January 30, 2013

What I Learned at ALA Midwinter

I recently had the opportunity to attend the American Library Association’s midwinter meeting held in Seattle, Washington. I had a great time and learned so much. Here is a summary of my take-away’s from the experience. Hopefully this will encourage others to attend in the future, and allow you to participate with a little more experience under your belt than I had going into it!

*The ALA has two major gatherings each year: The Midwinter Meeting, and the Annual Conference, (which is held in the summer).  Midwinter attracts fewer vendors and participants than the conference (but it’s still HUGE). I was told over and over again that midwinter is a less overwhelming introduction to ALA than the conference. Midwinter is stocked full of committee meetings (i.e. this is where esteemed librarians meet in closed-door meetings to hash out decisions re: the Newbery, Caldecott, and other prestigious youth media awards), but there are MANY other meetings (typically called “round tables”), about a myriad of library-related topics (many of which are also relevant to those of us in the kid lit community). Most of these round tables are “open meetings” that you can sit in on. There are also “Book Buzz” meetings where publishers share brief promos about their upcoming books. Sometimes these are delivered by the sales team, sometimes by the editor, and sometimes by the author (as a guest of their publisher). There were so many different things going on at one time that it was difficult to choose what to do when, but each choice offered valuable information and networking opportunities. Next time I will do a better job of reviewing these opportunities ahead of time, and use the ALA’s available “scheduling tool” to build an electronic schedule for myself (with three or four options selected for each time frame, so I can make quick adjustments on the fly).

*You can register for the full meeting, single day, or just exhibit hall access. Honestly, the exhibit hall was an experience unto itself, and would have been well worth my $35, had I not been there for a book signing with my publisher, the wonderful ABDO Publishing Group. I used my time in the exhibit hall to visit publisher’s booths to get a really good sense (or at least a better sense) of the unique look/feel of each publisher’s list. I took lots of notes and engaged the sales reps to learn more about the publisher. It was very enlightening to have so many publishers represented under one roof. Although I do a lot of research in bookstores, libraries and online, it was helpful to see the books organized “by publisher” so I could get a feel for each publisher’s vibe. I could also ask the reps to give me their elevator speech re: who they are in the marketplace, so I could take good notes and then consider if I had something in my inventory of ready work that was a good fit for them. Although I have additional educational projects that are suitable for my existing publisher, I have other work that is geared for the trade market. Since I have several diverse projects that are submission-ready, it was helpful that I had taken the time prior to the conference to closely review my inventory. Next time I might carry a clipboard and create some type of a spreadsheet to note my projects, to enable me to easily check boxes and make notes to document which publishers are a good fit for each mss, and why.

*For smaller publishers, it was not uncommon that the publisher, key editors, or other top decision makers staffed the booth, or at least were in the booth from time to time. I let people know that I was an author using the opportunity to research the market to more effectively target my future submissions, and people seemed generally pleased that I was making that sort of an effort.  Some booth staff were more friendly than others, but that too gave me insight into the “feel” of the operation. (There was one guy who immediately took out his phone and made a call as soon as I introduced myself . . . I suspect he and I won’t be working together in the near future. In contrast, there were several people who engaged me in conversation about what I types of books I write, and even gave me cards/contact info for their colleagues back at the office). It did help, I think, to have name familiarity with some of the staff at the publishing houses on my watch list (i.e. “I met your colleague, editor XYZ, at the SCBWI conference a couple of years ago and she and I have corresponded about my mss ZYX…I wanted to look at your current list to see if any of my projects are more in alignment with what you’re doing…”). This often led to conversations such as, “Oh, what are you working on now…” or, “XYZ is not with us anymore, but so and so took her place. Here, let me give you so and so’s contact info…” So, although it was not a time or place to formally pitch manuscripts, I did open several doors for future submissions, particularly at the smaller houses. Also, there were many top editors and agents milling about the exhibit hall, particularly on Sunday and Monday (re: they were there to hear the award announcements, meet with their authors/illustrators, meet with other editors/agents, etc).

*Another big part of the midwinter meeting is for publishers to unveil their forthcoming lists, and they do this by hosting book signings, giving away ARCs, inviting people to sign up for give-aways, etc. As a result, I was able to pick up ARCs for several forthcoming books that interested me. NOTE: My back is still sore from carrying things around (and I did not pick up very much as compared to most of the librarians!). More experienced attendees carried empty backpacks (that they filled along the way), and some even rolled small suitcases around (I will bring a backpack next time, even if it is less attractive than my leather handbag). Also, I did try to be respectful about taking ARCs re: librarians need these early/pre-releases to help them make purchasing decisions. But as I talked with publishers, I realized they want the ARCs to get in the hands of a variety of book fans to help create buzz around their new books. My plan is to read the ARCs (and invite my kids to read them), and then pass them along to my librarian friends here at home, that may not have been able to attend the ALA meeting.

*I was so glad I printed a large supply of bookmarks to take with me to ALA. My intent was to give those away at my book signing, but I also kept a stack of them at my publisher’s booth before/after the book signing (re: although my publisher has their own marketing materials, my bookmarks have my contact information on them, in addition to my publisher’s contact information, which ideally brings traffic to my own website and blog). I routinely use my bookmarks as business cards, and there were many opportunities to give them out, so I was glad to have an ample supply. For example, there were several occasions when I was walking between meetings, or eating a meal when another attendee struck up a conversation (i.e. “What library are you from...”). That gave me the opportunity to say I was not a librarian, but an author, which typically resulted in questions about the books I’ve written. It was helpful to be able to quickly hand someone a bookmark to give them a visual reference about my books (and I can’t tell you how much fun it was when different librarians said, “Oh, I know your books…,” or “The kids in our school love your books,” or  even, “Oh I can’t wait to see your books. What booth number is your publisher exhibiting?).   NOTE to self: Learn your publisher’s booth number right away, and have a pen handy to jot that number down on your bookmark/card, etc.  Most of these, “I know your books” ah ha moments were due to the visual recall from the wonderful cover art on my bookmarks (thank you, Stephanie Bauer!), however, bookmarks are more awkward to carry around than business cards (for both me and for the person I’m handing them too). In the future, I plan to bring business cards and bookmarks (and I will likely have two sets of business cards—one with cover art worked into the design, and one that’s more generic). There were some occasions when I wanted to leave my contact information with someone (for example, an editor), and I wanted that moment to be connected to a future submission we had discussed, vs. my past work. I also like the idea of being able to stow my business cards in the back of my name tag holder (vs. fishing them out of my purse or pocket).

Available at ABDO Publishing Group
*I also learned that even if your publisher will be at the event, and even if they will have a supply of your books at the event, it is beneficial to have a few copies of your own books on hand. My book signing was very well attended. Every last book went out the door—including the display copies my publisher intended to remain in the booth. Oops. That meant that after my signing was over, there was not a single copy of any of my 16 books anywhere on site. Big Bummer. In the future I will always pack a few copies of my books along with me; just in case.  

*This conference really cemented for me the importance of having a solid elevator speech / pitch on the tip of your tongue for each of your ready projects. When I sat in on the “Book Buzz” presentations by the various publishers, the quick blurbs given for each of their forthcoming books were essentially pitches/elevator speeches. When I eavesdropped on agents pitching books to editors (yes, this happened within my ear shot several times), it was the pitch/elevator speech. When I heard editors talking amongst themselves (publishing house to publishing house) bragging about their current list or what they were working on now, again, the pitch/elevator speech. When I heard sales reps talking to librarians about the books on their new list, it was, you guessed it, the pitch/elevator speech. And, when I was asked what I was working on, I needed to have a quick pitch/elevator speech on the ready (re: even those interested in what you are doing have time to listen beyond a sentence or two). Although I’ve got a pretty good one or two line summary for each of my works down on paper, next time I will practice saying those words out loud several times before I arrive at the conference so it feels easy and natural. Also, I’m going to re-evaluate each of these pitches/elevator speeches in light of how I saw them used at so many levels during the process, to make sure I have mine down just right. And, I’m going to suggest that this is something my critique group practices out loud with each other at some of our meetings, so we routinely critique each others’ pitches/elevator speeches in addition to our manuscripts, synopses, queries, and cover letters.  

* I noticed how much more intrigued I was about different authors’ current or forthcoming projects based on the level of enthusiasm in their own voices when they told me about their books (i.e. some folks were crazy excited about their books, and their enthusiasm was contagious; others were more shy and low key, which made it harder to jump on the band wagon). This conference also conveyed to me how excited publishers are about the books (and authors/illustrators) on their lists, and how excited librarians are about the work that we all do. Seriously, sales reps and editors gushed to librarians about their books. Editors gushed to each other about how proud they were of their lists. Agents gushed to editors about new projects they were marketing for their clients and about how great the finished products by their clients looked on the shelves. Librarians cheered for books that won awards, and mourned the books that were overlooked. I got to hear from my own publisher’s reps how excited they continued to be about my books, and people who came to my book signing each had stories to tell about how they loved my earlier books and/or how they couldn’t wait to share my books with the kids in their schools and libraries. This was repeated for many others in attendance, in booth after booth, signing after signing. It was such a positive, high-energy experience to be a part of.

*I made new friends at the conference and I caught up with old friends. I was glad I had taken the time to reach out to old friends ahead of time so I had the comfort of having some friendly meet-ups planned, and I was glad that I joined in on some of the “newbie” programs and casual social gatherings with librarians. I also very much enjoyed attending the kidlit meet up hosted by the SCBWI-WA folks the first night I was in town. I now have several new kidlit friends from the SCBWI-WA chapter. There are also advantages to choosing housing associated with the conference to maximize informal networking opportunities, and next time I think it would be fun to room and/or coordinate transportation with a buddy (or future buddy).

*One last tip that was really useful for me is that prior to attending ALA I made a list of things I wanted to learn, and things I wanted to convey while I was at the conference. I had questions in mind to ask librarians when I had the opportunity to chat with them at length. I also had questions in mind for my publisher’s rep that I was able to ask when we had dinner together. Lastly, I had questions in mind for the publishers’ reps I met in the exhibit hall, and I had talking points in mind with respect to my current books and the manuscripts I’m currently marketing. This advanced prep helped me focus my attention and efforts to make the very most of the conference experience.

I’m so glad I went to ALA, and would encourage other writers and illustrators to make this event a priority when it takes place in a town that is convenient for you—no matter what stage you are in your career. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with additional questions. 

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