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.”