Empire State Book Festival – so many authors, so few book sales

I spent last Saturday in the bowels of Albany’s underground Convention Center, listening to authors talk about their writing at the Empire State Book Festival. This first-ever event was sponsored by the New York Library Association and billed as “A Celebration of New York State Writers, Books and Literacy.” But how celebratory was it, really? I came away with mixed feelings, though with enough material for several more blog posts.

Ever the diligent student, I attended six panels, each with several participants. That’s a couple of dozen authors, and as is traditional at large conferences, their books were for sale in a separate book room, with tables set up in the adjoining corridors for signings by these authors and well over a hundred others from the many concurrent panels. To my surprise, though, the book room didn’t have much traffic, and when I went to cash out with three books from the mystery writers’ panel I’d attended, there was no line at all.

There were virtually no lines at the authors’ tables either. They sat marooned at their tables, some with their game faces on, others looking more like folks in the dentist’s waiting room. A few chatted with writers at adjoining tables. Initially I’d been miffed that, like most Capital District writers, I wasn’t invited to participate, but after making the rounds of the sales and signing area, I was relieved to be excluded. There’s no more depressing way to spend a beautiful spring day than sitting ensconced behind a table waiting to sign books that nobody’s buying.

There was New York State money behind this festival, but an advance news story made a point of stating none of the authors were paid to attend. The majority traveled from out of town, especially New York City, so I expect they’ll be taking the day as a tax write-off. The same is probably true for the vendors. At $275 a booth, only a few small presses took the opportunity to hawk their wares, and the cost no doubt discouraged many.

Still, the festival was free, and thousands of people reportedly attended. The workshop rooms were packed with avid listeners who asked intelligent questions. So by many measures, the event was a success. Here’s hoping some of the authors thought so too, even if they didn’t sell many books. After all, it’s good to get your name out there, or so they tell us.

At the end of the day I came away more drained than invigorated, but part of that had nothing to do with the contents of the conference. I’d bought some pricy new shoes I’d hoped would be perfect for events like this, but the straps sliced into my insteps. Parking my behind on the same unforgiving chairs for hours wasn’t much better, and there’s something about the low-ceilinged cement aesthetics of the convention center below Rockefeller’s Empire State Plaza that’s inherently oppressive. Fortunately, my husband showed up in time for the last workshop and to take me out to dinner.

Although you might not think so from the above post, I’m glad I went to the Empire State Book Festival. The panels gave me considerable food for thought as well as ingredients for three posts:

  • Hints for structuring a book-length project
  • Judging a book by its cover
  • The future of the book – Is publishing in freefall, or just in flux?

I’m sure many of you have been to big book conferences like this, either as authors or fans. What’s your take on them? Are they worth it? Are they just a drain on your time and your pocketbook, or do the networking and the inspiration make it all worthwhile?


12 thoughts on “Empire State Book Festival – so many authors, so few book sales

    • Hi Vincent. You seem to be really adept at social networking – sometime I hope you’ll be willing to share some of your secrets. Come to think of it, maybe you’d like to be a guest blogger sometime!

  1. Julie – you make me glad I wasn’t invited. You’d think local authors would have been included, but no…. How was the attendance? Exposure is worth sitting there, sometimes. I don’t go to conferences unless I can be on a panel for that reason. There are certain conferences that I feel are worth the expense; that is Malice Domestic – I’m on a panel there — and Deadly Ink in NJ, which is small, but wonderful people who organize it and attend. I hope to get you there this year! Marilyn aka: M.E. KEMP, author: DEATH OF A DANCING MASTER, out in the Fall.

    • Hi Marilyn,
      As for attendance, I’ll go with Kate’s estimate below. I always feel I learn something, so it’s worthwhile even if I’m not on a panel. As for mystry conferences, I’m signed up for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Symposium on April 28th, bu tthat’s about it for conferences this year. At least this one was free!

  2. I am so glad I didn’t go. A friend of mine worked on the festival and so I have a little insight as to 1) how minimal the staff was for the event and 2) how much they were really feeling their way along for this first time event.

    But I don’t attend conferences where I am not a guest — it just doesn’t make sense. I want to sell books. I don’t have time to just go hang out. I really think they might have done better to focus on area writers, but who knows? But if I’m not on a panel or doing a reading where people might see me and decide to buy a book — well, I will spend the time writing.

    One of my friends who attended said it was definitely hundreds not thousands in attendance, but also said that Gregory MacGuire was funny.

    • Thanaks for the inside perspective. Considering they were just feeling their way, I thought it was remarkably well organized. I agree there should have been more opportunity for local writers, though.

    • I wouldn’t say it was terribly inspiring, but I always enjoy hearing about the experiences and working methods of other writers. More on that tomorrow.

    • Jean, you must be doing something right to sell all your books at these events – but then I’m surprised you don’t do more of them!

  3. I stopped in at this event which I found totally uninviting. Seemed like it was mostly volunteers and folks with name tags, authors perhaps. I walked downtown for some Chinese on Pearl St, picked up some pastries at Crispen on Lark and then headed out to walk around the Siena campus where many students actually seemed to be studying. I didn’t get the point of the Book Conference or understand why they didn’t link up with the local literary groups and authors. If the point was to sell books shouldn’t there have been readings?

    • Hi Bob. I’m not exactly sure what the point was, because I missed the opening remarks and keynote speech! It was billed as a celebration of authors, books and literacy, but it’s true it didn’t seem very celebratory.

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