Yesterday marked the last time Book Expo expects to convene on a Sunday and by the sparse activity in the aisles (aside from packing up) very few will miss the third day when the show moves to weekdays next year and only two days of exhibition.
With a big decline in paid exhibitor space and expectations of smaller crowds, show management appears to have set the expectations bar low enough that many attendees and companies ended up pleasantly surprised by the activity. The AP calls its “a low-budget, low-celebrity convention, with fewer parties and fewer advanced copies of books than in the past, and a sense that the best way to meet expectations was to lower them.” As Penguin USA president Susan Petersen Kennedy put it, “this feels like a very businesslike BEA. There’s no romance, but maybe this is not the year for romance.”
In my experience, discussing the crowds is the trade show equivalent of talking about the weather. And the science is about as good, too, leading to lots of inaccurate forecasts, like the Dallas Morning News asserting that BEA “made the aisles narrower, creating an illusion of robustness. Spokesman Roger Bilheim shoots that one down as “Absolutely, categorically untrue. The aisles were exactly the same as they have always been.”
In the actual numbers, just under 30,000 people registered for badges this year and “verified” attendees (which does not include people with exhibitor badges) was 12,025. That attendee number is down 11 percent from the last New York city show in 2007 (when 36,000 people registered overall). One sign that the effort to weed out the less “desirable” attendees: the guy with the toilet seat around his head was nowhere to be found this year.
About 7,000 of those attendees were book buyers (a category that includes librarians), which is down about 13 percent from 2007–but significantly better than last year’s disappointing LA show. “We gave away a lot of badges” to booksellers this year under the new program with the ABA, show director Lance Fensterman said, which kept ABA participation steady and will continue in the future. “It’s part of what we do.”
Though Javits remains the facility that nobody loves, this year’s show was spared any major irritants, like the leaking roof or faulty ventilation systems that have been a problem in the past. Probably the largest environmental irritant was the Saturday afternoon drumline (along with scantily clad women who may have been dressed as sexy pineapples) ostensibly promoting the Cool-er Reader, but inadvertently turning off many. At least the guards stopped them before they marched their way on to the exhibition floor, but drumming must be banned.
Among the books, Pat Conroy’s presence was missed even if his galley was eagerly collected. The NYT reports that Barnes & Noble fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley’s mother loved Leila Meacham’s ROSES, while Bob Wietrak at Barnes & Noble has big hopes for Jeannette Walls’ HALF BROKE HORSES. Borders’ Kathryn Popoff says her buyers are excited about Cami Walker’s 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life, the new Gourmet cookbook, CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins, and Timothy Egan’s THE BIG BURN. Hensley also recommends Audrey Niffenegger’s HER FEARFUl SYMMETRY (hardly going out on a limb), and to the AP she adds Barbara Kingsolver’s THE LACUNA. Other Buzz Panel books from Jonathan Tropper, David Small, and Alex Lemon got press and floor mentions.
In this household, the fifteen-year-old had to be extracted from the car after working the show on Saturday since he was already absorbed in Collins’ CATCHING FIRE (having loved her earlier books) and when I rolled home from the lovely launch party for Reagan Arthur Books he sheepishly apologized for staying up past his bedtime, still reading his galley.
We also noticed that Jonathan Safran Foer quietly moved his next books under contract from Houghton Mifflin to Little, Brown, on an exclusive submission by agent Nicole Aragi. For this fall Little, Brown is publishing his nonfiction book about EATING ANIMALS (really about why not to eat him) and his next project is an unusual collaboration with Nathan Englander, also incorporating contributions from many other writers, for a new Haggadah.
Floor conversation (and some printed reports) included at least some silliness about whether or not enough free books were being given away. (If the primary purpose of BEA is to maximize the giving away of stuff, then it should be closed immediately.) The LAT writes that”as for giveaways, once a hallmark of the show, they were almost nonexistent; even advance reading copies were in short supply.” (Scarcity, if true, can actually be a good thing and create desire.) Perhaps the most apt assessment was this one found on Twitter from Jessica Haynes: “Even though there weren’t as many galleys and ARCs as previous years we still sent home 4 boxes of books.” Enough said.
The size of Random House’s booth–which was little more than a placeholder with all of their meetings and customer interactions in a meeting room off the show floor–was another recurring topic of aisle chatter. Ironically, people seemed more focused on the smallness of Random’s floor space than on the complete absence from the floor of Macmillan, Rodale, Houghton Mifflin, Kensington and others.
The slim cards that Harper gave away–good for downloads of electronic galleys via Symtio–also may not have worked out the way the publisher had hoped, perhaps in part because they were secretive about it ahead of the show instead of letting visitors know what to expect. Bookseller Arsen Kashkashian tweeted “Harper’s austere, galleyless booth barely worked for adult titles, but did nothing for their children’s offerings. No sense of play.”
Chris Vognar at the Dallas Morning News (who did get the aisles story wrong) wrote “I just downloaded Mary Karry’s new memoir LIT and I’m ready to stare at a screen to read it. Yet, like many book people, I’d rather hold it in my hands. You know. Like a book.” Even Harper’s Debbie Stier blogged this morning that “I caught whispers that this was not a good thing,” adding “I disagree.”
To be sure, some did tweet with enthusiasm for the format, and Harper spokesperson Erin Crum told us “we were very pleased with the response. People at the booth said they received many more positive responses than negative… One comment from sales was that, ‘I’ve actually never been to a BEA where I heard so many people tell us we were brilliant.'”
One apparent area of enthusiasm was the revamped conference programming and special events. Though it’s a little to hard to know if it was the programs themselves or the current moment, with all of its questions and possibilities, presentations were often filled or flowing and the conversations radiated out onto the floor. Fensterman says he “heard more compliments” than ever on the conference.
Having the ABA’s educational programming back in the same center helped pack the Thursday Buzz Panel with the desired audience, and the new YA Buzz Panel also drew good response and looks to be a new fixture on the schedule. While we heard a mix of reactions to the Author Stages events on periphery of the exhibition floor, Fensterman called them “fantastic” and said “we’re really pleased to bring the authors closer to the attendees and thin the line between the people creating it and the people consuming it.”
The team at the Perseus Books Group put on a spirited show while making their title BOOK: The Sequel mostly in front of fairgoers’ eyes over two days. The crowd guided them to a cover design they had not intended to select, and the enterprise was an inspiring model of how contemporary publishing can in fact be be fast and nimble across a complex array of platforms and media, crowd-sourced and inclusive. As the staff underscored right before their Saturday 4 pm launch party, they also proved it takes a team to publish a book. And Perseus certainly seemed to bu ild internal enthusiasm and comraderie among their jerseyed employees from all parts of the company. (Even former ceo Jack McKeown is a contributor to the book, featured on page 105.)
But like BEA itself, you are still left wondering if the payoff is worth it. Perseus collected orders in the low hundreds from accounts for the actual book BOOK: The Sequel, though with the national media generated from the process publisher Susan Weinberg says they are preparing a more complete sell sheet going out to accounts on Monday.
As much as BEA has charted a better course for itself, with this year’s adjustments and the further changes already planned for 2010, something anachronistic remains about the show itself. Among the doubtful, Clint Greenleaf wrote, “This was a good BEA – I still think we’re watching the sunset, though. No reason for the big guys to be there next year.” Fred Ramey at Unbridled Books posted “my booth business didn’t justify the booth and I’ve another fringe location next year.” Don Linn at Taunton Books wrote, “might make myself unpopular for saying it but despite fun time with friends and colleagues, the show isn’t sustainable in current format.”
Or maybe it is. Fensterman said this year’s show was “profitable” without quantifying the level. And he says “Reed is supportive of making this event viable for the long-term. They would like to see this community served for a long time.” He underscores, “I think each year you need to decide if it’s working, and if not let’s change it. I’m looking for allies.” Perhaps the best indicator is that, as long as you see Dr. Ruth, there’s a BEA.