This past weekend was the first annual INSPIRE! Toronto International Book Fair, where book lovers could purchase their favourite reads, get their books signed by their favourite (newly discovered) authors, and attend panels. We don’t have anything else like this in Toronto — which is surprising given the number of publishing houses located here — so I was very excited when I first heard about it a year ago. I was more than willing to pay the $25 ticket to go to the Lift Off Party on Thursday night and it also included entry to all three days of the fair. The Lift Off Party (formerly the Lift Off Gala) was less of a party and more like a sneak preview of the fair floor with most of the booths already set up. Readers, publishers, and authors walked around and mingled while sipping the complimentary alcohol that you received on arrival (no non-alcoholic equivalent!). It ran from 7-11pm and we were fed light refreshments that tasted fabulous but I felt pretty much finished by 8 pm.
Fast forward to Friday, and if you were not interested in the Thursday night event, then you’d have likely gone the $15 ticket route. With the ticket, you could go to all three days or just one. Rather than a wristband, if you went multiple days, a re-entry ticket would be needed to be issued before you left for the day. I actually liked that method: hopefully attendees didn’t feel obligated to go everyday, or find the cost was excessive if for just one day. Also nice was that reentry wasn’t an issue, since you would have had your hand stamped with the day (i.e. Saturday).
I wasn’t at the fair until just before 3pm because I was off on a book store tour with three other Toronto bloggers organized by INSPIRE! and Toronto Tourism. It was a last minute invitation and was put together primarily for the bloggers INSPIRE! flew in for the festival (but more on that later). I got to see the I Don’t Give A Damsel: Writing Strong Young Women panel featuring young adult authors E. Lockhart, Meg Wolitzer, Sarah Mlynowski, and Gayle Forman. I also sat in on a panel moderated by my good friend, bookseller, librarian and blogger Jenn Hubbs called Love To Read! How Reading Programs Lead To Success which featured Toronto Public Library’s Children & Youth Advocate, Lisa Heggum, and author Marsha Skrypuch. After that, I was too tired to do anything else so I decided to head home and try my luck with Day 2.
Saturday was the busiest day of the fair. It was nowhere near as packed as FanExpo, but that was more of a positive than a negative for attendees. I saw a few panels: The State of The Publishing Industry Around The World and Through The Eyes of A Child: Young Narrators in Contemporary Literature. I sang Happy Birthday to Margaret Atwood for a video message before getting cake and sat in on author panels I didn’t initially plan to attend, like Sylvia Day and Meg Wolitzer. Both were engaging and entertaining. Again, I wandered the floor and greeted friends I don’t get to see often before ending my day exhausted.
Sunday was the third and final day. I arrived at noon and bought Maggie Stiefvater’s latest book Blue Lily, Lily Blue from the Indigo bookselling area in order to get a wristband for the signing. I killed time before back to back panels: Books By Their Covers: Redesigning Classics, The Beguiling Presents: Comedy…? What’s Funny About Funnybooks (it featured Kate Beaton, Ryan North and Chip Zdarsky. Never laughed so hard), Building The Arc: Bestselling Series Writing with Maggie Stiefvater and Dalton Higgins Presents: Diversity, DJs and DIY. I got my book signed and gushed all over Maggie Stiefvater before going home and collapsing.
The Report Card
For its first year, INSPIRE! was better than I expected.
Signings: There were troublesome hiccups on the way, like announcing the book signing policy long after tickets were already available for purchase. A big no-no. The signing policy also felt super restrictive. Authors who signed at the main stage (and most of them did) would only sign books bought from the Indigo bookselling area at the fair. You had to show the receipt and the wristband before you got your books signed — no books from home were allowed. Not the best course of action at a book event.
- On that note, it would have been nice if maps were offered online sooner and not the day of the event. Also, if there are changes in the schedule, tweet them! Post them! It’s important to make people aware of changes as soon as possible.
Seating/Booths: What I loved about this versus BookExpo of America (BEA) was that seating was sprinkled throughout the floor. You could find seating everywhere and not in one isolated location which was really nice. The booths were GORGEOUS. Simon & Schuster Canada and Penguin Random House pulled out all the stops, which was fantastic.
- Fun Fact: Someone told me that the Simon & Schuster Canada staff designed the booth which was broken up into different living spaces (bedroom, kitchen etc). Bravo, guys!
Location: I’m so happy that the fair took place in the North Building of the MetroToronto Convention Centre, and not the South Building. Anyone who has gone to FanExpo knows that the South Building has really crappy cell reception (almost non-existent sometimes). However, the South Building has a bit of wifi here and there whereas the North Building doesn’t. Not great for international guests who want to tweet their experience.
Panels/Programming: THEY. WERE. SO. GOOD. It was the first year so I wasn’t bombarded with panels I wanted to pre-schedule but that did free me up to go to random ones I would have never gone to otherwise. There wasn’t a dud among any of them. They were all fantastic. I was also happy that INSPIRE! made sure to diversify their programming by having French panels, kids panels/spaces/activities, Spanish panels, panels discussion diversity, panels discussing publishing outside of north america etc. They even had an entire pavilion area dedicated to First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples. I’m extremely happy about that part.
Now let’s get to the really big issues that I had with INSPIRE!.
There was a decent turnout this weekend but definitely less than INSPIRE! or the exhibitors were hoping for. Outside of Twitter, I hardly heard about or saw advertising for the event. I started hearing advertisements on the radio only days before the event was due to start. It didn’t help that the Santa Claus parade was on Sunday, and it definitely didn’t help that INSPIRE! didn’t tap into local resources like book bloggers.
That’s another issue: lack of local connections. There is a great (and big) book blogging community in Toronto and INSPIRE! didn’t touch it at all to help with its marketing. (Book bloggers weren’t an option for media passes/accreditation despite the fact that there are bloggers with huge followings like Giselle from Book Nerd Canada.) I wouldn’t be as baffled as I am now if it weren’t for the fact that INSPIRE! flew in bloggers from outside the city and even the country to put some eyes on the event. Even local young adult authors like Lesley Livingston, Megan Crewe, and Morgan Rhodes weren’t approached to participate in panels like the I Don’t Give A Damsel: Writing Strong Young Women. I don’t mind their bringing in people from outside to make this fair international but its main source of attendance will always be people from the Greater Toronto Area, and GTA residents are the fans INSPIRE! should be working to secure in its first few years.
At this point, it looks like INSPIRE! is primarily making money off of ticket revenue and from exhibitor fees. Buying books directly from the exhibitors seems to be working for the smaller publishers, although I’m not sure how much they made with the weekend’s turnout. But Indigo is eating up potential revenue for big publishers, thanks to the main stage signing rules.
The question now for INSPIRE! is: did this business model make money? That’s what will determine if and how INSPIRE! will return next year. I hope they do and that they listen to the feedback that they’ll likely be getting in the days to come.