Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Whither BookExpo?



I enjoy a good rant, and Richard Nash has a fine one today at the Huffington Post about BookExpo America. BEA used to be a bona fide trade fair, where publishers took orders from booksellers. In recent years, when the chains and Amazon have come to dominate bookselling, the business of meeting and pitching to individual booksellers has become a much smaller part of the fair—it doesn’t really generate enough dollars in itself to justify the costs of exhibiting.

In response, publishers have cut back on their booth space, parties, promotional expenses, etc. Some have skipped the convention altogether. Now, with profits drooping and expenses being slashed all over the industry, BEA is planning further economies, including a move to midweek instead of being held over the weekend as in years past.According to Richard, the BEA organizers have now abandoned an idea proposed after last year’s fair, to open the exhibits to the general public for an afternoon before the programming began and hold an opening night party as some other book fairs do. He argues, 


the explosion in the number of books available means that publishers need to motivate readers to read their books, and not take for granted they'll walk into bookstores and buy… the event needs to be about exciting readers/customers, not hustling the retailers.

I agree that this is a real missed opportunity. Granted, BEA has never been about marketing books to the public, and there are all sorts of logistical complications in moving in that direction. But this seems a classic example of industry shortsightedness. BEA has been all about traditional channels of bookselling, which everyone agrees aren’t effective enough anymore. Publishers are concerned they’re wasting their money at BEA, and with good reason. But instead of reinventing the show, transforming it into a new, better way to market our product—yes, to the public as well as booksellers, librarians, and media--the current approach seems to be to try to do the same thing in  a cheaper way. 
Hm, sounds like the general strategy most big publishers have adopted over the last couple of years. Bashing mainstream publishing for its stodginess and lack of imagination is all too easy, and many of those who do so have no idea of the constraints we operate under. Still, I am pretty sure that the way forward for publishers, in an environment where so much is changing, is never going to be “do what we have done before but spend less money on it.” 

10 comments:

Richard Nash said...

Peter, thanks for responding to my polemic! In terms of practical suggestions, there's a wealth of stuff being discussed, just not at the right level/in the right offices. Not to toot my own horn but the Advisory Committee has been brainstorming like crazy and Reed Exhibitions seem to like what we have to, but then the opposite of what we suggest happens. Given that Lance Fensterman, who directs BEA, also directs NY Comicon, the NY Anime Film Festival, and other fan-driven shows, given that we've the examples of how the Frankfurt Book Fair handles a combined trade-and-public show, given we've got successful consumer book festivals, we really don't lack for practical examples—it's just that RH, S&S, Penguin must bite the bullet. The occasion objections you hear all have practical answers: sales tax? There simply single-use vendor registrations; if Soft Skull could do that for AWP for $600 of books, a corporate publisher scan figure it out; staffing? There are lotsa editorial assistants dying to get into BEA who can monitor booth traffic, use the cash register; what to do with ARC's? Have a contest, a treasure hunt. How to create buzz? Do what Frankfurt did this year, offer free admission to anyone in costume. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, the problem is the corporate publisher decision-makers. They must lead.

Peter Ginna said...

Richard, thanks for your comment. As anyone in the business knows, publishing is not lacking for creative ideas about how to do business differently. The hard part is always to punch through the inertia, lack of resources, fear, hassle, etc. that is involved in changing existing practices.
As my boss Richard Charkin recently said in our office, part of the problem is just finding "brainspace" to do the wheel-reinvention we're talking about--whether it's figuring out how to collect sales tax at BEA, or how to reshape our marketing campaigns for an age of social media, or reconceive what a "book" is. None of these are trivial challenges. But you'd think we could solve the BEA ones for a start, especially with the many successful book fairs around for us to crib from!

jonathan evison said...

. . .fuck it! i'm dressing up anyway (as moby dick), and i'm going to sneak some readers in the back door and pirate them a name tag so they can get some swag from the corporate publishers before they run their ships aground! . . . also, since the party's already sunk, i'm planning a tailgate party, and any publisher interested in the novel idea of connecting with readers (you know, the people who provide the revenue everybody's complaining they don't have) is invited! i don't have any money either, so it's BYOB!

Fred Ramey said...

Thanks for this post, Peter. And Richard . . . as always, great thoughts. From my perspective, the most important context for this discussion is Richard's observation about "the explosion" of books. Absolutely everything about BEA needs to change. But if Penguin, S&S, RH, etc. are somehow made to understand this, and assuming (just for the sake of this conversation) that they will continue to define the show, they will likely approve only those changes that serve their own old and fading realities (Brand Authors, Celebrity Publishing, etc.)--a model of sales that applies less and less in the post-explosion world where the reading markets are fragmenting and buying habits cannot be so readily guided. If "reader day", for instance, just brings consumers in to ogle Sarah Palin, the opening of the show will prove retro and irrelevant to a book world where a sure thing is already no longer a sure thing. Here's hoping that instead of "doing more for bestselling authors" the folks at Reed will acknowledge the breaking markets and a wider publishing vitality.

Peter Ginna said...

Fred--I have already concurred that BEA and the thinking around it needs to change, and I agree that the "explosion" is a fact all publishers need to reorient themselves too. But I don't necessarily see BEA as a faceoff between evil/stupid/retro big guys and virtuous/innovative little guys. (Daniel Pritchard's post linked below takes that view more vehemently than you do.) The big houses are groping toward change too, and part of the challenge is that nobody knows exactly what works yet. And it's much more difficult to turn around a battleship than a speedboat.
Bestselling or "brand" authors are still a really important part of our business--just as in any entertainment medium, there will always be hits and popular favorites, and I don't think it behooves us to look down our noses at them. If a book fair is open to the public, and Sarah Palin, Stephen King, or, I don't know, Martha Stewart helps to draw readers in, is that a bad thing? The LA Times Book Festival, rightly cited by Richard Nash as a great example of a public book fair, this year featured Gore Vidal, Clive Barker and Diahann Carroll as marquee names along with a wonderful variety of other less "brand name" authors.
My attitude would be, by all means have Sarah Palin, or Al Franken, at Reader Day--along with my historians, your literary novelists, and someone else's quilting-book authors.

Richard Nash said...

I do think, to emphasize a point I think you're making, Peter, that BEA could be a great laboratory to begin to execute. Techniques and logistics that work there will find their way into other activities...

Peter Ginna said...

Interesting idea. My general notion is, frankly, that publishers have to flail around in all directions because only by trying new approaches will we find out which ones work. Making direct connections with readers is a key task for us and BEA seems like a venue where we might bring readers & publishers together.

Torie underlines said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Torie underlines said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Torie underlines said...

Thanks for this post and these fantastic comments! I think the Brooklyn Book festival is a wildly successful example of a book fair that invites & excites the public as well as booksellers. And even in that most literary of NYC boroughs I don't get the sense that there's an indie vs. corporate attitude. The turmoil is industry wide. It's just that big houses like S&S, RH, Penguin etc. can afford to bleed money while they panic whereas smaller houses are forced to innovate if they want to survive. As you said, Peter, "it's much more difficult to turn around a battleship than a speedboat." Re-Invention is a frightening prospect especially to those giants who've been operating under the same model for ages. That's why I think Richard made a great point about using editorial assistants staffing BEA. Young-to -publishing types, who entered publishing in its most pessimistic culture, have the most to gain from new business models that address industry change. And we're probably the most eager.