The news that BookExpo, BookCon, and Unbound will not take place in 2021 and that show organizer ReedPop is looking at ways to reinvent the meeting did not come as a surprise to publishers and distributors—or to booksellers. ReedPop, a unit of Reed Exhibitions, had been trying for a number of years to develop a show that would meet the various needs of the book world, but found only limited success. Most book business insiders contacted by PW expressed little interest in returning to the same version of BookExpo, but nearly all hoped some type of annual event could be created.
Among the criticisms of the old BookExpo was that it was too expensive and had lost its way in trying to be all things to all people. “For many years, BookExpo has been searching for its identity,” said Jon Malinowski, president of Combined Book Exhibit/American Book Collective and annually one of BE’s largest exhibitors. Unlike the major European book fairs in London, Frankfurt, and Bologna, Malinowski added, which are clearly rights shows, the show's purpose in latter years felt unclear. “Many in publishing have asked, ‘What kind of show is BookExpo?’ I’ve always viewed it as a show for the ‘business of publishing,’ which encompasses more than just a single sector of the industry.”
The idea of returning to a more business-to-business event had appeal to many. Cindy Raiton, president of sales for Bookazine, said the wholesaler finds the fall regional trade shows, which have fewer distractions than BookExpo, more productive. “You get things accomplished,” she said. “We’re there to do business.
Jed Lyons, president of distributor NBN and publisher Rowman & Littlefield, also argued for a more back-to-basics approach. Lyons favors limiting any new show to publishers, booksellers, librarians, wholesalers, and accounts, while keeping the public out. He would like to see the show move to a less expensive area of the country than New York, and for any new event to build in more chances to network and intermingle, “as we did at BookExpo America lo these many years ago.”
The opportunity to meet people from all sectors of the industry was an important pull for going to BookExpo for many. “I will definitely miss BookExpo, because for Agate, as a publisher based almost a thousand miles from Manhattan, it was our best annual opportunity to see so many people we do business with in one concentrated gathering—not just people based in New York City, but people from across the country and around the world, from every corner of our industry,” said Doug Seibold, president of Evanston, Ill.–based Agate Publishing. “It was expensive, yes, but definitely worth it in terms of the range of people we were able to see, in one fell swoop, over that three or four day period. I thought that was great value, especially over this past decade—it remained the big gathering of our publishing industry tribe. However it comes back, I hope it figures out a way to continue attracting people from across every aspect of U.S. publishing."
Two of the biggest industry players, Ingram and Penguin Random House, expressed support for a reimagined industry event. “BEA has been an important part of relationship development and industry connection for Ingram Content Group over the years,” said an Ingram spokesperson. “We are certainly sad to see the retirement of BookExpo, but know that our industry will find new ways for our colleagues to come together—perhaps in ways that haven’t even yet been imagined.”
PRH worldwide CEO Markus Dohle said that one of the many disappointments of 2020 was not having an event that brought together booksellers, authors, and publishers and he hopes the publishing world can find a way to get together in the future. “In this virtual world, Penguin Random House is continuously investing in innovative ways to connect our community members with one another, and we look forward to working with our industry partners to explore a newly imagined event where we all can come together to celebrate books and their essential role in our society and culture.”
Sourcebooks publisher Dominique Raccah said that BookExpo had played an important part in establishing her independent publishing house. “The very first New York Times bestseller we had was a book largely made at BookExpo. Sourcebooks would not be where it is today without BookExpo,” she said. But like many others, Raccah said it was time to move on. “This moment offers the opportunity for someone to imagine conferences or events that better align with the strides the industry is working on to be more inclusive and connected with culture at large, and to fuel energized discovery of exciting books in a way that the conference of old once did," she said.
Meanwhile, one cohort sad to see BookExpo go: librarians. Over the years, librarians had to fight for a place at a show that initially catered to booksellers. And librarians are one segment of BookExpo’s audience that was actually growing in recent years—so much so that this year’s BookExpo virtual event kicked off with a day of programming dedicated to the library market.
“What I learned years from attending BEA, going way back to the 1980s—when it was ABA— was the power of the library market,” says PW contributing editor Brian Kenney, now director of the White Plains (NY) Public Library. “Attending BEA as a librarian was once treated like a political act and we weren't always greeted with open arms—sometimes quite the opposite.”
Like many librarians on social media this week, Kenney recalled the pivotal role played by Barbara Genco, then the manager of collections at the Brooklyn Public Library, who pushed publishers to welcome librarians to the show with a simple, powerful message: libraries spend millions of dollars on books every year, with no returns.
In a 2018 column for PW, former ALA president Sari Feldman said being a librarian being at BookExpo was like being a kid in a candy store. “Over the years, my personal BookExpo highlights have included riding the elevator with Barbara Kingsolver, a quick conversation with Nick Hornby, and a great moment with Maurice Sendak and Tony Kushner, who were together signing prints from their Brundibar picture book.” Feldman said BookExpo has over the years helped drive home the importance of the library-publisher partnership and key role libraries play in "building readership and enthusiasm for books."
“What will I miss from BEA? Taking in the sheer breadth of publishing, and discovering niche companies publishing for specific communities or in languages other than English. Time and again I stumbled upon publishers whose books I desperately needed in my library, but would never have discovered without BEA,” Kenney told PW. “I will also miss the opportunity to discover new titles. I loved how librarians would fan across the floor, ferreting out the most interesting new titles and then sharing them at shout-and-share events. They were always dead right! Publishers certainly pitch plenty to librarians these days, typically through webinars, but nothing beats the comradery of the library community for unbiased book tips.”
This article has been updated