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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
contact me! I am very open to having talented people on this team -
and I need the help!