Oak Knoll Fest 2014, Day 1

FleckBlogThe first day of Oak Knoll Fest (Friday, October 3) was a symposium. It was of primary interest to people in the trade–book makers, book sellers, and librarians. The topic was “Craftsman to Collector: Selling and Buying the Fine Press Book,” and it was divided into seven easily digestible chunks, each around a small part of the subject.

The day began with John Randle and Russell Maret discussing, appropriately, book fairs. Russell boldly claimed that book fairs “are the primary way I sell books,” and pointed out that even if he didn’t always sell many books, it was his way of connecting with the people who would eventually become his customers. Randle said that at this point in the career of his press [Whittington, Herefordshire, UK] book fairs are not his most important means of making sales, but he concurred in saying that a first long-term customer had come to him because of showing at a show sponsored by the American Booksellers Association!

The discussion moved on to the cost of tables at book fairs, but though opinion in the audience was somewhat mixed, a majority seemed to believe that almost always the cost was appropriate to the opportunity the event presented, even if it couldn’t result in profitable sales for every exhibitor.

The second panel, Rob Fleck of Oak Knoll and Ian Kahn of Lux Mentis, talked about web sites, and what they are good for. Rob talked about what made a press’s site useful to him: a clear impression of what the press is about, good images of both books and the proprietor, and obvious contact information. Khan spoke more generally, though he did cite Russell Maret’s blog as being an outstanding way of marketing his work. “Russell manages to engage you in what he is doing. You can easily tell whether what he is doing is something that would interest you. If he amuses you, his books probably will too.”

Khan talked about his own web site a bit as well. He admitted that visuals are very important to an effective site, but that he has not managed to get as many up as he should. One unusual technique, a video preview of what will be on his stand at a book fair, has been unexpectedly effective.

The third panel on email, with Rob Fleck and Tim Murray of the University of Delaware library, did not provide any clear solutions for presses. Both admitted that good email practices could certainly be effective, but that people’s success in using it is all over the map.

A discussion of social media, with Russell and Ian on the stage, made it clear that it is capable of being very effective, but that much depends upon the personality of the person who is putting himself across. Russell said that “Every time I go to a book fair, I meet people who have seen my blog before.” Oddly, though he has never sold a book to anyone in the Ukraine, it is the sixth most important country as a source of readers of his social media.

Khan is a proponent of what he calls “organic” use of social media. “Representing yourself, being yourself, is a lot more effective than just showing merchandise,” he says. He says he has about 1800 Twitter followers. He knows what he posts will not suit everyone, but that he makes a sort of friend of many who discover the oddments about which he writes.

We then blended into a sunny New Castle midday to look for nourishment.

After lunch, we were back for a discussion of print advertising by Simon Lawrence and John Randle, which was of interest to North Americans because our UK brethren are still remarkably dependent upon mailings and periodical advertising.

Next up were Tim Murray and Vicky and Bill Stewart, the latter of whom run Vamp and Tramp booksellers, describing physical trips to visit [mainly institutional] buyers. Since Murray is a buyer, and the Stewarts are book dealers, their presentation was two sides of the same coin.

Murray has four kinds of visitors he doesn’t ask back: 1) the schmoozers: people who talk too much about unrelated topics; 2) the instructors: people who know what is right and do not admit that a customer might have a mind of his own; 3) the scholars: a variation on 2), but who have the weight of enormous quotable writing to bolster points of view; and 4) the used car salesman–he actually had someone pitch him with “What do I need to do to sell you this book?”

The Stewarts told the dramatic story of how they came into their present occupation, selling handmade books out of a van, travelling the country. Both had been suffering through jobs they didn’t enjoy, searching for second careers. They decided to start a bookshop, which was to specialize in modern firsts. It was going okay, but not really lighting their fires. Then one day, Bill happened upon a Ron King book which really excited him. They started looking for more such books, and found them a-plenty. Eventually they bought out Califia Books and embarked on their current career of selling books from almost 400 presses to libraries and other collectors around the United States.

They told about how they must prepare for each visit (they manage two a day when they’re in populated regions), and how some librarians bring in friends of the library to pick out books they’re willing to buy and give, others bring students or faculty, and some even demand that the Stewarts disappear while they commune with the books.

There was a bit of frank discussion of discounts to booksellers, but no secrets were divulged. Vamp and Tramp, because it operates strictly on a consignment basis, insists on a standard 40% discount for all. With other booksellers, it appears to be an issue settled by negotiation.

Additional photos on the FPBA Facebook page. More posts to come, and “one book from each table” on the Facebook page.

–Bob McCamant