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Just what has been going on Down Under? Part II: Partnership is the way…

Melbourne Rare Book Week was, and is, a stroke of marketing genius! It has transformed how ANZAAB members feel about our book fairs, made our Melbourne Book Fair a very successful event and heightened ANZAAB's profile enormously - but it was not something we all "got" at the beginning …
Published on 08 Dec. 2014

By Sally Burdon

Melbourne Rare Book Week was, and is, a stroke of marketing genius! It has transformed how ANZAAB members feel about our book fairs, made our Melbourne Book Fair a very successful event and heightened ANZAAB's profile enormously - but it was not something we all "got" at the beginning …

How did this big change in our planning and expectations come about? Well, not surprisingly, through some pain! Four years ago ANZAAB was facing a big dilemma. The usual Melbourne venue where we had held our biennial book fairs for more than twenty years, Malvern Town Hall, was becoming increasingly expensive. Almost worst still, obtaining a weekend booking at this venue required booking years and years ahead. We had one particularly difficult year when we had in error missed booking the sufficient number of years in advance and we had to hold a mid-week fair. It was very well run by Douglas Stewart who, together with a staff member, put an enormous amount of time and effort into making it as successful as possible, but the fact remained it was mid-week in suburban Melbourne and we didn't get the crowds.

However, if we were really honest, we hadn't been getting the crowds to our fairs, even at weekends, for a long time. Our takings at the door told us this - we charged entry and so we knew exactly how many people had come through the fair. Instead of a nice long queue outside the book fair on opening night as we had in years past we were lucky to be getting more than 20 or 30 people waiting for the doors to open. Over the entire weekend we might only have 1,000 people attend and sometimes less! We were all aware that things had changed. Serious collectors now had most books in their area and they were divesting themselves of their collection - or worst still had died! Newer collectors were appearing but not in numbers significant enough to replace those who were no longer attending the fairs. Those who were coming to our fairs did not reflect a cross-section of the Australian population. They were generally older people, mainly men and mainly from a European heritage background. Clearly we wanted to keep attracting these important people but we wanted to attract other sections of the community as well. People with intellectual interests whatever their background. We needed the energy that comes with diversity!

The ANZAAB Board knew one thing with certainty - we needed change! Few ANZAAB members were happy with the status quo. What to do? We had problems finding venues that we could afford, that were in the right part of the city, which had parking facilities, were near public transport, ideally were attractive and that the public had heard of. Over the years Melbourne ANZAAB members had invested large amounts of their time visiting venues and talking with venue managers. Gradually, for one reason or another, places we had thought would be our new "home" became unavailable to us - usually because the price was too high. ANZAAB was at a crossroads. Talk among the members ranged from comments that book fairs are finished as successful events to the only way to move forward is to hold very exclusive fairs in very upmarket locations, with fewer dealers and only carriage-trade stock shown. I suspect that these arguments have been made in national Associations the world over. It is never easy to stage successful book fairs anywhere at any time.

Rather than wait for our next annual general meeting (which is the only time when our membership gets together in any number), the ANZAAB Board started a conversation with the membership via our email list. Although not everyone participated enough members did for the Board to feel that we were getting a good cross section of views. One positive outcome of discussion with members was the desire for the Melbourne book fair to be held annually instead of biennially. Although this vote was seen as pro-active, it added to our problems as we now had to find a venue on a yearly basis. ANZAAB is an entirely voluntary organisation, with no office or paid staff - if our volunteers lose heart then book fair activity can just stop completely! None of us wanted this.

There was one contribution to this discussion that really stood out! Kay Craddock and Jonathan Burdon put forward a proposal which, when looking back on it, I realise that none of us really understood the power of at the time. Kay and Jonathan suggested that a series of free book related events held in the week leading up to the Melbourne Rare Book Fair could be used as a promotional tool to promote the book fair. They requested a three year term as honorary organisers to trial their model and that they would like permission to ‘do it their way’, which would be different to the way we have presented our book fairs in the past. My thoughts were pretty typical of most peoples. We were so relieved that people as enterprising and committed as Kay and Jonathan were prepared to take on the responsibility for organising the fairs for the next 3 years, that we agreed without really realising what we were being offered!

The first thing was to find a venue. As you will have gathered from my previous comments this was not an easy job. I don’t think Kay and Jonathan realised how difficult this was going to be. For two months Kay looked seriously at more than 20 venues but each had a problem - too small, not available, too expensive, no public transport, wrong part of the city, wrong time of the year. Repeatedly, they thought they had "found" a venue only to have their hopes dashed for one reason or another. Kay, almost unimaginably for anyone who knows her, was even heard to say they might not find a venue and they would have to ‘give up’ their idea. When I heard Kay saying this, I was ANZAAB President at the time, and it struck terror into my selfish heart! No more Melbourne book fairs and on my watch too! But it was undeniably difficult, just how difficult I hadn't realised until I became a close observer.

Now here I should probably come clean and explain that Kay is my sister-in-law, having ten years ago married my oldest brother, Jonathan. Conversations at family get-togethers were now focussed on trying to get Melbourne Rare Book Week (as it was to be called) up and running. The family connection enabled me to observe at fairly close quarters the amount of work Kay and Jonathan were putting in to the organisation along with the knock-backs they were encountering. And then they had a break! In May 2011 they went to the annual Back to Booktown weekend at Clunes - an old gold mining town in country Victoria that has reinvented itself as a book town. This delightful town is a two hour drive from Melbourne and during the festival all the buildings turn into bookshops, offering new books, second-hand books, remainders and a few antiquarian volumes exhibited by some ANZAAB members. During their visit Jonathan and Kay had a chance meeting with Jock Murphy, who was Director - Collections at the University of Melbourne. In conversation outside the old theatre building/bookshop, accompanied by music from a very grand street organ, they mentioned the prospect of an annual Melbourne rare book fair and the difficulty they were having in finding a venue - which led Jock to suggest that they investigate a 'partnership' with the University of Melbourne's new 'Cultural Treasures Festival' program. The University was actively extending its reach into the community and Jock thought ANZAAB's Rare Book Fair could be held at Wilson Hall. The Cultural Treasures Festival was held biennially during the last weekend in July and dovetailed with the hugely successful annual Open House Melbourne program which involved many buildings on campus, including Wilson Hall.

On hearing of this possibility we all felt that it seemed so completely right! The conversation at Clunes was followed by nervous weeks while we waited to hear the outcome of the University’s decision (Wilson Hall was not easily secured for commercial enterprises). Finally to our great excitement an official invitation was extended, as the University thought that the presence of the ANZAAB Rare Book Fair would complement both the Cultural Treasures Festival and Open House Melbourne programs extremely well. Wilson Hall ticked all of the boxes we required in a venue - and more! Also, the University of Melbourne is, to put it in American terms, an Ivy League university - just perfect. Ah, a marriage made in heaven!

Of course there were some concerns. How would the public feel about this change in venue and timing (July instead of November)? It was on the campus of a university – would some people feel intimidated or have trouble finding the venue? However these were not serious concerns when we considered what we were being offered. The first year of this partnership with the University of Melbourne was a tremendous and immediate success; and in succeeding years the number of people visiting the fair has continued to build. The first year it was estimated that we had around 2,500 people through the door, the next year around 3,500 and this last year we believe we had around 5,000. It is difficult to know the exact figures as we do not charge admission - a requirement of the University which has turned out to be a great positive. Our figures are based on cloakroom receipts and head counts of the room at various intervals. We have found that the great advantage of not charging entry is that it attracts the very people we want to encourage to “try out” a book fair. More women, young people, students and people from a wider variety of ethnic backgrounds - in other words we are attracting a more genuine cross-section of Australian intellectual life. The fairs are busy and many sales are made. The future for book collecting and bookselling in Australia suddenly looks quite different!

Partnership with the University of Melbourne has given us a lively new audience, pleased our longstanding faithful clients and given ANZAAB additional credibility. We hope we also bring to the University something that they believe important and at this point the indications are that we do.

The Melbourne Rare Book Fair comes at the end of Rare Book Week. This special week - actually eleven days – gives the Book Fair the sort of publicity that money just can’t buy. It is also an exciting time when Melbourne, one of the seven UNESCO World Cities of Literature concentrates on rare books. Melbourne Rare Book Week is a partnership between ANZAAB and institutions, bookshops and libraries throughout Melbourne, who all host and promote their own events relating to rare books, collections and print on paper. This year the program consisted of 40 free events, hosted by 24 partners, and it attracted around 10,000 attendances. It included an “in-conversation” and exhibition at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in the MCG’s specialist sports library, specially curated viewings at the State Library of Victoria, demonstrations of book arts, and performance events based on readings from books such as 84 Charing Cross Road. A highlight was the special exhibition of a copy of the Gutenberg Bible brought to Melbourne specifically for Rare Book Week. This exhibition alone attracted over 3,000 people.

This is no ordinary festival. I have not the space to give you all the details of what Melbourne Rare Book Week offers although you can get an idea if you visit the Melbourne Rare Book Week website – remembering that every one of these events was free. The press loves it! Social media loves it! It is estimated that the media reach is well over 1,000,000 people. As an example, the website hit rate went from 93,000 in 2012 to 750,000 in 2014. This sort of publicity can’t be done with paid advertising even if you had the good fortune to have the budget, as it is marketing that comes with a genuine feeling of giving back. And this is the key to the success of Melbourne Rare Book Week. It is actually cost effective! ANZAAB is the umbrella organisation, coordinating the program of events, the printing and distribution of collateral (including 30-35,000 printed programs), the Melbourne Rare Book Week website, and minimal paid advertising. The organisers have attracted several sponsors (mainly in-kind) for venues, promotion and printing and funds are taken from the Melbourne Rare Book Fair promotional budget, as all advertising and promotion of Melbourne Rare Book Week is seen as advertising and promotion for the book fair. To this is added the individual promotion and paid advertising undertaken by each of the event partners. Everyone is happy with this co-operative model.

ANZAAB and its Rare Book Week partners are contributing something worthwhile and quantifiable to the cultural life of Melbourne and to the overall awareness of rare books within the community. In fact, this is not just localised as Melbourne Rare Book Week has become such an event that people from other parts of Australia and New Zealand now plan a holiday in Melbourne at the end of July each year.

ANZAAB has learnt a lot. In particular we have learnt how powerful being in the right partnerships is. We have learnt that even in a country as physically large as ours with a population of just under 24 million there is enough community interest to run rare book fairs that are busy and highly profitable for both domestic and international exhibitors.

We now know that new models are worth trying. An inspirational idea, such as Melbourne Rare Book Week, can be tremendously powerful. Initially, some said that the media would never be interested in this new model, that we would never get young people to our fairs or that the first year was just lucky. Fortunately the naysayers have been thoroughly disproved and every year the last week in July in Melbourne just gets better. As an exhibitor at the Book Fair this year my takings were double what I had ever taken at an Australia fair before – so now like many others I can’t wait for July 16-26 2015 and the next Melbourne Rare Book Week and Melbourne Rare Book Fair.


Published in the recent issue of the ABA Newsletter. Presented here by permission of the author. Pictures: Sally Burdon, Kay Craddock.

Read part 1 of the story!

Just what has been going on Down Under? - A great deal has been going on, “Down Under” this year!

>>> Click here to learn more.

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