11 February 09 | Chad W. Post

Today’s Publishers Weekly Daily included a pretty big announcement about the future of BookExpo America, which includes some significant changes, and some interesting/disturbing implications.

First off, the specific changes:

The annual meeting, set for New York May 29-31, will now also be held at New York’s Javits Center through 2012, a decision that scraps plans to hold BEA in Washington, D.C. in 2010 and in Las Vegas in 2011. And beginning next year, Reed will hold the convention entirely during the week under a compressed schedule.

While there have been no changes to the 2009 show, starting in 2010 BEA will run from Tuesday through Thursday, rather than its current configuration which begins with an education day on Thursday followed by exhibition hours running from Friday through Sunday.

And in terms of a public day:

“At this point, BEA is not looking to involve consumers in the show per se,” said [Lance] Fensterman. “However, we are interested in those people who influence book sales within the general population via channels that perhaps did not exist five years ago. So, in the short term, our focus will be on exploring initiatives to bring such influencers into the event but not the general population of consumers. This strategy may take on several different forms as it evolves but with only minor steps in 2009.”

Lance is a friend, a really sharp guy, and one of the people responsible for the New York Comic Con, which took place last week and was enormously successful.

More on NYCC in a minute, but what I find weird about these changes is that they essentially make BEA more insular than it’s been in the past, rather than letting the expo evolve into something more dynamic and crucial to book culture.

Initially BEA (the trade show formerly known as ABA, short for American Booksellers Association) was a show primarily for and about booksellers. That’s changed a bit over time—publishers don’t take that many bookstore orders at the show, and as a result they cater a bit more toward reviewers, to generating hype. Fewer booksellers seem to walk the exhibition hall each year—which makes sense, since more publishers will be targeting them and sending catalogs, review copies, etc., to all these stores anyway—and instead spend more time at the panels and education seminars.

Beyond BEA though, most booksellers I talk to are really big on the Winter Institute, a separate show that’s only attended by fellow booksellers and a handful of publishers with enough cash to sponsor an event. (The imbalance of this and the disconnect between independent booksellers and independent publishers is a topic for a different post.)

Although everyone loves a publishing party, BEA seems to be becoming less and less important to booksellers as Winter Institute grows in stature. Which is great—the idea of having a huge show to hand out catalogs that you’ll bring to a store a week later does seem a bit redundant and wasteful.

By keeping BEA in the most expensive city in America for the next three years, I suspect that bookseller attendance will start (or continue?) to wane. And the stores in New York City? Probably the ones that benefit the least from a show like BEA since they’re right in the thick of things day-in, day-out.

So if the Winter Institute is more bookseller-centric, BEA should (in theory) be more publisher-centric. Which is sort of is. The best aspect of BEA is that it offers a chance for people from all parts of the book industry to get together, to talk excitedly about books, to exchange ideas in a lively, friendly environment.

And that’s great, although the amount of money, time, effort spent on this as attendance (from all sides) wanes, is starting to drag on the show. Too much time is spent writing about how foot-traffic on the exhibition hall seems slower than usual, that there’s no breakout book, that it may not be worth sending so many people next year, etc., etc. I mean, publishing people can be pretty whiny, but for an event that should be a celebration—for most it’s a chance to prove we’ve made it another year—it would be good if the focus was on all the great, energizing things that came out of BEA.

Basically, I think the expo needs to evolve, to become reenergized and essential, especially to publishers. And the best way I think that could happen is by starting to open this up to the public. Readers are the one segment of book culture that’s not at all represented at the fair, and also the one segment that we’re all supposedly in business for and because.

Almost every major book fair throughout the world—Frankfurt, Abu Dhabi, the Buenos Aires book fair (which is open on some nights till 4am!)—are open to the public at times. It’s a chance for publishers to get readers excited about upcoming books, and to sell some backlist titles that aren’t readily available in stores.

I suspect the big presses, the Simon & Schusters, would hate this idea, mainly because they really want to keep customers at arms length and love the insularity of an event that’s easy (in town), and attended primarily by businesses that they already deal with. (Customers are just messy.) And I’m sure this attitude has no effect on their recent struggles.

It seems really shortsighted, and quite frankly, dangerous, to resist some more progressive change for BEA . . . With a new focal point, BEA could become an even better show, and on that serves a very real—and hopefully profitable—purpose. This changes announced today, show that Reed Exhibitions is looking at the now defunct BEA Canada and trying to make adjustments to keep BEA relevant and alive, but these modifications just don’t go far enough.

(My sneaking suspicion is that allowing “influentials” into BEA—readers who tell other readers about books! what a concept!—is a way of getting big publishers to admit that there might be some benefit to letting in some part of the public. Baby steps, baby steps . . . Blow that door open Lance! Every reader is a potential influential!)

Granted, there’s a big difference between fan culture (like for comics or anime or whatever) and a literary reader, but nevertheless, there are interesting lessons to learn from reports about the NY Comic Con. Just a sampling:

The country may be reeling from the worst economy in years but you couldn’t tell it from the tens of thousands of fans pouring into the Jacob Javits Center for the fourth annual New York Comic-con this past weekend. The show opened on Friday afternoon to a respectable crowd after a morning of trade and professional presentations, but the fans showed up in force on Saturday—a sell-out for the day was announced on Friday—and the Javits Center was a beehive of enthusiasm and commerce. Reed Exhibitions v-p and NYCC show manager Lance Fensterman said this year’s show drew nearly 77,000 fans, up from the 67,000 attendees last year.

That’s more than a 15% increase in attendance . . . during a recession. Speaking of sales:

The logline for the show is definitely “What recession?” More than one person referred to the con as an “escape” from the realities of unemployment, and global deflation. Indeed, though many — The Beat included — feared that vendor sales would be dismal at the show, everyone we spoke with directly has had better than expected sales, and from the busy, bustling mood on the floor, you’d never know that January’s job numbers are going to be horrific.

Huh. You let people in, let them enjoy the work you’re doing, and they buy it—who would’ve thought?

Just to beat a dying horse, at the current time, there’s no possible way to register to attend BEA as a book lover. If you’re an “author” you need an ISBN. If you’re a “educator” you need to provide your principal’s name.

But for NY Comic Con, “consumers/fans” can get in for the whole weekend for $60, or for a single day for $40 (or $50). So, 77,000 paid approx. $4 million to Reed to attend the fair. That’s 77,000 people who attending presumably to buy comic books and graphic novels, and who are likely to spread the word about what they saw/bought/read to others. To recap: they spent considerable money to attend, spent money in the show, and then told others to spend money. (And I’ll assume a lot of people got really excited about one project or another and is currently spreading the word . . . )

There’s no way this would happen for BEA, but if it did? If 77,000 people showed up to talk about and buy books? Wouldn’t that be the sort of activity that could help increase reading in America? Isn’t that what we’re all in this business for?

(One quick note: booksellers might object to the idea of publishers selling directly to customers in this grand, publicized fashion. I think there are ways to work this out, maybe even benefit bookstores—like giving out sample chapters of a forthcoming book with a refund coupon for x% off if the reader buys the book at an independent bookstore—but this post is way, way too long already.)


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