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 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.
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.
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
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
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.