So, as we’ve already mentioned, last week was Book Expo, and it took place mid-week for the first time in its history (I believe) and was shortened from three and a half to two days of exhibits with an additional meeting day. The question this raises for me is how relevant is BEA anymore; is it necessary and will it continue?
Historically this annual meeting was known as the American Books Sellers Association (ABA) meeting. It began in the basement of the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., and was held annually—initially over Memorial Day Weekend. The convention’s purpose was for book publishers to present their fall publishing lists to bookstore owners who would actually place their orders on the floor. Those in attendance from the publishing companies were mainly sales people with some executives making an appearance now and then; editors weren’t included.
Over the years, the ABA convention grew larger and larger. More and more publishers added more and more staff and they began to build larger and larger exhibits. The ABA outgrew the Shoreham and was moved to a convention center in Washington and then began traveling to a different city in different parts of the country each year.
The convention has been held everywhere in the continental U.S. from Chicago, to Los Angeles and Anaheim, to San Francisco, Las Vegas, New Orleans and even Miami (I remember that ABA well—for many reasons, it was a disaster). And each year it grew, with publishers spending more and more money on their exhibits, and having hugely lavish parties to entertain booksellers, authors and agents.
Slowly but surely foreign publishers began to participate and the ABA became a rights fair as well, sort of a mini-Frankfurt (before the London Book Fair grew as large as it now is).
Then as the chains became all powerful and publishers took orders on fall books from these huge accounts before the ABA (or at least outside of the convention), that reason for the meeting became irrelevant. Smaller accounts also started to order less at the meeting and more in other ways and at other times.
Publishers began to realize that the enormous sums of money spent on exhibits, on parties and on travel could not be justified. Displays began to get smaller; some publishers skipped years coming and eventually the exhibit was sold to an organization that became Book Expo. Now, it is a truncated and less interesting event.
My question is what really happens at BEA nowadays? Sure, it is wonderful to see old friends, but the individual exhibits are so small now that one can’t even find the fall books one is looking for. Last week I saw very little activity at the parts of the convention occupied by foreign publishers and the exhibits were downsized from two floors to one in the Javits Center. Very little actual business in terms of the initial book ordering is done anymore and with the other rights fairs around the world, those sold at BEA for the most part are also insignificant.
As I wandered around the floor last week at BEA 2010, I honestly thought to myself that the money still being spent by publishers on this meeting could be much better allocated toward finding new and effective ways to sell books in an age when our business is changing enormously and very quickly.
I would love to know what those of you who have participated in BEA in the past think about all of this.