BookExpo America Returns to Gotham, Pondering Its ‘Donut Problem’
You may as well cue up the ticker tape. Because when BookExpo America lands in New York this May after a decade-long hiatus, the annual book industry trade show “will be celebrating its return to the publishing capital of the world,” in the neon-lit words of its marketing staff. And the pre-buzz press releases are rolling. For starters, Rudy Giuliani will preside over the opening night reception on Thursday, May 2, touting his new business book, Leadership (Talk Miramax). No one will yet confirm or deny, but the hirsute Al Gore has been a rumored marquee speaker. Even the celeb-grunge band Rock Bottom Remainders are back in action for a Saturday-night gig at Webster Hall (proceeds benefit the Get Caught Reading campaign, among other efforts). But behind the advance hype for BEA’s reign at the Javits Center from May 1 to 5 is a highly concerted effort to parlay this New York moment into long-term viability — all at a time of downward pressures on a variety of BEA constituents. “The fact that we’re in New York this year seems to be giving us a huge burst,” BEA Show Manager Greg Topalian says in an interview. “There is a lot of pent-up demand. Early indications from independent booksellers in New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, and the Tri-State area are very favorable. We are expecting a very, very busy show.”
Indeed, for the sake of the book business — and for the coffers of BEA parent Reed Exhibitions — it better be. “Attendee growth is the key to our future,” Topalian declared in a statement last year, vowing to target “up to 20,000 new attendees” and to broaden the show’s buyer base by targeting nontraditional retailers such as grocery, gift, and museum stores, in addition to pumping up rights activity and throwing in a variety of other educational and retail attractions. This dash of convention smelling salts was needed in part because recent growth has been negligible, with attendance rising to 21,898 in Chicago last year (up 1%), with 6,132 buyers (up 3%), and 2,000 exhibiting companies on hand (even with the prior year). But these numbers are a far cry from the boom years of the early ’90s, when reported attendance topped 38,000 and the show sprawled over 355,000 square feet of Chicago’s McCormick Place.
With a glance at today’s show floor, it’s not hard to see why. “We have more publishers at the show, but publishers are taking less space,” says Steve Black, Chief Operating Officer for book distributor CDS. “I think that’s a general industry trend. Look at Random House. Years ago they used to take acres. Now publishers that previously took four booths may be taking two.” On top of that, the bulging technology pavilion of recent years, which Topalian wistfully recalls as “an enormous growth area on the show floor,” has turned bulimic. And no amount of pre-show drum-beating will revive the independent booksellers who have gone to the big remainder table in the sky. “BEA has a very tough challenge,” observes industry veteran Mike Shatzkin, “because its historical roots are to serve the connection between many publishers and many booksellers. But the manys are diminishing on both sides. You’ve got a donut problem. There’s a hole in the middle. It’s a serious weakness in the core proposition.” Shatzkin stresses that these larger industry trends are not Reed’s fault, and that BEA has attempted to address the weakness by expanding into nonbook areas, a broader technology segment, and the rights business. (For the record, Shatzkin’s Idea Logical Company and Publishers Lunch founder Michael Cader are developing an annual rights event called “Publishing in New York: An Editorial and Rights Fair,” now targeted for 2003. They hope to hold discussions with potential partners for the event, including BEA.)
In many ways, BEA has made significant strides. After feverish wooing of a number of no-show publishers, Penguin Putnam remains the only noteworthy absence on the show floor. “We continue to have conversations with them, and we’d like to have them back,” Topalian says. (For their part, Penguin officials could not be reached for comment.) The show’s Spanish Book Pavilion, now in its third year, is “slowly gaining traction,” and will double in size this year. Then there’s the Retail Multi-Media Expo, which will explore crossover retailing opportunities among the book, video, and music segments, and a “dramatically expanded” International Rights Center, including a new rights symposium, which features a half-day educational forum and networking event. The show’s foreign contingent has been on the rise, Topalian says, and he’s anticipating an even bigger jump this year, partly to make up for the slackened pace of the post-Sept. 11 Frankfurt Book Fair. Plus, “the New York venue makes it a slam-dunk for the UK folks,” who can inexpensively hop across the pond. The rights center will double in size this year, too.
That growth, however, has made for some awkward identity issues, Topalian acknowledges. “We’re always a bit of a tricky show compared to Frankfurt or the London Book Fair, because we really have two purposes. We are still the US distribution show for the largest market in the world. But over the last five years we’ve become a very significant rights event.” For some publishers, the amalgam works. “Our international sales department is there and is busy from the minute the hall opens to the minute it closes every single day,” says Alison Lazarus, President of Sales for Holtzbrinck, whose unit St. Martin’s had dropped out of the show, but has been back for the past three years. Lazarus says show productivity has increased since she’s been back, particularly due to close scheduling of appointments, rather than languishing in a booth waiting for walk-ins. Ditto for Ornella Robbiati, Editor-in-Chief of Italian publisher Sonzogno, who schedules appointments every 30 minutes, as in London or Frankfurt, and praises the opportunity BEA affords to see US colleagues in one fell swoop. “Coming in the middle of the year, BEA is the perfect occasion to meet American publishers and agents without waiting until Frankfurt,” she says. “On the other hand, in the last few years, much of the American publishing community has come to the London Book Fair, which is becoming increasingly international.”
Others point out that paradoxically, the New York venue has in the past made the show difficult for New Yorkers, since many will have long commutes at the end of the day — exacerbated by the transportation-challenged Javits Center site — on top of family obligations they wouldn’t have in Chicago or LA. Beacon Press Director Helene Atwan adds that she’ll be exhibiting as usual, despite anticipated problems with publisher attendance and a dearth of promotional materials due to the earlier show date. And then there’s that familiar New York drain on the expense account. On that note, show organizers have negotiated rates of under $150 per night with a number of hotels, and have also scouted cheaper rooms in New Jersey, with shuttles to the Javits. (Incidentally, the Library Hotel is offering a show discount of $50 per night off deluxe rooms, and $30 per night off petite rooms, to friends of Publishing Trends. Email [email protected], and mention Market Partners for the special rate.) And grumbling over this year’s early date should be allayed for the near future, as BEA moves to Los Angeles next year, launching on May 30, then hits Chicago in 2004, kicking off on June 4. Then it’s back to New York on June 3, 2005. “We unquestionably are looking at moving the show year-to-year,” Topalian adds. “It was overwhelming to us that being in one city didn’t draw enough new attendance on a year-in, year-out basis.”
Taking Book Sense to the Bank
In the end, of course, the show is what you make it. “Every year we have a better and better BEA,” says Dominique Raccah, Publisher at Sourcebooks. “I find it incredibly useful. I know I’m one of the only book publishers who feels this way.” Sourcebooks will once again be installed in its house-shaped booth, with various accommodations available for meetings, and publicity staff staking out the back patio. “I don’t think it’s an order-writing show, and it isn’t meant to be,” Raccah continues. “It’s a relationship-cementing show, which to my mind is far more important.” In fact, Sourcebooks’ business with Books-A-Million more than doubled this year after four meetings with the retailer at last year’s BEA. And Raccah makes a point of taking along between 15 and 20 people to the show, many of them editors: “If the editors don’t know what’s going on at the grassroots level, we are going to make a lot of bad decisions.” Raccah also cites the ABA’s Book Sense program as a “phenomenal” driver of show growth. “You may see a revitalization in BookExpo simply because Book Sense is creating the right machinery to support independents.”
Of course, no one could agree more than Carl Lennertz, Book Sense Senior Marketing Consultant and big BEA booster. “For every trend in bookselling today, I can go back and spot a seminar or a panel at BEA where it was first talked about,” Lennertz says. “Computerized inventory. Newsletters. Reading groups. The use of co-op. Everything that’s keeping independent booksellers going now came out of sessions five, ten, or fifteen years ago.” Moreover, Lennertz thinks so much bluster about the relative merits of the show floor misses the point that crucial work is accomplished in other ways, whether at educational sessions or just over drinks at the bar: “Going to BEA will pay for itself — you can’t put a price tag on it. The next generation of bookselling innovations will come out of this show.” So what’s the bottom line, Carl? “You should come to get ideas and make money.”