Thursday, 25 June 2009

Cape Town Book Fair 2009: Jacana uses guerilla tactics

Rumours were circulating last month that Joburg-based publisher Jacana would not be exhibiting at the Cape Town Book Fair this year.

Jacana director Bridget Impey cryptically let on that while Jacana would be participating this year, the nature of its participation would be different.

Come June 13 and all was made clear. Jacana was present at the book fair, but did not have a stand in the exhibition hall.

Instead, the publisher was present either through organised book events and readings, or by unscheduled, guerrilla-style flash appearances at retailers’ stands.

Visitors could be notified of these flash appearances by registering with an SMS service, though this unfortunately fell flat on the first two days due to network problems.

Not that this was a train smash, since Jacana — which organised its office in the foyer of the convention centre — had staff circulating flyers to visitors shortly before the events.

Publishing director Maggie Davey says Jacana felt a need to adopt innovative marketing, though she agrees it could be seen as a cost-cutting measure. “Jacana felt a need to use more innovative, less conventional methods to put our authors forward and reach audiences,” she says.

Director Mike Martin says: “We asked ourselves why we were participating at the book fair, and what we wanted to get out of it. When you start by asking yourself that question, you start thinking out of the box, and wondering if renting a stand is necessary.”

There were also a number of practical business considerations. Impey points out that at previous book fairs, when Jacana had a stand, it would be selling books in competition with retailers who were their biggest clients.

So this year, rather than selling books, Jacana partnered with retailers on scheduled and unscheduled events.

“And it hasn’t been easy,” says Davey. “It is a lot of hard work. You have to work a lot harder than if you are just at a stand.”

Last year, there was concern among some exhibitors that the trade aspect of the fair was being drowned out by the retail and literary event components, and some would prefer that a day be devoted to trade, with the fair closed to the public.

Davey still holds that an exhibitor’s stand has its value, but says trying to create business within the exhibition hall is difficult, particularly because of the noise and the amount of human traffic.

Martin believes that a problem with the Cape Town Book Fair is that it is becoming repetitive. “It is the same thing every year, the same exhibitors, the same stands. There is nothing new, nothing to really knock your socks off.”

Added to this is the cost of participating in the fair, and looking at what benefits are being received. One solution for players from outside the Cape is the possibility of creating a Johannesburg book event.

Martin says: “In Johannesburg, publishers could reach bigger audiences; in Cape Town it is always the same audiences. With a Johannesburg book fair, publishers could grow their market.

“It is also a matter of rethinking the concept of the book fair and of placing it on a more human scale rather than in a huge convention centre. We should stop trying to be London or Frankfurt, and create something unique.

“People are already talking about what Jacana has done by not having an exhibitor’s stand, and if we have got some debate going, that is a start, as other people will also start thinking out of the box.”

By Monday afternoon it seemed that Jacana’s guerrilla approach had annoyed a fellow publisher, who lodged a complaint with the fair’s organisers, accusing Jacana of “pamphleteering”, and that the publisher was ordered by security to leave the convention centre. However, it turned out there had been some misunderstanding, and Jacana was assured it could remain at the fair.

(Published in The Weekender, June 20, 2009)

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