Regional Bookseller Trade Shows Strive to Get Their Groove Back
The nine major regional bookseller trade shows are, in a perfect world, where manna falls from heaven. From Portland, Oregon to Jekyll Island, Georgia, that’s where finished fall titles are grabbable for the first time; where an independent bookseller can actually catch the eye of a sales manager; where orders are written, and those already written are upped. It’s where booksellers and reps have collegial tête-à-têtes, while authors sign copies for gaga bookstore clerks. It’s where buzz builds for fall and starts for spring. And saliently, for the nation’s hardscrabble booksellers, it’s not a costly convention in New York or Los Angeles. “It’s a way to do good solid business without having to incur the high cost of BookExpo America,” as one publisher sums up. “It’s sort of where the rubber meets the road.” (See Calendar for fall show dates and details.)
Yet those Pirellis have been hitting some cold, hard, asphalt lately. While some regional groups are keeping traction in a lousy economic climate, others have been socked with bookseller attrition, slumping ad sales for their holiday catalogs, and what they perceive as a jilting from large publishing houses. “We’re seeing some increases in small presses,” says Thom Chambliss, Executive Director of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, “but with the conglomeration of the industry, we’re getting less participation from the majors on a regular basis. They’re cutting back in every way they can.” And he’s not the only one feeling the pain. “In the past three years our number of exhibitors has gone down,” says Lisa Knudsen, Executive Director of Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association. “All the regional associations have suffered financially from the consolidations in publishing.”
Crux of the Catalog
When it comes to publisher support, the regional sine qua non is buying advertising in the winter catalogs — the major revenue source for most regional groups, and a key marketing piece that booksellers pitch to customers over the holiday season. MPBA prints 500,000 copies of its version, with as many as 10,000 given free to each member store, plus inserts in The Denver Post and The Bloomsbury Review. The problem, however, is not merely conning publishers into taking ads; the real trick is to get them to take the right ad. “Many times, marketing departments are not even thinking regionally at all,” Knudsen says, and they’ll put blockbuster titles in catalogs across the board — the same titles that are heavily discounted at the chains. “If the books that are advertised are not the ones our booksellers can sell, the whole thing is an exercise in futility.” So last spring the group got 25 booksellers to suggest better titles to publishers; the strategy worked, and some titles publishers had intended to advertise were pulled and replaced with bookseller suggestions. It may be a tough battle, however, as publishers such as Hyperion, which used to carefully pick books for each region, now buy space across all the catalogs for just a couple of key titles, according to former Sales Director Michael Burkin (who will now head up field sales and client distribution at Simon & Schuster).
Indeed, “everybody’s budgets are tight right now,” says Susan Walker, Executive Director of the Upper Midwest Booksellers Association. “We have publishers who have advertised with us year after year, and this year they are telling us they cannot do it.” The UMBA prints 310,000 catalogs, with distribution directly to store customers and inserts in regional copies of the New York Times. Meanwhile, UMBA’s “Midwest Favorites” program offers reduced ad rates to regional publishers or to midlist titles from large houses. UMBA has also been deploying more sophisticated tools — Bookscan data and Book Sense regional bestseller lists — that help persuade publishers to pitch in. “We had 19 books that were in the catalog that were all on the bestseller list during the time that the catalog was active,” Walker says. “It was awfully nice to go to the publishers and say, ‘See, it worked!’”
Beyond the catalog, groups such as the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association are working hard to keep show numbers from slipping. “This year is the first time in a few years that we’re seeing new exhibitors come onto our trade show floor,” notes Executive Director Eileen Dengler. “We’re getting newer, smaller presses, and this year we’re expecting we might even be sold out.” The show will highlight bookstore events that can be held to market titles without necessarily having the author on hand (Joe Drabyak of The Chester County Book & Music Company will roam the halls, daring any publisher to suggest a title they think can’t be promoted without an author), as well as profitable store sidelines. Dengler says membership has jumped by at least 100 to about 300 stores since she took over in early 2000, partly due to bolstered renewals, plus initiatives including the author tour program, which clusters bookstores in geographic zones that authors can feasibly hit in a two-day blitz.
As cash-strapped booksellers abandon BEA, adds Jim Dana, Executive Director at the Great Lakes Booksellers Association, “the regionals are getting to be more important for them in terms of their one trade show for the year.” Meanwhile, Dana has taken a radical approach to keeping his stores on the map. “Publishers kept asking me what was happening in the stores,” he explains. “It was very clear to me that in New York a lot of those people don’t see many stores outside of the East Coast.” So for three years now Dana has escorted a group of booksellers on a week-long trek to New York City, visiting publishers for brief presentations about their stores that frequently turn into mini-focus groups. “There have been some great success stories,” Dana says, “with booksellers from pretty out-of-the-way places now being sent authors and having ongoing relationships with publishers that didn’t exist before — and would probably never have existed had they not had that personal experience.”
Some larger publishers say their commitment to regional shows hasn’t wavered. “The regional shows have been something that all the publishers that I’ve worked at have always taken very seriously,” says Josh Marwell, SVP Sales at HarperCollins. “We have a full booth at all of them.” As do other large publishers, Harper sends telephone sales reps to the shows — in addition to marketing, publicity, and other sales staffers — where they gain face-to-face time with front-line bookstore buyers who would not normally attend the larger national convention: “It’s a benefit that has year-long positive effect,” Marwell says. “Over the last five years we’ve had the same level of participation,” adds Kathy Smith, VP Sales Administration and Operations. “We do have authors going to every single show. We do have advance readers and galleys to give away. We participate in all of the regional holiday catalogs.” Executives at other large houses privately admit to cutting back on the catalogs — $2,000 for an entry can mean no marketing — and argue that buying space does not influence orders. And at smaller houses, budgets are even more barren. “Our advertising budgets are just not big enough to participate in as many holiday catalogs as I would like,” says Hilary Reeves, Managing Director of Milkweed Editions. “But we have elbow grease, and we use it to maximum effect. To a certain degree these regional shows are big-time elbow grease.” Of course, for some publishers, manna does still fall from heaven. Stranger in the Woods, self-published from Michigan–based Carl R. Sams II Photography, got its start at GLBA and other regional shows and hit #1 on the New York Times Children’s Picture Book list last December (it was also #4 on the Book Sense National Bestseller List; the title’s millionth copy is currently on press). “That first year we actually bought cover positions on some of the bookseller association catalogs,” Sams tells PT, “and they’re the ones that put us on the national bestseller list.”
From a rep’s perspective, the regionals still pay off — at least in goodwill. “I haven’t really noticed the larger publishers pulling back from the regional shows, at least not ours,” observes Ted Heinecken of Heinecken Associates. He says the regionals have been putting more pressure on membership to actually buy titles in the catalog and display them in stores. “I keep thinking that there might be a way to combine this with Book Sense,” he says — possibly in the form of a national Book Sense catalog — and adds that he does track orders and calculates the profit or loss on attending the show. “At this point, I’m happy if we can show that we’re breaking even with these calculations. Then the profit would be more likely to show up in terms of goodwill.” Others note that the regionals could benefit from some conglomeration themselves, perhaps combining forces (NEBA with NAIBA, UMBA with Great Lakes) for greater heft and store diversity.
Don Sturtz of Fujii Associates concurs that freight and travel costs can be hard to recoup on show orders. “If the membership is not able to support us by writing orders, maybe we should rethink the exhibition portion of the shows,” he says. Sturtz — who works with UMBA, Great Lakes, and Mid-South, and will support all three shows this year — would also like to see educational programming on nuts-and-bolts issues that include local reps, rather than higher-level publisher-to-bookseller chats about financial management or selling Spanish-language titles (take note, Random House, which finances many of these sessions). “The stores need to communicate better to the reps what we’re doing right and wrong,” Sturtz observes. “And we need to communicate to the booksellers what we need them to do to make it profitable for both of us to show up at their doorstep.”