Celebrity Cruising and Book Dealing at Book Expo America (BEA): Magic Bullet Q&A for Writers

2007 marks my fourth year attending Book Expo America (BEA), the largest trade show of the book publishing industry. Few people outside the publishing industry know about BEA or understand what people do there. Here’s an overview.

BEA History
BEA was once known as the American Booksellers Association (ABA) convention, and in the early 1900s, there were no exhibitors (publishers) playing a role. Today more than 2,000 publishers’ exhibits (or booths) define the show, and it is rather like a prolonged bacchanal that interests just about everyone in the business, from literary dilettantes to celebrities hawking books they didn’t write.

Who Attends
To attend BEA, one should presumably have a bonafide connection to the book publishing industry; it’s not open to the public. That’s to discourage aspiring writers or other riffraff who would annoy publishing insiders with unsolicited pitches. Writers who manage to gain access anyway usually get frustrated in their pitch attempts. Publishers’ booths are primarily staffed with sales, marketing, publicity, and rights people who don’t field pitches—and the editors and agents who do attend always avoid impromptu pitch interactions.

What Happens
One could categorize BEA activities in the following way:
(1) Free Book Foraging & Author Signing
(2) Celebrity Cruising
(3) Business Dealing
(4) Educational Programming
(5) Social Gathering

Free books and author signing. Publishers distribute thousands of copies of recently published or upcoming books, in the hopes of securing bookseller support or building buzz for important titles. When you hear the term "ARC" at BEA, it refers to "advance reading copy," usually an uncorrected, bound proof of an upcoming release. ARCs are sometimes nearly indistinguishable from the final product. Publishers also bring in authors to sign their books and meet booksellers. Whether this has any positive effect on a book’s performance is anyone’s guess. At the very least, it helps publishers give a public show of support to their authors.

Publishers can become annoyed with the "wrong" people taking the ARCs, i.e., other exhibitors/publishers or attendees who are likely filling a booty bag destined for resale on eBay. You can feel your status being scrutinized when people look at your badge before they look at your face; they’re thinking, "Is this person important enough to receive one of our ARCs?" Those who hate being sized up on the publishing food chain can reverse their badges to remain anonymous, which can be construed as "I’m too famous to reveal exactly who I am" or "Stop judging me and give me a damn book."

Celebrity cruising. There are several types of celebrity at BEA: the famous or best-selling author celebrity, the famous editor-agent-professional, and the Celebrity (with a capital C). The most significant personalities usually appear at featured events requiring an additional fee, such as breakfasts, luncheons, or ticketed autograph lines.

Business dealing. An International Rights Center (IRC) is the hub of deal activity at BEA. Literary agents/scouts, foreign rights salespeople, and other miscellaneous figures populate the 200+ tables set up at the IRC. Most attendees never walk in the IRC; I never did until just this year.

Which begs the question: How does a publisher profit from BEA if there’s not much business happening? No major deals occur, few orders are placed, and books aren’t directly sold. It’s a good question—more to come on that later.

Educational programming. Dozens, if not hundreds, of sessions, panels, and lectures are scheduled during BEA. In fact, before the trade show opens, there is one full day of nothing but educational programs. Some programs educate new and experienced booksellers on how to become better at the business. Others focus on trends that affect publishers, editors, and/or agents.

BEA’s educational programming has always interested me the most—you get to hear successful and intelligent people discuss the business. For an editor working at a Midwestern house (like myself), BEA is about the only time when I can hear meaningful, insightful discourse about the industry. The only drawback is that many sessions are panel-based, which means that one weak moderator (or, more likely, one obnoxious panelist) can ruin an entire session.

Anyone can listen to BEA educational sessions (as well as special events) by visiting www.bookexpocast.com. Sometimes you can also catch sessions on C-Span’s BookTV.

Social gathering. The No. 1 function of BEA is social gathering and professional networking. The headliner publisher parties, the private cocktail hours, the exclusive dinners—these are inevitably and boringly recapped the next morning in major newspapers. No matter who you are, you can find a small group of like-minded people to socialize with and learn from.

However, after four years attending BEA, I find it more and more predictable and overrated. One of my colleagues who was attending the show for the first time said it was a lot of bells and whistles, and it would be enough to attend every three years. I couldn’t agree more, though I find myself drawn to attend if only to meet my authors and see colleagues who’ve moved onto better things. For some, that’s the whole point of the show.

Should it be, though? Isn’t it an awfully expensive block party? What if publishers invested their very considerable show costs back into their business—and decided not to exhibit at all? That’s the question I heard one executive raise, in very hushed tones.

Industry intellectual Michael Cader of PublishersLunch has raised similar questions. This year, he wrote:

“We see lots of friends, yet we don’t know who most of the people—here at the convention, or out in our readership—really are. We talk about relationships, but how much do we really nuture and value them all year round, instead of once a year? We get anxious and curious about the electronic future and present, but then we go back to work and retreat to our regular ways and 18-month development timelines.”

On a similar note, I have to mention one of the best educational sessions this year, which was delivered by Len Shatzkin: "End of Trade General Publishing Houses." You can find the speech online here: www.idealog.com/endoftrade.htm.

His basic message is this: Book publishing as we know it will die. Publishers will become masters and leaders of niche communities. Instead of focusing on products (books), publishers will focus on serving audiences with content (and experts) that they own or have access to.

It was difficult to listen to this session, then go back out on the floor and take everyday meetings and appointments that simply add one more title to our roster—titles that bring us short-term profit but kill us a little on the inside, as we further delay the transformation that will enable us to survive in even 10 or 20 years.

Not unsurprisingly, coverage of BEA by Publishers Weekly (whose parent company, Reed, puts on the BEA show), did not mention Shatzkin’s talk. Its lead story talked about the stifling heat in the convention center, with other articles focusing on big-name authors and events. My mounting dissatisfaction with BEA is closely linked to how much attention is paid to the frivolity that surrounds it (parties, celebrities, the stuff people will know about regardless of the trumpeting), and how little we talk about things that truly matter to the business.

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