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The ALA Convention:
Notes of an Independent Publisher

Written several years ago when I worked at Charlesbridge, this article remains a good introduction to what children's book publishers do at conventions, and why they go. As of 2008, the events and general set-up remain the same.

Compare these notes to my comments on the BEA convention, the other big convention for US children's book publishers.

I attended the annual ALA convention in the summer of 1998 on behalf of the publishing company for which I work. Held that year in Washington. D.C., from June 26th through the 30th, the annual ALA convention is the most important show for children's publishers selling to the library market. Awards, forums, committee meetings, and thousands of books on display are the focus for the librarians attending, but publishing companies attend and exhibit their books because this is a marketing opportunity.

You probably already know that. I'd like to give you a sense of what the ALA convention means for Charlesbridge, the growing independent publisher for which I work. For the established companies, coming to the convention is necessary to maintain their existing contacts and reputation; for us, as we increase our presence in the library market, it's a chance to make new contacts and introduce our books to people who don't know them. What follows may not apply to other publishers, but I hope it will give some sense of what the convention means to an independent publisher, in some ways typical and in other ways not. . . .

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For a publisher, the exhibits are the convention, and we start planning months in advance, reserving booth space, making travel plans, and arranging for the shipment of books for display, posters and other giveaways, and booth furniture. When Colleen Murphy,. our publicity director, and I arrive on Friday afternoon, our shipment is waiting for us at our booth space. We are a little dismayed to discover that our booth, which we had thought would be in the middle of the exhibition floor, is on the edge of a second hall, downstairs from the main show. But we can only unpack and prepare for tomorrow, when the show will open.

On Saturday at nine, the exhibits open, and we realize that our location is a blessing in disguise. We are right around the corner from the main registration area, and for the first few hours of the show we are mobbed. Hundreds (thousands?) of people are registering and then setting off on a quick tour, grabbing giveaways and making mental notes of booths to come back to later. They all pass our booth with empty bags, and the posters leave the booth as fast as we put them out. Few stop to look at the books, but later, in the afternoon and all day on Sunday, a steady stream of librarians and some teachers come into our booth, take notes, ask about books, and tell us they'll be placing orders when they get home. It's fun to talk to people who care about books and sometimes point them in the direction of a book that fills a specific need for their collection.

Over the weekend we hold a few signings for authors with books on our fall list. Patrick O'Brien, author/illustrator of The Making of a Knight, signs late on Saturday afternoon, a low traffic time, but he has good conversations with those who do come by. On Sunday and Monday mornings, the author of Turn of the Century, Ellen Jackson, signs and does well. Her book had very recently received a starred review in Booklist and a pointered review in Kirkus, too recently for many people to be aware of it, but she and the book get a lot of attention. We are pleased that about half the books she signs go to folks who had just been browsing, not coming deliberately to the signing.

What with our signings and location, we go through all of what we had thought was an optimistically large shipment of posters by Sunday afternoon. We feel pleased by the enthusiasm for our new list, and by the compliments we receive from visitors who aren't already familiar with Charlesbridge. Monday is quieter--quite a few people come to the show only for the weekend, or have visited the exhibits and now busy themselves with meetings. This gives us the opportunity to visit other booths, both to chat with publishing friends and see what other companies are doing.

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The convention isn't just the exhibits, of course. Many publishers hold receptions at which authors give readings, illustrators talk about or show their craft, editors present books, and all mingle with librarians. The aim of these events is to build personal connections between creators and "consumers," so that so-and-so's next book becomes a must-buy regardless of reviews. Holding a reception is also a form of "showing the flag," and demonstrating a publisher's commitment to their books and to libraries; this can lead to considerable gossip about who gives the best party, and I overheard one very serious conversation about a publisher who gave a less lavish reception this year than last, and was thought to be in financial trouble as a result.

Even the apparently noncommercial events of the show provide marketing opportunities for publishers. On Sunday evening, Karen Hess was awarded the Newbery Medal for Out of the Dust, and Paul Zelinsky received the Caldecott Medal for Rapunzel. They gave speeches and everyone celebrated their books. And then on Monday morning, their publishers held signings for them, generating the longest lines of the show, as usually happens on the Monday after the awards banquet. Awards aren't important only because they sell books--many individuals at those publishing companies no doubt were thrilled and satisfied that these wonderful books had received such high accolades. To their companies what mattered was that the recognition has increased interest in these books, and has helped to sell them since they were announced at the midwinter meeting--the announcement of the awards typically means a large and immediate reprint for the winners.

As a show, ALA '98 looked like a success, and not just for us. Attendance was up about 2,000 from the 16,000 who attended last summer's convention in San Francisco. Hardcover book sales seem to be picking up after some years of stagnation, perhaps aided by some new funding being made available to libraries. That's an encouraging sign for the publishers of books for libraries, because the library market has been declining for years, hurt by tax-cut efforts and possibly by the need for funds to pay for computer hardware and software.

As I bounced around the show on Monday, I couldn't help but notice the growing disparity between the conglomerates and the independents. Penguin and Putnam, for example, who merged last year, had an enormous booth on both sides of an aisle, decorated in Penguin black. Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, and others had similar sizable presences. But lively booths for Holiday House, Walker Books, Boyds Mills Press, Charlesbridge, and many others showed that the smaller publishers are still very much alive and kicking, though we do have to be concerned about the cost of competing in this market. Out of 45 spring '98 books up for discussion by the committee choosing this year's ALA Notable Books (a prestigious list of about 80 books, announced at the Midwinter ALA meeting), only three had been published by small independent publishers. I suspect this is at least partly due to the financial and other resources that must be marshaled to create a book that will make it onto that list. Whether this is a worrisome trend, a temporary development, or the way it's always been, I don't know, but it does say something about the current state of affairs in the children's book publishing industry.

We'll see if anything has changed the last weekend of January, when the ALA Midwinter meeting will be held in Philadelphia, and at next year's convention, to be held in New Orleans starting June 24th. Charlesbridge will be there, and if you're at all interested in what happens in the library wing of the market, or just want to see a vast smorgasbord of new books on display from dozens of publishers, you should consider being there too.

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Copyright 1998 by Harold Underdown. All rights reserved.

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