Booksellers across the country have had a variety of reactions to the news that BookExpo has closed, with many saying the show had lost its focus and no longer served their needs.
The event started as the American Booksellers Association Trade Show and Convention in 1947 and continued as such until 1995, following a buyout by Reed Exhibitions, which renamed it BookExpo America before dropping "America" in a bid to make the show more international. The event had long been focused on catering to booksellers, who were treated by publishers to special events, parties, private dinners with authors and stacks of galleys. In recent years, that attention was diluted, as the fair sought to attract more members of the book community. In an effort to bring more booksellers to New York City, where the show had settled for the past several years, Reed issued grants to 145 booksellers in 2019. With the demise of the show, booksellers indicated they are likely to focus on the ABA’s Winter Institute and their own fall regional conferences for opportunities to interact with publishers.
Emily Russo, co-owner of Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine said the news was not entirely surprising. “BEA has always been incredibly enjoyable, and from an events standpoint, it’s always been useful to meet with publicists and be able to talk up the store,” she said. “But in terms of its usefulness Winter Institute has replaced BEA as a way for our booksellers to get the most out of educational sessions.” If something rises from the ashes of BookExpo, Russo felt that a smaller, events-focused show is still needed in the industry.
Even as Reed was re-envisioning the show in recent years, it continued to provide an essential big-picture view of the industry for booksellers like Laurie Gillman. Gillman opened East City Book Shop in Washington D.C. in 2016 and said BookExpo was an essential component of opening her store.
“For independent bookstores it definitely served a purpose for meeting people, connecting with authors and publishers. That is really an important part of having a successful bookstores,” Gillman said. "Coming from outside the book world it was a really good way to get up to speed. I always got something out of it.” Gillman said she hopes that something that matches BookExpo’s celebration of the industry will emerge in its place.
Like several booksellers contacted by PW, Nina Barrett, owner, Bookends & Beginnings, Evanston, Ill., was unsettled by the decision. "I feel pretty heartbroken," she said. "I got a lot done there. In the early years of having my store, it was the most efficient place to connect with publishers and set up accounts; I bought remainders and discovered new sidelines. The "Meet the Publisher" and "Publicist Speed-dating" events did actually create lasting relationships with people at publishing houses, in a way that email and Zoom just don't. And so did the parties. I feel like it was an important part of the overall nervous system that connected me to the publishing industry--and it was always for me an incredibly energizing reminder that my individual bookstore in Evanston was a part of a much greater enterprise."
Barrett added that she understands how the decision makes financial sense, but said it wasn't good for the overall morale of the industry. "One of the things that really deeply pains me in this awful time is being cut off from the camaraderie and the energy of this industry as a whole--and it makes the world feel a little bleaker to me to think that, once we're all ready to crawl out of our isolation at the end of this, that huge crazy wonderful ritual event won't be there to look forward to any more," she said.
BrocheAroe Fabian, owner of the River Dog Book Company, summarized what many people felt when she told PW, “I loved going for the access to publishers and the camaraderie amongst booksellers. I loved the tours of the publishing houses, the publishing dinners, the speed dating with publisher reps, etc. But, I felt like the last few years, booksellers were often treated like second class citizens on the show floor. We were in sessions; we couldn't afford to stand in long lines to get ARC access. And I felt like publishers were giving out books (ARCs and finished copies) and SWAG less and less, which was half the fun of going—access to insider product and a chance to be really excited about snagging a copy of something.”
Fabian noted "that one-on-one or small group time with publishers and their representatives was invaluable; the show floor, not so much. Separate from all of that, it cost an arm and a leg to go, and so the fact that they were essentially subsidizing attendance with bookseller bonuses, scholarships, and reimbursements the last few years made me not surprised this happened.”
Frazer Dobson, sales rep for Algonquin Publishing and co-owner of Park Road Books, Charlotte, N.C. has seen BookExpo from both sides of the business. “I am a rep now but was a bookseller from 1993 to 2008. I also co-own a bookstore with my wife. She and I went to BEA several times when we both worked in the store,” he said. “It was overwhelming but there used to be some good stuff too. I’ve always said that every bookseller should go to BEA once...and only once. I went as a rep for a number of years and really didn’t like it. The number of actual booksellers declined year after year, so my role in the booth was mostly to answer questions and keep people from stealing books and tote bags. Don’t think I ever wrote a single order there, which I have at the SIBA show, so I like that a lot more, plus, I met my wife there! I loved Winter Institute when I went as a bookseller, in its early days, but never went as a rep I won’t miss BEA, even though I haven’t been in years.
Victoria Haid, events manager at Bradley’s Book Outlet in DuBois, Pa., pointed out that going to Winter Institute or the regional events is not always an option for every bookseller. “I always looked forward to going yearly,” she said. I am saddened by this. I understand cancelling due to COVID-19. But for small indie bookstores, going to BookExpo is a great way to stay on top of upcoming titles, buy remainders, and making new publisher connections. I was never able to attend regional or winter [shows]. It was more reasonable for me to go to BookExpo due to the time of year and accessibility to much more items of interest.” She added, that she felt the show was catering to too many non-booksellers, particularly bloggers.
Ellen Burns, owner of Books on the Common in Ridgefield, Conn., concurred. “I will miss BEA. It’s just a one-hour train ride for us to NYC, so we’ve gone every year since we bought our store in 2004. We loved the author breakfasts, the ABA Awards luncheon, and seeing some of our reps in person—especially the phone reps. There were too many non-booksellers there in the past 5+ years, but I figured that was what they needed to do to keep it going.”
Others pointed out that once Reed eliminated specific education sessions for booksellers, the show became less useful, while others noted that in the effort to expand the audience, publishers began putting out fewer galleys and real books, because there seemed to be a new crowd that would try and grab "anything that wasn't nailed down," said one bookseller, who added, "then they go into the bathroom or outside and start posting them for sale online."
Still, with the announcement, many booksellers are hoping Reed will find a way to reimagine the event. Luisa Smith the adult book buyer at Book Passage in San Francisco and Corte Madera, Calif., said, "I am actually thrilled! Hopefully this means we can reinvent the Expo so that it works for booksellers again."