BookExpo America at New York City’s Javits Center began with a full day of panels and presentations on Wednesday, May 29, and ended with a newly energized Consumer Day on Saturday, June 1. While exhibitors and attendees were still evaluating the new Thursday–Saturday schedule for the exhibit floor, there was a consensus that a bit of stability has returned to the book publishing industry. Although questions remain about how things will eventually shake out, the pace of change has slowed, giving publishers and booksellers a chance to make plans for the future. As Perseus Books Group president David Steinberger observed, for the first time in a number of years, “the future doesn’t feel like it’s changing that rapidly.” Still, more change is ahead and a number of booksellers expressed skepticism about whether publishers could do anything to make e-books a meaningful part of a bookstore’s business. For one thing, booksellers currently make little money on the e-books they sell. “If I sold an e-book to every customer who came in to my store, I’d be out of business in a week,” said Emily Pullen, manager of Word, a bookstore in Brooklyn.
BEA show-runner Reed Exhibitions has made extensive changes to the event since the Great Recession of 2008–2009, as the publishing industry continues to transition to digital. The 2013 fair had an expanded digital presence on the exhibit floor, and BEA executives said more than 200 new companies signed up to exhibit this year. One new booth was taken by six independent authors: Stephanie Bond, Tina Folsom, Barbara Freethy, Hugh Howey, C.J. Lyons, and Bella Andre. Wearing buttons that read, “Ask me how I sold over 1 million e-books,” the authors treated BEA much like traditional publishers do: growing their brands and talking with distributors and foreign publishers. In a bid to help more would-be authors learn about self-publishing, BEA held a daylong uPublishU on June 1 that attracted 353 attendees.
Not too much changed among the core trade house exhibitors, though. The Big-Six publishers all had booths that were similar in size to their booths at last year’s show. Random House had its modest booth and a large meeting room just across the aisle, while Penguin and DK had one of the biggest booths at the show. At the entrance to the Javits Center, a Penguin-branded truck was offering books for sale with orders being fulfilled by New York bookstore McNally Jackson. But one of the many questions surrounding the Penguin–Random House merger is what kind of presence the combined publisher will have at next year’s BEA. (The merger is slated to be resolved in the second half of 2013.)
Nonetheless, more buzz on the show floor was focused on the fate of Barnes & Noble. While few people seem worried that the chain is in danger of going out of business any time soon, they are eager to know whether chairman Len Riggio will buy the retail trade stores.
Customer traffic on the show floor was generally solid during the first two days of the expo. The big houses drew long lines for in-booth signings with authors like Snooki, who was on hand to promote her forthcoming Baby Bumps from Running Press (slated for a December release), while a crowd gathered at the Penguin booth for Sue Grafton’s W is for Wasted, due out in September. A number of independent presses expressed satisfaction with the show traffic, although some noted that the nature of the fair business has changed. Their emphasis now is on setting up “wall-to-wall meetings” with key accounts, rather than depending on booksellers to drop by, said Munro Magruder, sales and marketing manager at New World Library. John Whalen, founder of Cider Mill Press, did lots of selling at the show. “I’ve had more stores placing orders than in a number of years,” Whalen said, adding that he sensed “a renewed dynamism among independents.” Sellers Publishing’s Andy Sturtevant said business at the show was good, and much better than at the gift and stationery fair he attended a few weeks ago at the Javits, where traffic was very slow, especially on the last two days of the event.
Publishers were curious to see how things would unfold on the last day of BEA, following a decision to move the closing day to Saturday, in part to draw in more consumers. BEA general manager Steve Rosato was confident that at least 2,000 consumers would be at the Javits on Saturday. Indeed, early Saturday morning, there were long lines of people waiting to get in and the Neil Gaiman talk was mobbed. Publishers seemed to be split over the increased efforts to attract more consumers, although many had prepared special giveaways for the day. One publisher wondered whether attracting 2,000–3,000 consumers would really affect their BEA experience, while others said the effort was worthwhile if it helped keep the show viable.
There was widespread agreement that the industry still needs a place to gather once a year, but questions remain over what that gathering should look like. BEA executives “seem to be struggling to give the show definition,” one bookseller commented. Markus Dohle, CEO of Random House, is a firm believer in the need for BEA. As the industry continues to evolve, Dohle said, “I can’t imagine not having an annual event where all constituencies in the publishing and bookselling value chain can get together.” He added that he favors an event that is held in New York.
Next year’s BEA is set to run from May 29–31 in New York.