Internet Marketing Lessons Learned from Walking the AWP Book Fair

A writer at a book fair is a lot like a teenaged girl loose on the Internet with her mom’s credit card. The wonder! The excitement! The expense! When that writer is also a marketer, you can be sure she’ll be looking at the displays! The giveaways! The opportunities to build brand awareness!

This is my dispatch from last week’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) book fair and conference when 12,000+ writers, educators, and publishers converged on Seattle for what should have been a marketing extravaganza. I’ll talk about what succeeded, what failed, and what those lessons can teach you about Internet marketing—or how to do AWP 2015 right.

It pays to stand out

The fair’s 600+ exhibitors were spread out over two huge rooms at the Washington State Convention Center. Even though I’ve been to this conference before in other cities, my nerdy little writing self was stunned by the vast array of presses, MFA programs, literary magazines, writing organizations, and bookstores.

I actually walked in the first day and couldn’t process all the information coming at me. I had a plan about which booths to visit first and had read over the map, but I couldn’t even find them in those first stunned moments. It looked a little like this:

awp book fair

And it felt like like being on the Internet and having Googled “who’s who in the literary world” then having to sift through all the results in person. The Paris Review was at the back, The Sun was to my left, and The New York Times was in another room entirely.

At a book fair (or any other conference), you have to focus on the physical display you put together and the people you have working it in order to draw in people walking by. On the Internet, this same idea applies when you think about your search engine results page (SERP) listing. It needs to be full of the information your potential visitors might need.

Just like book fair concessioners can lure a person to stop at their booth by offering up the just-right freebies, you can make your web presence more attractive by ensuring your SERP listings have great title tags and meta descriptions that seduce. In either case, I’d recommend the following:

Have an identity not a gimmick

rejection generator at awp book fair
This is a neat little tool that one of the small presses put together. I answered a few questions about who I am as a writer and it personalized a rejection letter for me. Now, you might argue, that writers don’t need more rejection, but when I completed the exercise they gave me a sticker and a postcard. Although I have no idea which press it was (I hope, based on the URL that it’s Stone Slide Corrective), that fun experience will stick in my head when I eventually sort through the pile of AWP papers I dumped on my desk at the end of each night.

On the Internet, Portent has a tool like this that helps people create titles and we make other tools for clients. In fact, one of our newest announcements here at Portent is the development of a suite of digital marketing tools that Ian will be heading up. At the conference I also saw a robot that generated poems based on questions it asked you. Big or small, creativity wins.

Lesson: No matter who does your coding, the opportunities to be useful and memorable on the Internet are endless. Try them. Create a tool that makes someone’s job easier, design an infographic that adds to the conversation, or set up a super-shareable game. Standing out from the crowd is essential.

iron horse at awp book fair
Standing out can also go too far. Yes, I walked over to this booth just because the man was wearing a horse mask. And I am glad that it was somewhat related to his literary journal, Iron Horse Review. Points to them for originality, but it was also a little gimmicky. They got my attention, but they didn’t help me know why I should submit my work to their journal and not someone else’s. I value my time, my writing, and the hundreds of dollars I spend on submissions each year. This journal might be the perfect fit for my work, but I can’t have that conversation with a man in a horse mask.

Lesson: Have a reason for the identity you’re creating. Use your content and tools to make it easy for your audience to connect with you and to know why they love you. An infographic about snake farming on a fashion website only makes sense if you make the connection for me that your gorgeous shoes are humanely sourced.

Personality matters

hugo house at awp book fair
Full disclosure, I love Hugo House so much that I’m on the board of directors. My unbiased observation, though, is that every time I went by their booth, it was packed with visitors. And I think that’s due a lot to the enthusiasm of booth staffers like Zac and Elisa. They stood up and engaged with everyone who came by. Someone even found a second in the conference madness to retweet the pic I took of them.

Over at the MacGuffin booth, a man threw a tiny book of poems at my bag. He was sure to miss, but it was a great conversation starter (and too small to cause pain), and he was interested in having the conversation with me.

As a kid, I helped my dad work booths for years. I know how exhausting it is to be on your feet all day trying to engage with strangers who may or may not care. None of the people I’ve mentioned above let that show. This is a huge contrast to the innumerable booths where people sat back and checked their smart phones or chatted amongst themselves. Those booths were really easy to walk by.

Lesson: If you want people to care about you, you have to show you care about them first. If you don’t, there are hundreds of other entities who will. On the Internet you are a faceless entity until you engage with your customers. Tweet at them. Respond to their blog comments. Ask them to share with you on Instagram. You have a chance to catch their attention and build a relationship. Don’t just have social channels, BE social.

You can judge a press by its book covers

ahsahta press at AWP
On the Internet or at the book fair, if you have designed and displayed your materials right, they can help you attract attention. Ahsahta Press (pictured above) is known for their gorgeously designed books of poetry and the rack was a clever way to get more acreage for their tiny table.

The ever-wild Write Bloody threw underwear across the top of their booth (this is only recommended if it suits the personality of your brand).

Display and design doesn’t have to be revolutionary or weird to get attention. I saw one lit mag stack their issue like bricks which made the spine (and their name) more visible. One press used wooden cartons as prop displays.

But you do have to think about your display and design a little. I saw too many tables full of unremarkable or poorly designed covers stacked in ways that I couldn’t easily parse while scanning the room. I’d name names, but I’ve forgotten them.

wave books at awp book fair
Minimalism is not for the faint of heart. The really cool kids, like Wave Poetry, can get away with the simplest designs of all. The sea of white covers at their table reminded me of the elegance of a Mac commercial. I loved it, but not everyone can pull this look off.

Lesson: Good design and display matter, and matching those to your brand’s personality is a must.

Know your audience

There are a lot of different types of people at a conference. At AWP you have writers with MFAs, writers earning MFAs, writers who might want to someday get an MFA and writers who think MFAs are overrated. You also have professors and book sellers, and on Saturday, they let in the general public.

Which type of booth you are running helps narrow your audience a little and it definitely changes how you talk to people. If you’re running a booth for an MFA program, you have to learn the difference between the person who is ignoring you because she has no interest in springing for another MFA and the one who desperately wants you to acknowledge her as a potential student.

Meanwhile, it’s important not to pigeonhole people. I can’t tell you how many publishers, when hearing that I write fiction, directed me away from their poetry books. Though they were trying to be helpful, they were ignoring the (true) fact that I enjoy reading poetry and might want to buy some of their books. In a saturated marketplace, it’s really easy to move on to a table that lets you self-select.

Lesson: Ask good, open-ended questions and let your audience tell you what they want. On the web, you can use collaborative storytelling to learn more about your audience and to connect with a wider one. You might learn something essential and all the while you’re building that essential relationship with your audience.

Be competitive

sale sign at awp book fair
If you’ve been to a few AWP book fairs, you might expect that Saturday afternoon is a great time to score cheap (or free) books. In fact, I watched as one very famous poet wandered the booths asking for free stuff at the end of the day while people packed up. We all know that sending those boxes back home is expensive and have come to expect last-minute deals.

But this year it felt like the presses fought back. I saw one table offering 5% discounts. Um, really? And many had no discounts at all. Pricing is an important decision, but remember that your competition can always undercut you.

I bought STACKS of books and lit mags I never would have otherwise at the tables with cheap books. Buy two get one? I’m in! $5 a book? I don’t know how you’re making money but I want to read that book. I bought a few expensive ones, too, but only the ones I had to have. (Technically the picture below illustrates both my books and those of my conference buddy, Liza).

All the books I took home will go on my Goodreads and I might even review some of them on my website.

As someone who has a couple of boxes of books she wrote in her living room to hand sell at events, I do realize that books cost money. I know that publishers’ marketing budgets have been slashed. I also know word of mouth is priceless and can be worth the occasional discount or freebie.

candy at awp book fair
Another way to stick in the customer’s mind (and tote bag) is with giveaways. At AWP that means swag. Here’s where I really go easy on literary magazines, because, hey, t-shirts are spendy (I know, I bought at least one). Many, many booths had candy. Some had buttons (for sale or free). Several had tote bags for people who bought a subscription on the spot. One or two booths had temporary tattoos or stickers.

The tote bags were great for people who bought too many books (ahem). One of my friends really wanted to see more pens and pads of paper. And I don’t remember the last time I wore a button, temporary tattoo, or sticker, but I gladly slipped them in my purse. These mementos are good reminders of who I chatted with during the book fair and will help with future name recognition.

Lesson: Don’t be stingy with your discounts in a crowded marketplace like the Internet or a book fair. It’s just too easy to shop elsewhere. Research the competition to understand your audience’s expectations. Set a realistic budget; then get creative with your swag and giveaways. Use a service like Woobox to set up a social contest or send swag to influencers.

When I receive a free review copy of a book, I tweet about the package in the mail, write a review, and then put that review all over my social media. That’s a lot of advertising at a very low cost to publishers.

Participate your industry’s dialogue

gettysburg review at awp book fair
The big news in the lit world in the days before AWP was the VIDA count – a summing up of how well female voices are represented in literary magazines (which, usually, is not very well). More and more writers are starting to pay attention to this dialogue and some progress is being made.

I loved the way The Gettysburg Review displayed their stats proudly (see that little pie chart to the left of the “book fair special” sign?). VIDA made it easy; they provided laminated cards to the magazines they had surveyed, but I saw very few magazines who were displaying this information. One can only assume it’s because their stats are bad. Even if that isn’t true, we’ll never know.

Lesson: Find a way to engage in your industry that’s bigger than just you. Then, as a second step talk about how it all affects you. Blog about it. Share your successes and plans for improvement. Celebrate thought leaders in your field. By contributing to the conversation, you’re showing you have nothing to hide.

Be present

really empty booth at awp book fair
AWP is a long conference (Wednesday through Saturday) and a lot of booth operators either have early flights back east or are too partied out to make it all the way through the final day. It happens to everyone, really, you get worn out sometimes or just can’t be there. What you have to realize, though, is that while you’re sleeping off last night’s after-party, your customers might not be. So leave behind a little something to let them know you haven’t bailed entirely.

empty booth at awp book fair
Lesson: Your marketing has to be present, even when you can’t be. Clearly communicate when you’ll be available whether it’s your call center or your Twitter account. Schedule tweets to cover times you can’t be 100% present and then scan for any quick replies you want or need to make in the interim.

Today’s technology matters

I don’t want to tell you how many books I didn’t buy because the booth wasn’t taking credit cards. What I will tell you is that the problem was so rampant, many booths had signs that said when credit cards were accepted. I did fill out a couple of paper credit card slips and took notes on books I hope to find online later for booths that only took cash or check. But I know I won’t really go back.

Lesson: It’s 1990, people. No, wait… Whatever technology you use in marketing, whether it’s your website or your Square card reader, should be up to today’s standards. Is your site mobile responsive? Are you still torturing visitors with Flash? Whenever possible, design for tomorrow.

At the end of the day, have fun

broken shoe at awp book fair
I conferenced so hard I broke my shoes. And along the way I learned that there is a lot of room for better marketing in the publishing industry and how that all relates back to Internet marketing. If you hit AWP in Minneapolis next year, keep your eyes open. Oh, and if you’re going to the book fair, take a freaking backpack. I’m still recovering from the packed tote bag full of books I carried all day Saturday.

I’d love to hear about the best swag you ever picked up at a conference and things you’ve learned as a marketer trying to stand out in the fray. Please share in the comments.

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  1. There are some great ideas here, I think the one that stands out for me is the free give-aways. You made a comment about the fact that it has been a while since you wore buttons or stick on tattoos but you still picked up the merchandise. This is something that is so easy to promote online and a way to stand out from others who may not offer what you are, or may not offer anything at all. Knowing what your target audience might like also comes into this. I think a company like Amazon does this brilliantly with their sweepstake give-aways. Get people’s attention with free stuff and they will remember your name.

    1. Thanks, Emily. It’s interesting that you mention Amazon because I hadn’t even noticed they do giveaways. Now I can’t wait to go look for them.

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