2 June 09 | Chad W. Post

If there’s one thing publishing people like more than complaining about how bad business is, it’s analyzing whether or not BookExpo America was successful. Which isn’t easy to determine . . . Lance Fensterman (who runs the show for Reed Exhibitions) has pointed out before how difficult it is to quantify the show’s success, since the goal of the show is to “create buzz.” (If a press hands out 3,000 galleys to booksellers and librarians, and only find 1,200 in the trash bins afterward, was the show a success?)

So how does one evaluate this show? I think this is a pretty important topic, since the show is in flux—next year it’s moving to mid-week (an idea I loathe, but more on that later), you should see the bleak picture I took of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s “meeting room,” which took the place of their normal booth on the floor—and needs to evolve to a) avoid a spectacular collapse similar to BookExpo Canada, and b) provide an experience that obviously impacts future book sales.

But back to evaluating the show. For anyone who hasn’t been there, BEA is a clusterfuck of reasons for attending and things being offered. For the booksellers, there are educational panels, there are author breakfasts and lunches, there are presses out on the floor that your store might not have heard of. There are also other panels for the industry as a whole, like “Twitter for Dummies,” or the Editor’s Buzz Panel. This year there was a “Global Market Focus” on the Arab World, with panels and off-site cultural events.

Then there is the exhibition floor itself, which is really the focal point of the Expo. This is where publishers big and small take out booths of varying sizes, from the mammoth Abu Dhabi International Book Fair palace to Random House’s postage-stamp sized embarrassment. Self-published authors are pushing their titles into the hands of anyone with a press badge (thanks again for that copy of From Veils to Thongs ), gimmicks abound, and everyone gets trained into staring at everyone else’s chests and waists, searching out namebadges instead of making eyecontact with the person you’re speaking to. (It takes days to break oneself of this weird, ADD-inducing habit.)

And at the end of the day, the booksellers go to dinners and bookseller parties, the publishers go to publisher parties, and we all get home much too late, much too drunk.

(Just want to insert here, that this book wonderland is only accessible to “members of the trade.” Reviewers, booksellers, librarians, book manufacturers, authors, etc. Granted this is pretty wide—I’m a reviewer! and who isn’t an author—but still, there are hoops to jump through to prove that you belong.)

This isn’t to say that BEA isn’t fun or useful. Before breaking this down any further, it’s worth pointing out that the show is essentially a platform for book business people to interact with one another in a myriad of ways. And that is always accomplished. There are so many people I see only at BEA, people that I love talking with, catching up with, exchanging ideas with, and if for nothing else, the fair is extremely useful for that. (Thanks to the implosion of BEC, I was able to meet a lot more cool Canadian publishing people, like Daniel from Biblioasis, Alana from Coach House, and Tara from Key Porter. )

But this all costs money. Lots and lots of money. Money to take out a booth, and to pay for each chair in the booth. To pay for a badge (well, for most people—I actually had three waiting for me, including one for Chad Post of Rochester University, Cleveland), and to pay for overpriced bottles of water. And flying, staying, and eating in New York isn’t cheap—especially when you consider that the bulk of publishers and booksellers and librarians populating this show are surviving on 0-1% annual profit margins. (Not exaggerating. The new tagline for the book industry: “Zero growth is the new, ‘We’re doing great!’”) So to justify all this expense, they need to get something out of the show . . . and what that something is, and whether or not BEA is supplying it in the best possible way is at the heart of all the “was the show good for you?” discussions.

Since this is getting Biblically long, I’ll stop here and pick up some of the evaluative measures in part two.

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