After something of a slow start when the exhibition hall opened at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, May 11, book-buyer traffic at the 2016 BookExpo America—which ran through Friday, May 13, at Chicago’s McCormick Place—picked up noticeably on Thursday, May 12. “I am much more optimistic Thursday afternoon than I was yesterday,” said Abrams CEO Michael Jacobs. Friday’s traffic followed the usual pattern of the show’s last day: there was some buzz early on, but it quieted down in the afternoon.
The switch of venue from New York City, where BEA has been held for the past seven years, to Chicago elicited mixed reactions among those in attendance, with the divide roughly between the New York–based houses and everyone else. Though the Big Five trade publishers were all in attendance, they brought fewer people and held fewer parties in a bid to keep expenses in check. Two big publishers, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Rodale, did not take booths at the show. Penguin Random House brought more than 100 people to Chicago, including CEO Markus Dohle, who said he was firm in his belief that the industry needs an annual trade show—as long as the event provides the opportunity for publishers to engage with booksellers.
One reason BEA officials moved the show out of New York was to make it easier, and cheaper, for booksellers outside of the Northeast to attend, and from that standpoint the move was a success. ABA CEO Oren Teicher reported that 65% of the booksellers in Chicago had not been to BEA in at least two years. Although overall bookseller attendance was down by about 5% from 2015, Teicher said the strong showing from booksellers in the heartland and from other regions “validates the whole idea of moving the show around.” He added: “We are a national business, and our members are everywhere. It’s not that we don’t love New York, but it is expensive.”
Another positive aspect of moving to Chicago was the condition of the convention center itself. The facilities at McCormack Place far surpassed the dingy and antiquated Javits Center, where BEA is held when it is in New York. One change that seems to have people confused is the 1 p.m. start on the opening day. This was the second year BEA had a late opening, but it still caught many by surprise. Ellen Adler, publisher of New Press, wasn’t aware that the show floor didn’t open until 1 p.m., so when she arrived a few minutes before the official opening she became a bit panicked at the sight of a largely vacant exhibit area. “I thought, this is the end of our industry,” she said. Relief set in once book buyers began arriving after the doors were opened.
This year’s BEA took place shortly after five large trade publishers posted generally soft first-quarter financial results. Many industry members said what the market could use is a hot book, and there were a number of titles that publishers were promoting that could fit the bill. Among the titles booksellers thought held promise were Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, The Nix by Nathan Hill, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, and The Girls by Emma Cline.
Children’s books that drew high marks from booksellers included a number of young adult titles such as Heartless by Marissa Meyer, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Gemina by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman, and Sharon Cameron’s The Forgetting. Outside of the young adult category, Lucy by Randy Cecil drew praise from some booksellers, as did We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen.
Though final figures were not available at press time Friday, BEA officials acknowledged that attendance would be down from 2015—for one thing, the size of the show floor was about 20% smaller than in New York last year. The lower attendance, however, did not faze many of the attendees. “There may be fewer people, but it made it easier to get things done,” Start Publishing president Jarred G. Weisfeld said. Todd Stocke, v-p and editorial director of Sourcebooks, took a similar stance about attendance. “The quantity of traffic is down, but quality is up [Friday] and across the whole show.”
Next year, BEA moves back to New York, but there will be a new twist. The full event will run from May 31 to June 4. The final two days—Saturday and Sunday—will be dedicated to BookCon (which was held on Saturday, May 14, in Chicago this year), and the first three days will be the traditional trade show. But because of issues in getting access to the exhibition hall at Javits, the show floor will only be open on Thursday and Friday. Wednesday will be geared toward educational conferences and other programming that BEA will develop in the coming year.