I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: the American Library Association (ALA) annual conference is sooooooo fuuuuuuun!!! This was my 4th go-round, hitting up The Windy City June 23-26 for an extended weekend of pure bookish awesomeness with The Mother Unit. After being drafted as a literary pack mule in Orlando last year, The Husband Unit exhibited a strange recalcitrance toward attending again. Go figure. Every conference really is better than the last one, as I pick up new strategies for maximizing fun and book picking-upping. This post is about the trip in general; if you’d like a more in-depth look at the ARCs I picked up, that post is currently marinating in my brain and will likely spill forth in the next couple of days.

Just to clarify, I don’t go to the actual conference sessions at ALA, which are geared toward professional librarians, which I am not. We get a pass to just the exhibit hall, where the majority of giveaways, signings and panels focused on books rather than libraries are held.

Pre-Game

I am a PLANNER, and nothing brings it to the forefront quite like ALA. When faced with a 200+ page conference guidebook, nothing helps distill things down to the important bits like the ‘ol Excel spreadsheet. With columns for date, time, author, book and booth number, I compile everything I’m interested in a few weeks in advance. Pretty much as soon as they release the guidebook, I’m poring over it. “Some people” coughcoughmyfamily roll their eyes at it, but they’d probably come home with zero good books without it SO THERE.

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Page 1/4 of the magic spreadsheet

Twitter is another excellent resource, especially for tracking author signings or timed giveaways that don’t make it into the guidebook. About a week prior, I started following #ALAAC17 pretty intensively and comparing it to the info from the conference guidebook. Not since the dreaded 10-page research page of Writing 1 have I compiled data so meticulously, but at least I chose this.

Packing

The biggest question of going to a book con is “how many suitcases?” In the past, we’ve flown Southwest, which meant checked bags were gloriously free. However, this year we flew American Airlines out of our little local airport that has direct flights to Chicago instead of driving two hours to a hub. Even when you account for the fact that our flights were delayed at least an hour both times it was still shorter, albeit 1000% more annoying. There’s nothing quite like sitting at the airport and hearing an announcement about how the plane you’re supposed to fly TO Chicago has only just LEFT Chicago.

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The Mother Unit and I ended up taking a backpack/purse and smaller suitcase each for carryons, and checked one large bag. The big suitcase was nearly empty on the way out…not so much on the return journey.

Camping Out

JK I don’t camp. No. 1 tip for ALA: STAY AT THE CONFERENCE HOTEL. It can be a trick getting a spot at the main hotel at the special ALA rate, but it’s totally worth the effort. They usually have pretty reliable shuttles between the conference center and many nearby hotels, at least for the two Chicago ALAs I’ve been to, but there’s nothing like being able to easily drop off a bag of ARCs over lunch before the weight rips your arm off. Plus, you can get in the Starbucks line before it’s 30+ people long, which it will be. All. Day. Long.

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Do you really want to have to take all these on a bus?

Little Bit of Down Time

We flew in Thursday afternoon, even though our exhibit passes weren’t good until Saturday. That left Friday for picking up registration, which bequeathed us with such wondrous items as:

  • A fancy (not actually) name badge that is perfect for collecting fun little ribbons on.
  • A very large tote bag that is liable to rip a seam if you fill it to the brim. Hence, the benefit of being able to dump books in your hotel room midday.

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    Weight of books > Strength of straps
  • A print copy of the conference guidebook, which we promptly ditch because it’s huge, unwieldy, and available digitally except for…
  • THE HOLY GRAIL, THE EXHIBIT COUPONS. Most (maybe all?) of the exhibiting booths will have a coupon in here that can get you anything from a tote bag to an art print, a signed book or sometimes even an audiobook. I highly recommend going through it before you hit the exhibit floor and tearing out the ones you’re interested in. If you’re smart (not me, not this time) you’ll keep them in numerical order. Nobody wants to be that person trying to riffle through the whole book while the crowds are closing in.

Truth be told, the real reason we flew in Thursday was because WE HAD TICKETS TO SEE HAMILTON ON FRIDAY!!!!! Unofficial review: it’s just as fabulous as everyone says, 13/10 would recommend. The sound came through crystal clear despite our being in the back of the theatre, with the added bonus of being able to bolt for the bathroom as soon as the lights came up for intermission. Priorities, people.

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Let It Begin!

A really good way to annoy your Mother Unit is to agree to arrive at the exhibit hall at 7:20am on Saturday morning, with her thinking they open at 8am and you knowing they open at 9am. This was not a willful deception on my part, but needless to say, we were first in line.

I’ve found that first thing in the morning can be a good (and also crazy) time to wrangle hot ARCs. Sometimes booths give a specific one out using a line, and there’s no harm in asking what a line’s for if you can’t see to the front of it. Otherwise, join the crowd hovering around the display shelves, all of us waiting for an available staff member so we can “casually” inquire about the ARC we just saw somebody else get their hands on. “I’m interested in…” is code for “pretty pretty please give give give it to me!” And if you see one in somebody’s bag that you like the look of, SNATCH IT AND RUN. Kidding kidding, but feel free to ask them where they got it and we can all go home in one piece.

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Actual footage of ARC-crazed attendees

If you’re looking for a certain topic or age group but don’t have a specific title in mind, they’ll help you with that, too. Just don’t grab books off the display shelves; ARCs free for taking are piled in architecturally unwieldy stacks on tables or the floor. For anything else, ask about it and they’ll pull a copy from a cupboard or box if they’ve got it.

Autographs Galore

Author signings are one of my favorite things about ALA. These lines are one of the few places I’m comfortable striking up a conversation with a complete stranger, since we’ve already got something in common and, depending on the length of the line, anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes to kill as we shuffle forward to the front.* I even started to see my new friends in other lines, since we obviously have the same excellent taste in books.

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Neal Shusterman, a conference highlight

The Mother Unit and I tended to swing by the booths half an hour before a signing was scheduled to start to see if a line was beginning – booth staff didn’t like people congregating any earlier than that since the halls are already quite packed. If you do your waiting on the early end and are one of the first people through once it actually starts, then you can move on to your next scheduled item with way less stress. One booth had 3 consecutive signings using literally the exact same table space, and we did a super legit tag team job. I waited in line 1 while Mom waited in line 2, I took her place in line 2 and she moved on to line 3, and BAM we got all the books! I won’t attempt to understand why they thought it would be anything less than a madhouse to schedule Want by Cindy Pon, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, and Scythe by Neal Shusterman back-to-back-to-back, but whatever.

Actual Presentations, Perchance?

If you’re looking for something beyond a simple signing, the exhibit hall is home to a few stages that are continually running panels, speakers and presentations. Stages like Graphics Novels/Gaming, What’s Cooking and Book Buzz mean there’s something for everyone, and they provide a nice opportunity to sit for a bit when your feet are about to fall off (that’s “when,” not “if”). I’ve never made time for these in previous years, but when I saw Marjorie Liu had her own session in honor of the release of the dark fantasy comic Monstress Vol. 2, by jove nothing was encroaching on that hour.

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I also attended the YA Coffee Klatch put on by YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association), which was a ticketed event Sunday morning. It featured the 30-ish authors who had been named to one of the Association’s awards lists, and they rotated from table to table spending a few minutes talking about their new books. It was especially fun to hear the excitement of debut authors, and I definitely could have done that all morning instead of only the single hour that brought 6-7 authors by our table. Pro tip: clapping for each author after their brief pitch garnered us the unofficial designation of World’s Best Table.

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Spotted in the wild, a herd of authors.

It Followed Me Home

Whether you spend half a day or multiple days on the exhibit floor, it’s all too easy to find yourself suddenly saddled with a large volume of books and accompanying swag. Some might deem it “excessive,” but they’re probably just jealous. Regardless, you are eventually tasked with getting it all home. If you’re flying, this can pose a major dilemma, as books (even paperbacks!) are dang heavy. Here’s a few tips to hopefully keep you under those pesky weight limits:

  • Fill anything that has a weight restriction with non-books. That 50 pound checked bag limit gets eaten up a lot quicker than you might imagine.
  • Conversely, fill your carryons with as many books as physically possible. A bonus of flying on a small plane is they tend to do gateside check for small rolling bags, meaning I don’t actually have to lift the suitcases full of books into the overhead bin. I’m probably physically capable of it, but there’s a decent chance they’d fall and clock me on the brain box.

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    I present: our carryons.
  • Weigh beforehand! Hotels often have a luggage scale tucked in the back and are happy to check a bag’s weight for you. We knew we were in for some work rearranging when the valet and desk clerk could barely contain their laughter as they informed us our large bag was initially…68 lbs.
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    Never in my life have I wished for Hermione’s magic bag so badly.

    Do you really need all those books?!? I know, I know, you probably do. But on the off-chance, go over them very briefly just to be sure. You may have accidentally picked up a sequel without realizing it, or find that a book you were only mildly interested in on the exhibit floor is now even less enticing. If you can, take them to a common seating area near the exhibits and leave them for the taking. We dropped off several on the eve of our departure, and by the next morning they’d already started finding their way to new homes.

And if all else fails, SHIP IT! The post office always has a booth stocked with flat-rate boxes and poster tubes, but if you can wrangle a plain ‘ol box from the hotel concierge then you’ll be able to use media mail, provided you’re only shipping what the USPS defines as media. At approximately $0.50/lb, this is by far the cheapest option on the market, though it may take a few more days to follow you home than other mailing methods. $11 to ship a 20lb box beats checking another large suitcase for $25 each way.

The Mother Unit won’t like me including this anecdote, but she nearly came to fisticuffs with a man in the post office booth over the tape gun. We were ready to tape. He was not. We pick up the tape gun, man goes “HEY!” Mother Unit very politely apologizes, saying she didn’t realize it was his tape, whereupon he is forced to concede that is it NOT his tape, it is ALA’s tape. For the record, he was still not ready for the tape by the time we had moved on.

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When there’s nothing left to do but get yourself home, take a nap in the airport Chile’s and say a prayer of thanks for edibles that aren’t from a conference center food court that makes my Lean Cuisines look gourmet. Except…over there…is that the airport book store? Better check it out.

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*Unless you’re waiting for Lemony Snicket or Maggie Stiefvater, in which case you would’ve been pushing an hour or beyond. I wouldn’t have touched those lines with a 10-foot pole.

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