Today I received my first (very early!) invitation to a publisher dinner at BookExpo America in May. These dinners are so wonderful, one of the highlights of a bookseller’s year. A publisher will bring phenomenal authors and illustrators to some delicious restaurant with a quiet room (or a rooftop garden, or a museum, or a boat, etcetera) and invite a group of booksellers to feast with them. Some of these dinners are quite small and intimate; others are full-scale parties. Before the economy tanked, some of these festivities were outrageously elaborate. Whatever the size or venue, they are pretty magical. Publishers invite store owners and book buyers to these dinners. The featured authors and artists are scattered around the room or table(s), and often shift stations between each course to give all of the booksellers an opportunity to become acquainted with them. It’s such a terrific opportunity to hear behind-the-scenes inspiration and anecdotes about the making of books, and to get to know the three-dimensional people behind the stories we love. It certainly gets us fired up about the great books and authors featured.
It takes a while for a new store to start getting invitations, since the groups are often limited to 8 or 12 booksellers. As a rookie store owner back in the mid-1990s, I was lucky enough to have found a mentor in the magnificently sharp, funny, brilliant (and well-read) Carol Chittenden of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass. Before I’d ever even heard of publisher dinners, she was the one who put a quiet bee in a few important ears suggesting that Josie and I be included in a dinner or two. Every bookseller should be so fortunate to have a Carol.
Back then, we had a tiny store in a tiny town of 3,500 (as opposed to our current small store in a small town of 6,000), and certainly didn’t do enough in sales to attract the attention of any publisher. But when Carol speaks, people listen, and her thoughtfulness earned us chairs at some pretty lofty tables, which led to meeting bigger-name authors from all over the country, which led to some really successful author events, which kept us in the eye of those publishers. Had Chitts, as we like to call her, not taken us under her wing, I’m not sure how long it might have taken for us to have a seat at the table, as it were, in the bookselling/publishing world.
So publishers, as you gather your lists together for those BEA dinners, I invite you to think about asking your sales reps and longtime bookseller contacts to point out one or two up-and-coming booksellers you might otherwise overlook. It’s a generous gesture that means more to those new owners and buyers than you’d ever imagine — inspiring and energizing them and earning you a sweet spot in their hearts — and just might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.