Among the many notable photos taken of New York Is Book Country over its 26 years, one especially stands out. It's of founder and former head Linda Exman standing near board chairperson and New York Times marketing executive Alyse Myers. Between the two is Emeril Lagasse, clad in a chef's shirt.
With all that's been happening at the show these last few months, you couldn't ask for a more symbolic image. For one thing, there's a clear separation between the fair's past and its uncertain, possibly Times-sponsored future. For another, there's a lot cooking.
As we reported in "PW Daily" last week, New York Is Book Country likely will soon disband as a nonprofit organization, with the board set to vote on the move shortly. Sources said there's practically no money in the coffers; in fact, there's a small but not insubstantial amount of debt. Fair director Anne Binkley has left for a job at the Quills (the awards show run by PW and its parent company Reed Business Information) and won't be replaced. The fair's best hope is now a takeover by the Times, which would turn it into a for-profit.
The closure of the fair would mark the end of a New York era. In 1979, a marketing director for M. Evans named Linda Exman came up with the idea of something that could "promote books and New York City simultaneously," according to a PW article. (Inaugural logo: an apple sitting in front of books that were meant to look like the skyline.) It started small but quickly gained in legend; in a city still ringing from a recession and in a country where frequent literary events (much less book fairs) were still years away, the show offered something new and attractive. People and publisher dollars poured in.
The support continued through the millennium, as the fair added exhibitions and sponsorships, including a consistent chunk of change from Target. In two decades, it missed only two years—once because of rainy weather, the other when police canceled the fair right after 9/11.
Since Exman retired three years ago, however, the fair has gone through a period of extraordinary transition. Former BEA head Courtney Muller succeeded Exman, but left less than a year later, just several months before the 2003 show. Borders publicity director Binkley was quickly hired, and she instituted a number of changes for 2004, including a provocative move off Fifth Avenue to Washington Square Park. She left several months ago.
Most insiders say they do not fault Muller or Binkley, who did what they could with limited resources. (Binkley declined to comment for contractual reasons.) But one culprit is thought to be the show's 25th anniversary; for that 2003 event, the fair held an extravaganza that featured the likes of Neil Gaiman and Dan Brown; staged a large gala; and published a commemorative book, Metropolis Found. The anniversary may have been a reach for a nonprofit of the fair's size. "You can't spend money you don't have," said one insider, who added that the issue of publisher support looked particularly bleak after that year. "If you didn't get everyone all riled for the 25th, how do you do it for the 26th or the 27th?"
These days, insiders describe meetings that feature much talk about money and little about events. But the fair's problems are not simply a matter of cash; while fairs like the L.A. Times Book Festival are veritable piggy banks that offer sponsorships tying directly into newspaper advertising, not-for-profit shows work, too. The Miami Book Fair, for example, is run as a 501(c)(3) and has survived into its third decade without a formal newspaper connection.
Experts there point to outside institutions—particularly Miami-Dade College, which helped found the fair and hosts it annually—as a reason for its survival. "I think we've been a beautiful example of public-private cooperation," said Mitchell Kaplan, chairperson of the board of the Miami show and owner of Books & Books. "Book fairs that aren't associated with or connected to institutions to give them stability have a tough go of it."
Still, there are some—including NYIBC's founder—who point to the larger publishing weather. "The economics of the industry have changed so much," Exman said when asked why she thinks the fair has struggled. "When we first started out, all we really needed was book industry support. Then everything changed with conglomeration. The funds weren't so readily available."
Also fingered: a lack of mission clarity. "The great joy of the fair used to be that it was a giant street fair. When they tried to make it into a literary event, it didn't work," suggested one observer. "There are just too many great events going on all around the city all year round."
Sources said it's extremely unlikely a fair would happen this fall, making it the first year that New York would not be book country strictly for reasons of funding. Still, there's hope: for all the questions about how the Times's stewardship would work (the paper already runs its successful Arts & Leisure Weekends), thepaper reportedly is serious about its bid. The Times declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Johnny Temple of Akashic Books, with the efforts of publishing figures like Jonathan Galassi, has formed a literary council that will stage a new New York fair. An event complete with authors, vendors and others is being planned for next spring... in Brooklyn.