can probably read in a lifetime. Now multiply that by 20 or 30 aisles. Now keep in mind that these are just the titles that English-language publishers are deciding to push to readers THIS YEAR.

That might sound overwhelming; actually, it IS overwhelming. But on the flip side of the enormous book glut is the knowledge that every single title has an audience, from best-selling thrillers to the most niche guidebooks. You might not sell millions, but if you can make your book valuable to a specific type of reader, you might have success selling to a small, loyal group.

4. Keep calm, carry on!

Lots of BEA staffers wore shirts that said, “Keep Calm and Read On” — riffing on the slogan that was postered all over England during WWII. The original slogan may’ve been more useful for some attendees, though: “Keep calm and carry on.”

BEA is a networking frenzy — and people can get awkward under pressure. For instance, some authors I talked to just seemed to be waiting for yet another moment to insert their rehearsed soundbite into the conversation.

I get it. You’ve spent money to attend, and you’re intent on getting your money’s worth; you want to promote your book. But it comes across as rude and desperate when the conversation becomes so lopsided.

Were you to keep calm, stay cool, and just make some normal conversation, chances are that folks will eventually come around to asking you why you’re there. That’s your chance: “Oh, I’m meeting with agents and publishers about my latest manuscript. It’s a kind of Gonzo Journalism exploration into the use of non-FDA-approved dyes in our food products, and how that’s actually leading to the declining bumblebee population — all told through the lens of a failed congressional candidate who’s since become a children’s standup comic at Disneyland with dissociative identity disorder.”

Then pause. Take a breath. Wait for the person you’ve been chatting with to say, “Really? Well, tell me more.”


So, those are a handful of my takeaways from BEA 2013. Did you attend? What’d you think? What’d you learn? Let us know in the comments section below.

Chris Robley

About Chris Robley

Chris Robley has written 563 posts in this blog.

is an award-winning poet, songwriter, performer, and music producer who now lives in Portland, Maine after more than a decade in Portland, Oregon. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in POETRY, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Magma Poetry, and more. He is the 2013 winner of Boulevard's Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of "Short Works Poetry."

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