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September 1, 2014

Sydney Book Expo – Personal observations

I spent the weekend working the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild table at the inaugural Sydney Book Expo, held at the Olympic Park over 30-31 August 2014. I imagine that CSFG will be asked to provide feedback to the organisers or, if not solicited, may decide to provide some anyway. So I want to make it clear that these are my personal thoughts and don’t represent the views or the official position of the club. I’m also not linking directly back to the Expo website, because this isn’t intended as constructive criticism.

Basically, it wasn’t very good. Allow me to expand on that a little.

Venue

The venue was fine, I guess. The expo was held in one of the exhibition halls in the Olympic Park that was probably built to stage the rhythmic gymnastics or something. There was plenty of space for exhibitors and punters to walk around – too much, to tell the truth, but I’ll get to that. Our CSFG table was slightly on the cramped side, in that we bought in at the minimum level (we didn’t need any more than that) and so had a table, some backing display boards, a power point and a couple of chairs. There was no way to cram in three people behind the table, though, so at any given time one of us was always roaming.

The downside of the venue was that there was almost no food to be had, other than a single coffee stand and a single mini-cafe selling sandwiches, soups and toasties. If none of that rocked your boat, the options outside the pavilion were vanishingly slim. On the first day I got a pie from the skateboard park nearby (edible); on the second day I went to a nearby park when a fun run was finishing and bought a steak sandwich from a cart there (barely edible). Other than that it was coffee and coke.

The venue was also hot when the sun got on it in the afternoons. That would be consistent with the pavilions being great big aluminium boxes that heat up in direct sunlight.

Offerings

It’s a bit hard to tell exactly what the theme of the Expo was. There were no big publishers in attendance, so the biggest displays were from booktopia.com.au, your bookshop (both online bookstores) and King’s Comics (a comic shop). Those three were clearly the major sponsors of the show, with the largest displays closest to the front doors. Virtually everyone else was a small press publisher – like Satalyte Publishing and our close colleagues from Peggy Bright Books – or a self-published author. I guess there were about forty or fifty vendors all up, maybe?

There were some entertainments of various sorts, starting with the usual author readings and panel discussions on various literary topics of the sort that might interest authors and conceivably also normal people. There were puppeteers, cartoonists and some board games for the kids. There was a guitarist who was selling her CD bundled with a comic and whose set list included about eight light-hearted geek-friendly folk/pop songs. She played all weekend, set after set after set. . And there was a medieval sword-fighting display, complete with costumes and pretty decently choreographed swordplay. I’ve certainly committed worse acts of public martial arts, so more power to them for staying committed all weekend.

There was no discernible pattern to which exhibitors went where – our neighbour on one side was selling a children’s book she’d written about not being afraid of huntsman spiders, and on the other side was an author selling heavily-researched biographies of NSW Governors Arthur Phillip and Charles FitzRoy. Directly across from us was a woman selling her wildlife photography series for kids. Elsewhere were books on alternate histories, mythic romantic fantasies, journeys of discovery, Aussie yarns, crackpot spiritual conspiracy theories and self-help books for self-publishing, sexual health and child behaviour. All reasonably interesting in one way or another, but the word ‘eclectic’ doesn’t begin to cover it. The question we all kept asking each other was, who is the audience for this expo?

Punters

The answer to that question appears to be a resounding “nobody”. Far from a crowd of “up to ten thousand” passing through the figurative turnstiles, we boredly estimated that maybe three or four hundred people came in on the first day. It could have been as few as 250. The second day’s numbers were definitely down on that. If there was any point over the weekend at which there were more punters than exhibitors in the hall, it was a fleetingly brief moment late on the first morning.

We had not much to do. We chatted with maybe forty customers all weekend, and sold stuff to maybe ten. We weren’t expecting to make huge sales or shift a lot of stock, but that was well below even the most pessimistic estimates. At that rate we’d have needed three times as many people (i.e. less than a third of advertised estimates) to show up just to cover our costs.

As it was we did a lot of sitting around chatting to the neighbours, who also had very little to do. I had plenty of time to wander off with my notebook to work on a short story. *Plenty* of time. The other two guys working the stall with me just went off to do stuff with friends during the day, and I can scarcely blame them. If I’d known what it was going to be like I’d have arranged something social for myself as well.

Positives

Personally, I did get a fair amount of writing done, so I don’t consider the time to have been wasted (my family, abandoned for the entire weekend, may have a contrary view they wish to express). And of course I stayed with my dear friends Andrew and Von, and got to spend time with them and their delightful little girls on Saturday night and Sunday morning.

Not only that, I saw a few familiar faces – Alan Baxter and Jo Anderton were there as featured authors. It was a delightful surprise to see Jon Blum and Kate Orman out and about, and to get an all-too-brief chance to catch up. I guess for me the Book Expo it was a bit like a geek con, where you have a series of brief reconnections with people you don’t otherwise get to see, but without most of the other fun parts like boozy parties, elaborate costumes or celebratory backslapping.

Conclusions

I’m tired now. And the CSFG still has plenty of stock of its anthologies, if anyone is interested in purchasing some fine Australian speculative short fiction… Hurry now, while stocks (continue to) last.

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