To BEA or not to BEA

by Jane

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.

6 Responses to To BEA or not to BEA

  1. Suze says:

    Hi Jane

    I would love to hear about why the Miami one was a disaster. I'm relative new-comer to this wonderful, virtual world of publishing, and would be very interested to hear what makes a book expo terrible… and even what you hope to get out of one. Thank you :)

  2. Anonymous says:

    BEA is a waste of time and money. They have virtually destroyed our industry with price gouging and all types of rackets that go on there. It is terrible because it is run by the certain few who have shut out a once thriving industry in favor of special interests.

  3. M Clement Hall says:

    How do they schlepp the Fall books now? Has some other meeting taken the original place of purpose of the ABA/BEA? Or is it all done on an individual basis now? Or electronically?

  4. John-Richard Thompson says:

    I was there to sign books on the second day – it was my first BookExpo, and though I loved seeing so many "book people" gathered in one place, I found myself asking the same question over and over: "Who is the audience for this event?" So many publishers, so few booksellers. The answer I received most often? "Good question," followed by thoughtful silence.

  5. DGLM says:

    The Miami ABA was a disaster because the accomodations were inadequate to hold the huge number of attendees that yeartr and the transportation to and from the Convention was attrocious. As a matter of fact, as I remember it, most of the planning was very poor.

    Fall books are currently ordered through catalogues, manyo f the electronic and presented by direct sales forces.

  6. Gilbert J. Avila says:

    I was a bookseller's rep at the 1992 ABA Convention at the Anaheim Convention Center CA. It was a huge three-day affair, with 26,000 booksellers and publisher's reps, and I enjoyed every minute of it. It was like a carnival; tons of freebies and catalogues for ordering and author's panels. I met Muhammed Ali, Doctor Ruth, Pat Morita, and more whom I've forgotten. From what I understand it's no longer fun, which in my eyes is a pity and a shame.

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