Book Expo 2011

Last week was BEA (Book Expo America) which is the big trade show for booksellers, publishers and related fields. It was a fascinating show both for its overview of where the industry is and is heading and for me on a personal level.

Five years ago BEA had grown to monstrous proportions. The show floor was so large that it was almost impossible to walk the show during the three days it was open. There were few cities with convention halls large enough to hold it. We enjoyed a last visit to Los Angeles in 2008 and then it was understood the show would remain in New York. The thinking was that so many exhibitors were based in New York that that would represent a cost savings for them and New York would remain a draw for out of towners needing to attend the show–namely booksellers and rights buyers (foreign publishers). BEA had historically been on Memorial Day weekend so booksellers could attend over a long holiday weekend when their shops would be closed. Clearly, that was no longer relevant either.

In fact the question of relevance has dogged BEA for some time. In an industry facing increasing consolidation among booksellers, was there a benefit to having a booth to see a customer base which comprised less than 20% of sales? Contact with the larger customers took place constantly and didn’t involve a booth and product on display. How important was it to spend a lot of money to talk to the indies (independent booksellers) about upcoming books? Or was the show supposed to be about something else, rights sales for instance? These questions were debated ad nauseaum with no greater resolution, for my former employer at least, than smaller booth space and fewer parties.

This year’s BEA was a markedly smaller show. The big publishers’ booths were for the most part smaller. There were still booths for many small and mid-sized publishers, but a large segment of exhibitors was no longer present. The show was now on one floor at the Javits Center and walking the aisles was completely do-able. Despite the smaller size, the aisles were no more clogged than they ever were. The few high traffic hours were still irksome, but balanced by those low traffic times when you could “bowl in the aisles.”

For me, it was the first time in a quarter century that I attended BEA not as an employee in a major publishing house, but as an independent contractor. This took some getting used to. No more booth duty. Freedom to set meeting times and still have time to walk the floor. These were novel experiences. I saw many friends and acquaintances which was delightful and had the leisure to watch the activity around the booths. It was clear that there was a lot of communication going on. The big publishers might find the show less useful, but the smaller folk were making connections and doing business.

It was an amazing show for other reasons than my own. This show was dominated by talk of the future. The digital transformation is affecting everyone and there was a large contingent at the show excited and inspired by change and a good-sized contingent frightened and over-whelmed by change. It was pretty easy to tell who was who. The big(est) announcement was Amazon’s establishment of a New York publishing base to be helmed by Larry Kirshbaum. No real surprise there, just the actuality of something long feared and expected by many.

Relevance. In a world where digital sales are projected to be 50% of sales in the not too distant future (they say four years, but every projection seems to turn out to be too long term) what will BEA look like in two years? Will there be booths for the new digital publishers, app producers, distribution companies? Will the 50% of the business that remains in print support the show? I can’t help thinking the BEA show organizers walked the show with their own set of concerns. Attaching the Blogworld Convention to the show seemed to be one possible direction for a solution. Certainly the relationship between bloggers and publishers is moving closer and closer. In two years many bloggers may actually be publishers.

What was clear at the show (and has been for the past two years at least) is that the old publishing is dead. Many mourn its loss to no avail. There are still some old publishers around (and I am not defining that by chronological age), but the days we knew of great parties, big book launches and tours and flashy booths are gone. This new lot comes from many places. Some of them come from publishing, some of them come from Silicon Alley and its larger western outpost, but wherever they come from, I promise the vernacular is different. And so is the future of publishing…

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2 Comments to “Book Expo 2011”

  1. Many thanks for sharing your impressions of BEA from your new vantage point. This was my first time, attending as an independent editor rather than an editor affiliated with a major publishing house, and I found it very rewarding. As more of us splinter off from the big publishers but continue to remain at the heart of the publishing industry, conferences like BEA allow us to (re) connect with a range of colleagues, and to trade stories about what’s working now, and what the future may bring. It’s an exciting time to be in publishing!

  2. The changes in our world are hard to imagine let alone adjust too but they are exciting and make life interesting. 🙂

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