BookBrowse chats with Ann Kent, founder of book group expo.

Book Club Interviews

BookBrowse chats with Ann Kent, founder of book group expo.

This month we chat with Ann Kent, founder of book group expo, an event now entering its third year that brings 1500 book club members together for a weekend of books, authors, conversation, wine and chocolate! book club expo 2008 will be held in San Jose, California in October.  More information at bookgroupexpo.com



Hello Ann, thanks for chatting with us today.  First off, what is book group expo?

Book group expo is an experience that is all about books, conversations and community. I think it is how we create that experience - gathering book lovers together with authors, wine and chocolate - that translates into something very compelling. It is part Literary Salon and part marvelous party – a lot like many of our book clubs!


You have clearly put a lot of energy into creating book group expo --- can you tell us more about your motivation to even start this experience?

My motivation was really to share the rich social experience of a book group gathering. I am a relative "newbie" in the book group world, having only joined a group about 3 years ago. I was intrigued by my own behavior and relationship with my book group. I did NOT want to miss a get-together to the point that I scheduled my business travel around my book group!

My own intrigue led me to asking others about books and their book clubs – people I was working with across the country in business. And as I asked more questions, some common themes emerged. What we had in common was a casual gathering of people (mostly women), every 4-6 weeks in someone's home, at a library or in a restaurant where we had great experiences and unpredictable conversations. We didn't always agree. In fact, sometimes the conversation could get downright heated! But we openly shared opinions and perspectives and whatever happened, left as friends. We could really disagree, not see eye-to-eye and still enjoy each other's company! This experience was consistent in EVERY conversation I had. And I found that amazing. Of course what we also had in common was having good food and drink.


These gatherings of planned spontaneity, if you will, were so enjoyable and enriching I wanted to broaden and duplicate the experience for others to enjoy. I wanted to bring some of these conversations out in the public space. THAT was my motivation, and with it a celebration of the different things that make our lives, certainly my life, so rich: books, friends, conversations, good wine, more conversations.


Why book group expo and not some other book-related activity?

If you had asked me 5 years ago if I would ever be involved in something like this I would have said ABSOLUTELY NOT! Creating a book-related experience was not even on my "Top 100 things I need to do before I'm 50!" So, for me, this isn't exclusively a book-related activity. I know that sounds odd, but it isn't just about the books. Books are what bring people - community - together.
 

Khaled Hosseini (author of A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner) & Susanne Pari, author & Program Director for bge, share a lighter moment.




This is about creating an experience for people that relates to community. I really am committed to bringing more of these conversations that happen in our living rooms and dining rooms into a public space. I love to see people connect with each other – laugh, talk, discuss – really interact. That happened last year with readers AND with authors. It even happened within the group of volunteers that helped make all of this happen! Through book group expo, I am able to support small businesses/entrepreneurs (through the Marketplace, local independent book sellers and relevant businesses are able to promote their products at the show); introduce readers to authors they might never meet; and help facilitate conversations and relationships that extend far beyond these two days. Pretty cool. Lucky me.


Lots of people have ideas but few put them into action.  How did book group expo go from being a fun idea to an actual event?

Like most ideas, book group expo morphed from a casual conversation and then just took off from there. I was having lunch with a friend who commented on his wife and her book club. He didn't realize I had recently joined a book group as well --- we had a chuckle, then we started the "I wonder" conversation. I wonder if people in book groups all get together? I wonder if there are large "conventions" of reading group members? I wonder who brings these people together and how they reach them? I wonder . . . .

You get the idea – it really just led to more questions – more wondering. And so I reached out to my community of friends and colleagues and started asking. It just seemed reasonable to me that this was a niche community . . . a specialized group of people that likely did have some sort of national consortium of some kind. And after hundreds of e-mails and several dozen conversations, I learned that such a gathering did not already exist. Bringing together book lovers and avid readers just seemed like a logical next step. So in January of 2006, I decided to make something happen in June of 2006.  It's a good thing no one told me that most events are planned 12 – 18 months in advance!  And soon "I" became "we" as some of my wonderful friends stepped forward to help.
 

Norris Church Mailer, author of Cheap Diamonds and Windchill Summer.




So, no mulling things over - you just leaped in with both feet!

The most "mulling" that happened was really confirming that no one else was already doing it. I had no need to repeat something that was already happening. That's why I reached out to the avid readers I knew . . . and those that they knew. I contacted the one author I knew and asked her. And I reached out to my local independent book stores and asked them. I was actually very surprised that a gathering with some of the characteristics I was envisioning related to book group expo didn't already exist. That was the AH HA!! Book clubs and reading groups have been around for years and years! No big party? No Annual Book Club extravaganza? Hmm.


What are the key ingredients for book group expo?

Avid readers, authors --- and the conversations that follow. And many would then add a little wine and a lot of chocolate. My intention was to really create an experience more similar to what happens in many of our own book groups. A little food, some drink, some heated conversations, laughter, maybe some insight into a new idea or an alternative perspective --- and a conversation. In many ways I wanted to bring the private conversations of our book clubs and reading groups out into a public space.


Chocolate, wine, the Marketplace --- can you tell us more about the role food plays during the book group expo?

The chocolate and wine are likely as much about Ann Kent as they are about book clubs, reading groups and book group expo. It started when my own group poked fun at ourselves for being a pour-ly disguised wine-drinking group. We were enthusiastic about the book and seeing each other – and equally enthusiastic about what new wine we might discover! And by the close of each get-together, there was inevitably chocolate on the table. In conversations I was having with people all over the country about their book groups, I would sometimes just ask, "Are you more of a red wine group or white wine?" That ALWAYS got a chuckle! (As if that was the secret handshake or something). One group did say they were more of a martini crowd, though.

So how does this all relate to book group expo? This is an experience for all of the senses. I want to enrich our minds, our hearts and our palettes! As with my own book group, I want to stimulate thoughts and conversations. And I want people to have FUN! I want people to really celebrate. And for some reason, good food and good drink seems to pair up with that very nicely.

And just for clarification, there are many reading groups that do not include food or wine as a part of their experience. But that's the beauty of book groups -- we can create whatever we want them to be! Pretty cool . . .


Ann Kent (middle) with a handful of her amazing volunteers.



Did you have any idea of how much work it was going to take?

Hmm, Davina --- you sound like maybe you have done something like this before! I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into --- and this is a perfect example where naiveté can be an asset! (smile) I am not an author. I am not in the publishing industry. I am not an event manager nor a producer. I am simply a person who found that her book group was very important to her. I was intrigued by that notion and thought it might be the same for others. I wanted to create an experience I would enjoy – an experience I would want to be a part of. And that's what I did.

It is a lot of work – there is both the "creation" side of this and then the whole logistics piece. We went from IDEA to EVENT in around 6 months. I guess that's what passion for something can deliver!


How did you logistically get that first year's program off the ground.  With so many key elements, which did you focus on first?  Meeting location, finding authors, finding participants?  The mind boggles just thinking about you pulling all of it together in six months!

Great question! I think one of the best things that happened for us was when Amy Tan said "YES, I want to be a part of this" and then Khaled Hosseini said, "YES" and then I knew we had something to build upon. I invited Susanne Pari to join me and help identify what would be a good fit and how to really bring all of these pieces together. I had my own list of authors that I knew I wanted to invite – some well known and many not yet discovered. I needed Susanne's strengths in what might be a good fit, how might a Literary Salon come together and such. Susanne is an author as well (Fortune Catcher published by Hachette), so is a part of that community.

Then I began looking for a space. I knew I wanted to have multiple Literary Salons happening at the same time and I knew I wanted to have a Marketplace sort of area as well. My friends have been amazing through all of this! I have a great community of talented people, so I reached to those who actually made their living doing events and asked for their input. Robin Waggoner, Patty Walters and Louise Crawford had all created and worked on a variety of events in hundreds of venues. I was walking parallel paths of dates that worked for Amy and Khaled, venues that had availability and enough space . . . and that I could (almost) afford.

Like anything, at some point you just need to say, I AM DOING THIS – REGARDLESS. That time came around April of 2006. I needed to pay deposits, reserve rooms for the authors, etc. For me, book group expo is as much about community – and giving back to community – as anything else. I firmly believe that if we have more of the types of conversations we have in our book clubs in a public way, the world would be a better place. We would have greater understanding, empathy, insight, appreciation for difference . . . things like that. So I tapped into the credit line on my house and forged ahead! I didn't know for sure how many authors would show up. I didn't know for sure if we'd sell any tickets.  I only had one sponsor at that point, Unbridled Books (publisher of books such as The Pirate's Daughter, House of the Deaf, The Distance Between Us and The Marriage of True Minds), and I didn't know if we'd get any more, but I knew it was a good idea and an idea worthy of giving legs to. So I just did it.

The support of dozens and dozens have made book group expo possible --- Kathi Goldmark, Kristen Green, Elena Morera, Kristy Rogers, Susanne Pari – these are just a handful of the names! My community of friends and book lovers did not let me down!

Lalita Tademy, author of Cane River and Red River.





Tell us about you - who is Ann Kent?

I am a self-described refugee of corporate America. I had a great 20 year career working mostly for Fortune 500 and 100 companies. I had served in leadership roles related to strategy, business development and operations. The last 10 of those 20 years were almost constant travel ( 4-5 days a week) and there came a point where I said, "this has been a great ride. A wonderful opportunity! But it's time for Phase II." So I walked away and started my own consulting firm (not the advice I would give any of my clients now, but it certainly worked out just fine for me).

This is when I joined a book group --- a friend of mine asked if I would be interested and I said SURE! I loved to read – always have. But for the years prior, my regular reading was the Harvard Business Journal, newspapers, research pieces and books on leadership and team building. Pleasure reading was relegated to 3-4 books a year when on vacation. So a book group sounded great. So I guess I have my friend Trace to blame for all of this craziness!! Hmm. I will have to remind her of that!

One of the philosophical tenets of my consulting business is JOY IN THE WORKPLACE. I held it close to my heart in corporate America and it is no less true now.  I am also involved in a terrific community called eWomenNetwork. This group – and my own book group – were my core volunteers for Chapter One of book group expo and really allowed this project to come to life. The leader is Kristy Rogers. A very dynamic woman who has created a great community focused on giving first. That approach to networking is consistent with by own belief system. I am very committed to eWomenNetwork and the business owners and entrepreneurs that are members. Another important part of my life is the giving back piece – mentoring emerging leaders and entrepreneurs who are coming into their own. I have been very fortunate in my career --- it's good to remember that and do unto others. So I am doing!


So, after a frantic 6 months of preparation, you opened the doors on that first book group expo - and how many people showed up? 

At our first book group expo experience in San Jose, California in 2006 we had about 1100 people over the two days! For Chapter Two in 2007, we had a little over 1600, and more participants and partners in the Marketplace.


How many do you think will be at Chapter 3 in 2008?

I expect that Chapter Three in San Jose will push closer to 2000, but I really do not want to have more than that – maybe not even that many. We have received an overwhelming amount of feedback that the 1600 number still felt intimate and accessible. Remember: this is about wanting people to have a conversation and feel connected. To create that, I need to manage attendance.  We actually sold out of tickets the Friday night event this past year --- that really surprised me. Maybe it shouldn't have!


Where do you see book group expo in 3 years/5 years/10 years?

I am not sure --- I have every expectation that the experience will still be happening. We have had a couple of "mini" Literary Salons in 2007 as well and I would like to keep doing more of those. These are by invitation only events that bring together 40 – 50 avid readers in a private home or smaller venue to have an up close and personal interaction with an author or three.

We have invitations to be in Seattle, Minneapolis and Boston. Other cities would love to have book group expo experience as well --- and I would like to make it happen. As publishers and other businesses get more on board from a sponsorship perspective, I will do it. Creating book group expo is a significant time and money investment – and it is worth it! I just need to continue to work and help the sponsoring community see the value so that I can keep ticket prices accessible.

You and I both know that there really is something here --- something that is pretty powerful. A great community of people and activity. It will shift into something more over the next year or so - we'll have to see what that is!


Have you found publishers getting more interested in book group expo as you enter your third year

Of course! But it's still a different experience for them. Unbridled, Penguin, Harper, Random House and Hachette clearly know this is a community they want access to - it is a valued group of readers. Readers who buy a LOT of books and can influence a best seller. I just need more publishers to see the value of being in front of this audience.

For Chapter One, no one quite new what this was going to be – my goodness, I only KNEW in my mind's eye!! I couldn't exactly articulate to anyone what I was trying to create! Most publishers said, "Nice idea - call us when you are up and running" or " Nice idea - good luck!" With time, we have shown we can bring an audience - an audience of avid readers who delight in the conversation, buy books and really engage with the authors.

At Chapter One, Kim Edwards and Sara Gruen were not known names - but we knew the books would be compelling. Well, they are certainly well-known names now!


Although there's nothing quite like book group expo, many groups put on local author fairs and the like. Is there any advice you'd like to pass on to groups that might be thinking of setting up an author fair?

There are dozens of wonderful book fairs and author events across the country. I wish I could support them all! I think my learning lesson would be to not minimize the work it may take - and that smaller can be much easier!

Use your community as your advocate. Work with your local libraries and independent book sellers. Reach out to businesses that see women as their customers -currently, 80% of book clubs and reading groups are women.


Thank you Ann, we wish you every success for book group expo in 2008 and for many years and many venues to come!  One last question - when and where will this year's event be held and where can people find more information?

It will be in San Jose in October.  You can sign up to receive news updates at our website: bookgroupexpo.com, and if anyone has great ideas or want to volunteer time to book group expo, contact me! I am very open to having talented people on this team - and I need the help!

© BookBrowse.com March 2008.

Would you be interested in being interviewed for this feature? If so, please contact us with brief details about your club. It is very helpful if you include both a contact email and a telephone number.
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