Until my husband, Dave, and I were inside the Javits Center, paying for our tickets, I wasn’t completely sure that I’d attend BookExpo America (BEA). Even as we stood at the counter, waiting for our tickets to process, I considered turning around, ducking out. While I have no trouble talking one-on-one, I’m naturally shy, leaning toward introverted, with a low tolerance for stimuli. I hate Disney World, for example (go ahead: roll your eyes). Before an event like Book Expo, I’m nervous for days. How nervous? For a one-day trip, I packed a huge suitcase with five changes of clothes and eight pairs of shoes!

Next year I plan to spend at least three days at BEA. Yes, the trip really was that worthwhile. In fact, as a new convert, I believe attendance is an absolute must for any author who hopes to succeed in the evolving publishing industry. Here’s why:

1) You meet online friends and build your community. Before I left, I’d arranged to meet several friends at Javits; unfortunately, I was there for only one day and ran out of time. But I did meet briefly with an executive from Novel Publicity, the firm that handles my Internet PR. Pav and I often chat by e-mail and see one another on blogs, but we’d never met outside the virtual world. No, I’m not a purist who considers Internet relationships as somehow less “real” than face-to-face relationships; I do feel that face-to-face contact, looking a friend in the eye, hearing her voice, adds an extra dimension that solidifies the relationship. Now when I run into Pav online, I’ll see her in my head; as I read her written words, I’ll hear the sound of her voice.

Meeting people, solidifying your relationships, builds community. For all of us, this is important. For indies, community is essential, not only for our personal well-being, but because we need one another—for support, cross-promotion, and busting stereotypes. To Rachel, Amy, Anthony and Dina, all of whom I missed, I apologize. Giving up the chance to meet you was my loss!

2) Networking. In the past, I considered networking a dirty word, a euphemism for using other people. To some extent, it is, I suppose. But it doesn’t have to be. We need not be that oily conniver, always looking over his shoulder, waiting for someone better to come along. Networking means reaching out, connecting with others. An event like BookExpo brings thousands of readers, writers, bloggers and other industry pros together, united by their love of reading and books. Most conversations—in the booths, the aisles, the cafeteria, the coffee shop—revolve around books. You never know where a conversation might lead. You might find a new fan—or become a fan. For one woman, a friendly conversation led to an invitation to speak at a bookstore.

3) You have a chance to meet the people behind the corporation. A huge event, BookExpo draws professionals from all aspects of the industry—agents, editors, publishers, distributors, and so on. I met a number of interesting people, including several lovely men and women from Amazon. Until I met and spoke with the Amazon folks, I’d thought of the company as a heartless behemoth—or more accurately, a heartless behemoth with great customer service. Employees drank the Kool-Aid, I thought. They didn’t care about us.

The truth is, they’re very nice people. And they do care, very much, about their authors. Every Amazon rep I spoke with asked about my experience and then asked what they could do to improve! Yes, it’s true! Several authors published with Createspace, Amazon’s hard format self-publishing arm, stood at a podium in the Createspace section of the booth, signing books. The authors were surrounded by fans and treated like royalty by the Createspace and other Amazon staff. In fact, these self-publishers looked exactly like their counterparts at booths manned by the big New York publishing houses.

4. You make invaluable business contacts. As you probably know, Amazon has a successful, fast-growing traditional publishing arm, with six imprints. My novel-in-progress, Nowhere to Run, is a psychological thriller. An Amazon KDP rep introduced me to the senior editor of Thomas & Mercer, the imprint that publishes thrillers. After a brief conversation about my experience (I published my debut novel, In Leah’s Wake, with Createspace), I told him about Nowhere to Run, he asked for the elevator pitch, and gave me his card. When the manuscript is finished, he told me to submit it directly to him. There is, of course, no guarantee that he’ll buy it, or that I’ll decide to go that route, but the possibility opens a door I hadn’t considered and might have overlooked.

I also spoke with the Createspace people and the manager of Kindle Direct, Amazon’s e-book self-publishing arm, about various opportunities with them, as well as with a potential distributor. Again, no guarantees, but each of these meetings armed me with information and opened a door to new possibilities.

5. You gain perspective. An agent recently informed me that, as a self-publisher, I live in an insular world, surrounded by indies, with no clue about the realities of the publishing world. As you might imagine, I found her words insulting. I know quite a bit about publishing—I’m the one tuned in with the evolving indie world, the wave of the future, I thought. So there. As it turns out, she was right. Sure, we’re legion—and our ranks and influence are growing; in the big picture, we’re still but a speck on the nose of the publishing world.

In the gargantuan Javits Center, surrounded by traditional publishers and their posses, you get a sense of how insignificant we indies really are. This is not a bad thing. It’s simply reality. In business, it doesn’t pay to bury your head in the sand. To succeed, achieve your goals, you must see the big picture and be intimately familiar with the playing field. Knowing where we stand—and banishing from our collective mind the silly us against them mentality—enables us to formulate and implement a plan, maybe even work together.

6. You realize you’re a businessperson. Of all the lessons I learned from attending BEA, this may be the most important. Since the start, I’ve talked about self-publishing as a business, and I see it precisely that way. As self-publishers, we’re responsible for every aspect of the process, from initial creation and editing, through packaging, distribution, and marketing. Oddly enough, I’d never made the mental leap from running a business to being a business. I grew up in the traditional publishing world and I’d continued to frame my role as author in the traditional way. Yes, I’m selling a product, but that product is an extension of me; I’m an artiste.

Talking to people who run the business side of publishing—for everyone, other than writers, publishing is first and foremost a business (authors are above such crass thoughts about dollars and cents)—woke me from my dogmatic slumber, as the philosopher David Hume might put it. Of course, businesspeople in publishing are passionate about books. Why else would they choose to work in so difficult an industry? Easier to open a pizza parlor. At the end of the day, publishing—for traditional and indie publishers—is about selling books. If we don’t sell our books, we might as well record our thoughts in a journal.

My BEA experience nudged me to reframe my professional role. I’m still an author first. When I wear my author hat, sit at my writing desk, I’m an artist. I don’t think about sales or whether readers will or won’t like my book. I write from my heart. When I’m not writing, I think of myself as a businesswoman. Until now, I’ve done things haphazardly, like a hobbyist or an artist. I’m now in the process of developing a long-term business plan. My books are my products; they deserve my attention, making me mindful about wasting valuable time and more careful about spending limited resources. If you’re thinking that I should have done this all along, you’re absolutely right. BEA woke me up. And what better time to start than today?

Have you attended BEA or other writer’s conferences or book events? What, if anything, did you learn?