Although some reports from the consumer press may have overstated the health of the independent book business—the AP’s Hillel Italie used the term “growth industry”—booksellers at this year’s BookExpo America do seem in better spirits. And with good reason: for starters, the numbers are there. The ABA reported an uptick in membership for the fourth straight year, and ABA CEO Oren Teicher said that the independent channel saw a gain of 8% from the previous year. Beyond those gains, though, the cheerier mood seems, as many industry members told PW from the show floor, due in large part to a sense that the digital business has leveled off. After years of concern—at times panic—that e-books would replace print books and, in turn, wipe out bricks-and-mortar bookstores altogether, there is a sense that print and digital can, and will, coexist. Or as Perseus Books Group’s CEO David Steinberger put it, for the first time in a few years “the future doesn’t feel like it’s changing that rapidly.”
The show has brought its usual collision of celebrities and authors, high culture and low. (Steinberger, for example, had just flipped from a conversation with former Jersey Shore cast member Snooki, whose book Baby Bumps is coming from Running Press in December, to one with investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, whose book about the mounting dangers of America’s drone program, Dirty Wars, was published by Nation Books in April.) There is also a feeling that, after a tumultuous few years, there is a solid future in books. “Things are picking up for [independent] booksellers,” said Olga Nolan, a sales supervisor for HarperCollins. “They’re seeing there's a market for both print books and e-books." At Nolan’s booth, the morning had brought long lines for galley giveaways of two anticipated November novels: Wally Lamb’s We Are Water and Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement.
“Things are pretty good in their world,” said Norton’s field sales manager, Dan Christiaens, referring to independent booksellers. Christiaens, who regularly talks to owners of indie stores, said there is certainly a sense, after years of watching independent stores close, that those that are “still standing” are doing so for a reason.
Terry Adams, Little, Brown’s v-p of digital and its paperback publisher, said the “e-book revolution seems to have met its level” and that the indie booksellers, accordingly, “seem stronger than ever.” Adams also noted that BookExpo remains one of his favorite times of the year because the publishers are put on the sales “front lines” that the booksellers are always on, having to pitch their books to those who will then bring the message to the consumers. It is, as Adams elaborated, the one time of year when the publishers need to hand-sell to their biggest hand-sellers.
Megan Sullivan, from Boston’s Harvard Bookstore, said she thought many publishers “have a bigger presence than last year” and that the booths were, overall, bigger. Though some still miss the old weekend schedule—Dave Mallman of Wisconsin’s Books & Co. said he misses the ability to meet with publishers during the week and then attend the show on Saturday and Sunday—it was not an overwhelming complaint.
The weekend, this year, brought more questions about Consumer Day, which is entering its second year. Booksellers, as well as those working at the houses, said they were eager to see how many consumers would actually show up on Saturday, and what kind of consumers they would be. Questions about who the mysterious “Power Readers” are persisted; some wondered aloud if more would-be authors would come to the show on Saturday, eager to pitch ideas to publishers as opposed to pick up books to read.
Nonetheless, many who spoke to PW said this year’s Consumer Day, which seems to have an improved concept compared to the inaugural event last year, would be a better test of whether this longtime trade show is a good place for the general public. “It was less advertising-driven and less programmed last year,” said Marissa Atkinson, Graywolf Press publicist. Atkinson, echoing the feelings of many on the show floor, is now just hoping Saturday draws the target audience: “devoted and passionate readers.”
With additional reporting from PW staff.