Book Expo Begins Today, But When Does It End? Mike Shatzkin Says Sands Running Out

When you admire a guru, you have to take the bad prophecies with the good. Mike Shatzkin, who is giving a significant presentation at the commencement of Book Expo America, is certainly our favorite guru. But damn!, his gloomy prognostication about the future of the convention is hard to live with, even though deep down we suspect it’s true.

There are two classes of people in publishing: those who remember the American Booksellers Association (ABA) convention – BEA’s predecessor – and those who don’t. The latter roughly parallel those who don’t remember typewriters, black and white televisions, or automobiles with clutches. If these artifacts of 20th century civilization draw a blank stare, it will be equally hard to imagine what publishing must have been like when booksellers were important.

Before getting to his doomsday prognostication, Shatzkin takes us down memory lane to recall what BEA used to be. This is not merely idle reminiscence but, rather, Shatzkin setting us up to understand what the the convention has become and why it may no longer be a viable destination for a publishing industry that is exploding like a fragmentation grenade.

When I was a pup, the ABA was definitely an order-writing show. The number of independent bookstores who bought a big chunk of any trade list properly presented to them was in the thousands. (Now: what would you say? the dozens? wouldn’t hundreds be an exaggeration?) Only a few of the biggest publishers had sales forces large enough and disciplined enough to really cover them all, so most exhibitors encountered retailers who would do immediate business. Everybody had some sort of show “special” to encourage ordering. I think for many years it was “blue badges” that signified booksellers: you kept an eagle-eye out for them as the traffic streamed by and you knew exactly what and how you were going to pitch them.

Each night at the main convention hotels, several publishers — and all the mass-market publishers — ran “hospitality suites” offering liquid refreshment and munchies very deep into the evening. You’d make the rounds of those after you had gone to whatever events, dinners, and parties had taken place in other locations. I always found the time in the hospitality suites to be a highlight of the convention.

The halcyon days of the 1970s and 80s gave way to a more corporate environment when Reed Exhibitions, which bills itself as the world’s leading organizer of trade and consumer events, acquired a controlling share of the show, changing its name to Book Expo America. “Reed Exhibitions excels in creating high profile, highly targeted business and consumer exhibitions and events to establish and maintain business relations, and generate new business,” says the organization’s website.

Interestingly, Reed’s takeover paralleled the rash of trade book publisher mergers and acquisitions that, like a collapsing star, imploded the industry from hundreds of vibrant companies to fewer than a dozen behemoths in the space of a decade. 1996, the very year Reed acquired controlling interest in ABA, was the same one in which the mass market paperback business underwent a convulsive contraction that transformed the format into the Fifteen Top Blockbuster airport model that characterizes mass paper today. (I’ve written about this at length in a two part article, “The Rise and Fall of the Mass Market Paperback”: Part 1, Part 2.)

Thus, while Big Publishing seemed to be soaring in the late 90s it was actually peaking, and the shift made itself manifest in the book fair. “The long expansion of the US book trade, which had continued pretty much unabated from World War II until the mid-1990s, stopped and started to reverse in the Internet age,” writes Shatzkin. “Even worse for the industry trade show, consolidation of both big publishers and retailers accelerated. That meant fewer publisher customers to buy the booth space, and fewer retailers walking the aisles to make the booth space valuable.

And now, a little over a decade later, the collapsing star of Big Publishing generates more heat ($24 billion annually) than light, and that’s reflected in the dimming of the celebration called Book Expo America. “The BEA of today isn’t the ABA of old,” laments Shatzkin. “The booksellers are just about gone. The late-night hospitality suites don’t exist anymore. And hardly any publisher goes to the show expecting to write orders. It is time to organize a betting pool where the question is: how many more BEAs before, like its Canadian counterpart [Book Expo Canada shuttered permanently early this year] it simply ceases? Three? Four? Hard to see more than that.”

Also shpracht Shatzkin. You can read it all in his blog, How many more times for BEA?

But wait – there’s a PS. BEA’s show director Lance Fensterman reports that the convention’s attendance is down 14% over the last one held in New York City, 2007, and exhibitor personnel registrations are down 10% to 15%. Overall exhibition square footage is down 21%. It looks like the Guru of Gloom is right again, dammit.

Richard Curtis

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