The London Book Fair is in full swing right now. Book Expo America is coming up next month. Throughout the year, book fairs draw crowds of publishers, agents, and industry professionals of all kinds to promote their products, take stock of the competition, and make rights and other business deals.
Authors are drawn to book fairs too. Some come to view the scene, soak up the atmosphere, meet with their friends or their agents or their editors. Some self-published authors buy space to sell and promote their own books. Many aspiring authors come in hopes of making connections and maybe even landing that elusive book deal (though this is largely a pipe dream; book fairs are for the book industry, not for authors). Some come at their publishers' invitation, to help promote their most recent works (for instance, Disney Editions has arranged for Ann to sign her new book next month at BEA).
If you're a big name, or a hot debut author, your publisher may pick up the entire tab for your book fair attendance--from transportation to admission to meals. If you're less prominent, it may expect you to pay your own way. What it will never do, however--if it's a reputable publisher, that is--is ask you to pay a fee for book fair presence, or charge you for the expense of bringing either you or your books to a fair. Why? Well, reputable publishers don't expect their authors to pay fees of any kind. Just as important, selling books and rights is not an "extra" that your publisher undertakes only under special circumstances--it's the publisher's primary job. It's why the publisher is at the fair in the first place.
Less reputable publishers, by contrast--many of which use the majority of their marketing power not to sell books and rights but to turn their authors into customers--may see book fairs, and the mystique that surrounds them, as just another item they can hawk. Here are a few real-life examples.
In 2009, I blogged about SterlingHouse Publisher (SterlingHouse and its many imprints offer contracts requiring authors to buy large quantities of their own books), and its BEA book fair packages, which cost as much as $9,500. True, that jaw-dropping fee included perks--a signing in the SterlingHouse booth, free books, a poster, presence in a paid ad on the cover of PW. Nonetheless, the main benefit was to SterlingHouse, which, if it sold all its available attendance packages, stood to gross over $135,000. (SterlingHouse isn't a listed exhibitor at this year's BEA, so maybe that didn't work out so well after all.)
Last year, PublishAmerica attempted to auction off a seat at its table at BEA. This year, it's offering its authors the chance they deserve--to pay $69 to present their books to foreign publishers and agents at the London Book Fair--or, if simple presentation isn't enough, $99 to treat their books with "urgency." Alternatively or in addition, they can pay $99 for a Book Expo America Agent, who "will pro-actively promote and discuss your book among the many thousands of publishers, agents and TV and movie producers." Uh huh. (Note the little box that appears on all the purchase pages: "Latest News: Research shows that our average customer purchases 7 books per order.")
Strategic Book Publishing has a whole menu of book fair charges--$199 for an individual show, $499 for "Author in Booth," $685 for an "All Shows Package," $111 for translation sheets to market to foreign buyers. The prices it quotes to authors in emails (a number of which Writer Beware has seen) can be even higher--for instance, for last year's Beijing Book Fair, "Author in Booth" cost $998 (transportation, meals, lodging, and books extra). If you wanted your book in the booth for longer than the half-day guaranteed by "Author in Booth", you had to shell out an additional $298 for the "Book in Booth" option. Strategic attends numerous book fairs each year, and charges author fees for all of them.
Book fair exhibition packages are also sold by self-publishing companies. For instance, Llumina Press offers BEA "representation" via an ad in its catalog, with costs ranging from $159 for one-sixteenth of a page to $1,299 for a full page (it also recommends that authors buy at least 24 copies of their books to use as giveaways at the show). And self-pub service Xlibris will give you a press release, a place in the Combined Book Exhibit display, and a CBE catalog listing for $999 to $1,699, depending on the show you choose. (That's a lot of dough, especially since you can pay CBE yourself to exhibit your title, and it will cost you just $195 to $295, plus up to $150 if you want a catalog ad.)
Self-pub companies at least are straightforward about their business model, but whether their book fair packages are a good investment is another question. Has any author ever sold rights or books as a result of buying one of these packages? I've never heard of any. Traditional publishers do acquire self-published books, but when this happens it's usually as a result of strong sales, media exposure, word of mouth, or serendipity--not listings in book fair catalogs.
Publishers and publishing services aren't the only ones seeking to make a profit on book fairs. Writer Beware knows of a number of dodgy literary agents who sell catalog space or charge their clients extra for book fair presence, and there are consultants and coaches--some qualified, some less so--who for hefty fees offer special book fair representation to unpublished and self-published authors.
In all these cases, the objective isn't to represent you or to further your career, but to make money on you. It's not about finding new markets for your work, it's about finding new ways to turn you into a customer. By all means, attend a book fair if you want--but the only fee you should pay is for admission.