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The ABA Summer Exhibition 2008 - Women and the Book

From 8th to 20th August 2008 Bernard Quaritch Ltd. hosted a major exhibition on the theme of women and the printed word.  Some 370 items were consigned by over fifty members of the ABA, covering literature, women in the book trade, science and medicine, politics, travel and children’s books – by, for or about women, or printed, illustrated and bound by women: from an example of Dame Juliana Berners’ Boke of St Albans printed by Caxton’s successor Wynkyn de Worde at Westminster in 1496 to a 1997 proof copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling.  Alongside first editions by literary heavyweights such as Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf were ephemeral items such as Suffragette board games and presentation and association copies, such as a copy of Notes on Hospitals inscribed by Florence Nightingale.  The price range was from £40 to £75,000.  The Women’s Library also displayed a selection of highlights from their special collections.

The ABA Summer Exhibition 2008 – A Report from the Organisers

We are always trying to think of new initiatives to raise the public profile of the ABA and at the same time help the membership to make some money. One of the ideas which seemed to have considerable potential was that of a Summer Exhibition: a separate, themed event which would be an opportunity to attract extra publicity and an entirely new audience rather than a distraction from the ‘main event’ of any of our existing bookfairs. Individual dealers couldn’t be present throughout to extol the merits of their own particular books, but a printed catalogue would bring the exhibition to life and leave a permanent footprint, and unlike most exhibitions running in London over the summer, our exhibits would be for sale – at a fixed price, and with their authenticity guaranteed! 

The period between the end of the June fairs and the autumn is traditionally a quiet one for booksellers. But rent and salaries still have to be paid, and books sitting in cupboards will not often help with this. We felt that dealers would be willing to consign material at a time of year which is traditionally quiet, and also that the press would be relatively hungry for stories over the summer.

The expenses were of course substantial, but we were given an enormous boost by Ian Smith’s generous offer of the Exhibition Room at Quaritch. While these premises are alas not visible from the street, they are central and attractive, and the money saved was instrumental in getting the support of Council.

Preparations

We gave ourselves a fairly narrow window between the Olympia fair and the resumption of normal business activity in autumn. Without a precedent, it was difficult to gauge what the response of the membership might be. In the event fifty-one members – roughly a fifth of the membership – contributed over 370 books, which was an excellent level of support for a new initiative. We didn’t fix a limit on the number of books which might be offered by a single dealer, and as we anticipated some members offered one item and some offered seventy. We chose as broad a topic as possible but also accepted that if the experiment proved a success, different topics would favour different members every year.

The range of material in both price and subject was superb, doing justice to the topic and giving a fair snapshot of the variety of material available from ABA members. There was enough material on display to make a journey worthwhile but not too much to digest on a single visit. Generally speaking the material offered was spot on, but with three of us tackling the curatorial aspect of the exhibition (the two present writers and Mark James of Sotheran’s) we were able to make decisions about individual items swiftly and efficiently. We made the lead-in time to the exhibition as short as possible, but nonetheless the most commonly asked question was whether material needed to be reserved for the duration of the exhibition: this can probably be ascribed to the novelty of the concept. It was unfortunate from the organizers’ perspective that most of the items were consigned after the June 25th deadline for submissions, but we took the decision to be as flexible as we possibly could on this occasion.

It took a while for the idea to gain momentum among the membership – understandably enough as it was a new venture – and we wanted to involve as many members as we could, while making the exhibition as showstopping as possible. We slotted additional items into the catalogue almost until the presses went into operation and Mark James, Camilla Szymanowska and Paul Lawrence all deserve special mention for keeping to the extraordinary schedule required to get the catalogue out in time. It was our deliberate intention to create a permanent record which would serve both as a reference tool and a reminder of the exhibition.

The solid support of Ian Smith and the staff at Quaritch, especially Katherine Spears and Claire Williams, was absolutely essential. Books were dropped off in advance and kept safely afterwards, the exhibition was manned and our lives were made much easier! Not something that would have been possible with a commercial venue, and a significant compensation (aside from cost) for the lack of visibility from street level and the difficulty of setting up the display cabinets. Dedicated support from a small and determined team was the key (if more people had been involved the project would have become unmanageable), and they deserve the thanks of every ABA member. (Alan Shelley thanks all involved by name below).

Distribution of postcards and posters

Publicity material was available for distribution at the Olympia fair, including specially printed giant posters which were displayed inside the venue, and posters and postcards were available for all ABA members thereafter. (All members received at least a handful of postcards with the bulletin, and all members with open shops in or near London received posters). Non ABA venues in central London were also kind enough to display posters and distribute postcards, including Henry Pordes Books on Charing Cross Road, Hatchards on Piccadilly, the London Review Bookshop, the National Portrait Gallery, the London Library and the British Library. We reached a wide variety of other places, such as local libraries, pubs and community notice boards, at least one literary festival (‘Ways with Words’), PBFA bookfairs, and even the staff rooms at the Tate and the National Gallery and the green room at the National Theatre. Members were encouraged to be creative. Publicity material was also sent to institutions (either London based and/or of related interest) such as the University Women’s Club, Chawton House Library, Jane Austen’s House Museum, The Bronte Parsonage Museum, Florence Nightingale Museum, The Charles Dickens Museum and Dr Johnson’s House. A few postcards were kept back for visitors to the event itself to take away for friends, but almost all 10,000 cards were distributed. A number of posters have been sold (at £4 each), and we hope they will remain on sale via the ABA website.

Online

The website abasummer.com was advertised on all printed material, and there was a link from the ABA’s own homepage. The event appeared both as a news item and under ‘bookfairs’ on the ILAB website. We were listed by the Book Guide at inprint.co.uk and announcements appeared in the Ibookcollector bulletin and Sheppard’s Confidential. We were listed on the Evening Standard website thisislondon.co.uk, in the bulletin of English PEN (an international fellowship of writers supported by luminaries such as J. K. Rowling) and on the About.com guide to London travel. The Critchley family had the bright idea of creating a Summer Exhibition group at networking site gypsii.com. The Women’s Library did their bit: there were three links from their site, including a link from their homepage, and email bulletins were sent to all staff and pupils at London Metropolitan University. Friends of the Bodleian and subscribers to Exlibris were also notified. Part of the deal with the LRB involved promotion through their email bulletin, which reaches over 10,000 active subscribers, and we also made use of the ABA’s own database, which has about 300 email addresses (due to cost/possible shortage of postcards we decided not to send hard copies).
 
Booksellers were also encouraged to promote the event with links. There was a link from the Cecil Court website at cecilcourt.co.uk and links from the websites of Quaritch, Tim Bryars and Ash Rare Books, but we’d like to make special mention of Grosvenor Prints, who took the time and trouble to support the event by creating a slideshow of items they would be exhibiting.

Press coverage

A combination of the time of year, subject matter and association with the Women’s Library led to considerable success when it came to negotiating paid advertising. Confidentiality agreements (standard when negotiating such deals) mean that we cannot go into detail here, but the Independent and the Daily Telegraph were both helpful. We also advertised in Mslexia (which claims to reach an audience of 30,000 women writers), Time Out and the London Review of Books. We were disappointed not to be listed in the Guardian Guide or Time Out, despite our strenuous efforts, nor to have been able to attract editorial coverage in any national newspaper, despite positive correspondence with a number of journalists.

General emails were sent to the newsdesks of the major national newspapers, but for the most part journalists were contacted personally, either as arts/heritage correspondents or because they have written or broadcast on related topics in the past. Catalogues were posted to the most likely candidates and in some cases contact was also made by telephone.

Public response

The response of visitors to the exhibition was very positive. Both lectures were well attended – about thirty mostly unfamiliar faces at each. Visitor numbers are difficult to judge as only a minority signed the visitors’ book, but the room was never empty for long. Most of the recorded comments include words such as ‘wonderful’, ‘impressive’, ‘fascinating’ or ‘amazing’ but some were more discursive: ‘a too rare treat’; ‘looking forward to the next one’; ‘what an eye opening exhibit. – thrilling!’; ‘inspirational and very humbling’; ‘Am half way between wanting to hold them with reverence or roll around in their loveliness’; ‘quite extraordinary & so moving – thank you very much’. Only one man wrote ‘I didn’t know women could read & write’ and apparently he was with his wife. Anecdotal evidence from people staffing the exhibition suggests that visitors were prepared to spend up to a couple of hours there, reading the catalogue thoroughly between browsing. One lady collecting her purchases afterwards said (at some length) that she had no idea that such things were available outside museums – exactly the sort of person we’d hoped to reach, and let’s hope the idea takes root.

Summary

The financial aspect of the exhibition was disappointing. Any number of causes could be adduced for this: the ‘credit crunch’, the exhibition’s lack of visibility from street level, the FTSE falling like a stone from day to day ... But the PR side of it was a resounding success. The catalogue will be a useful reference work for years to come (and will remain on sale along with the poster), and we are confident that the whole exercise has generated considerable goodwill, in ways which may not be immediately visible or quantifiable but which will certainly filter through – via new contacts, new visitors to the fairs, increased internet presence, and so on – to the benefit of the Association. The ABA’s webmaster tells us that the site received over 3,000 unique visitors, who were all identifiable through his statistical software: this seems to us to be a remarkable result. We know that several non-ABA members wish they could have exhibited: perhaps this show, along with the numerous other membership benefits Council is working on, will encourage more booksellers to join our Association. In all, it would be nice if the exhibition had been a financial success as well as a promotional one, but we feel that the Association’s money was well spent.

Future planning

If ABA exhibitions became a regular event they would undoubtedly gain momentum in terms of publicity and sales. We certainly gained valuable experience as well. However, we simply could not expect the same levels of unpaid support (not to mention free premises) on an annual basis. Enlisting paid help and hiring ground-floor premises would require substantial additional expenditure. But there was a lot of enthusiastic support from the membership, and so we would not rule out something similar if a three-star historical anniversary came on to the horizon in future.
Tim Bryars & Angus O’Neill – 25 September 2008

Thank You for the Exhibition

These words are directed not only to Tim Bryars and Angus O'Neill who created and curated the “Women and the Book” Summer Exhibition, but to a long list of ABA members who gave up their time and energy for this wonderful event. At the risk of missing a name or two, I would like to shine a spotlight upon: Ian Smith, John Koh, and all the Bernard Quaritch staff; Mark James (Sotheran's) – editing catalogue; Camilla Szymanowska (Sokol) – editing catalogue; Paul Lawrence (Marchpane) – designing catalogue and publicity; Jolyon Hudson – lecture; Susanne Schulz-Falster – helping set up; Daisy Hawker (Sotheran's) – assistance with exhibition design and catalogue; Dianne Shepherd (The Women's Library) – support and lecture; Richard Thompson – covering insurance costs. 

The reason for drawing attention in this way is that the Exhibition was invented, gathered together, publicised, manned and disassembled without the more usual help from ‘the Office’ or any outside professionals. The ethos surrounding the work and the willingness to put on an exemplary show proved a wonderful example of what members can do. In every way but one, the Exhibition was a great success. It was intended to be a selling exhibition with benefit for the exhibiting members and the retrieval of the ABA investment. Sadly, this did not happen; so it is back to the drawing board. Next time? Who knows? But I would like to think that we can learn from the experience and that there will be a next time ...
Alan Shelley (ABA President 2007-2009)
First published in ABA Newsletter 348