Stack of BooksWhat can a book convention teach you about your business? Plenty.

One of the greatest perks of being a royalty-published author is that it allows me access to Book Expo America (BEA), the annual publishing industry conference. It is not open to the public, but for those lucky people who get in, it is a kid-in-a-candy store experience. Literally hundreds of authors do autograph signings, major publishers showcase what is coming next season, and celebrities abound, from Jim Carrey to Grumpy Cat. Best of all, no sales are allowed, so all books are given away free. I would liken it to an ice cream convention where you can eat all you want. I have been faithfully attending every year for close to a decade.

So what can you learn from a conference where you can get as many free books as you can carry out? Or, put another way, if you and your competitors all gave away your products and services for free for a few days, what would happen? Let’s take a look:

1) Crap + Publicity = Crap. BEA always has a sideshow of people dressed up in character, or wearing logo shirts, or having paid hawkers drawing attention to their book. Some people have even piled their books in the restrooms for pleasure reading while you, um, do your business. Often you NEVER hear about any of these books ever again.

I am not bashing publicity per se. For example, one year BEA visitors were greeted by a giant inflatable Captain Underpants, at a time when that book series was the talk of children’s books. Major publishers of course devote a lot of money to promote their top sellers. Brand-building is great when you have a great brand. But if you simply throw money at your crappy self-published tome, you will often learn the meaning of the phrase, “you can’t give it away.”

2) Quality is a non-linear equation. About these hundreds of author signings: gaze out over the landscape of lines for these authors, and you will discover something amazing. The best authors – whether they are best-sellers or hot up-and-coming authors – draw WAY more people. It is not unusual to find block-long lines for the best authors, while dozens of others have little or no wait. And that isn’t counting the marquee authors – Hollywood stars, public figures, and the like – for whom you have to get advance tickets to even be on line.

For example, this year New York Times bestseller Lisa Scottoline had a massive line wrapping around her publisher’s booth for the entire hour she was signing – and when time was up and the line hadn’t dissipated at all, she generously passed out unsigned copies of her new book to everyone still waiting. So I don’t have her autograph this time, but I do have her thumbprint.

3) Who you are matters as much as what you write. Most authors are very generous of spirit in connecting with their fans, and that matters a great deal. One year, famous 60s radio personality Cousin Brucie had a long line that barely budged – because he was chatting up everyone in line like they were his best friend. No wonder he still lights up the dial on satellite radio nowadays. Conversely, I met one of the hottest-selling business authors that same year, and he acted like he was a million miles away and didn’t want to talk to the hoi-polloi. When I saw him again at a subsequent conference, his booth was drawing flies. Does his persona affect his book sales? My wager would be yes.

4) There are trends, and you need to pay attention to them. This is the main reason I go to BEA: to see what people are buying nowadays, so as to inform my own writing. For example, my most successful book, a #1 customer service bestseller and Business Book of the Year finalist, was a book of business fables – at a point in time when this genre was one of the hottest trends around. Today business fables are as dead as a doornail, and I am off to greener pastures.

So if I were selling a new widget, what would I learn from BEA? Make people fall madly in love with my product first, then spend marketing dollars. Learn that being the best can yield a disproportionately large market share. Be real and genuine with my customers. And pay attention to trends around me. Good luck!