The first ABA convention I attended was in 1980 in Chicago, and at that show—and in all the others I’ve attended since then—people always found something to complain about. In my early years, the convention was four days over the Memorial Day weekend, and, needless to say, the most common complaints were that the show was too long, and, “Why does it need to be held over Memorial Day weekend?!” (Answer: when the show was started by the American Booksellers Association in 1947, many stores were closed for the holiday weekend.) Years later, when Reed tried to shoehorn it into two days, people griped that it was too short.
When the ABA owned and ran the show, up until 1994–’95, booth location was a hotly contested issue. It was such a source of friction that one year, executive director Bernie Rath asked me to attend a meeting as a neutral observer to vouch that the booth drawing was on the up-and-up.
At one point, the size of booths became the subject of much debate, as the major houses engaged in an arms race to see who could build the biggest. The brief period culminated in the creation of what many termed “Randomland,” a huge exhibit that featured all of Random House’s imprints, which were then under the control of Alberto Vitale. Cooler heads eventually prevailed and those large booths became much smaller, as most large houses augmented their booths with private rooms on the show floor.
The name of the show went through several changes, morphing from the ABA Convention and Trade Show to BookExpo America shortly after Reed bought it, to just BookExpo in 2016, when Reed execs felt that shortening the name of the fair would expand its geographic appeal.
Where to hold the show was another source of irritation. For many years it moved to different cities, and in its heyday, it was so big that only a few cities had conference centers large enough to accommodate the crowds. But eventually people became tired of the travel, and publishing executives argued that they could save money if the show was held in the same city every year, which would allow them to use the same booths (with a few tweaks) at subsequent shows. So show organizers picked the convention-friendly town of Chicago.
After four happy years there starting in 1995, the industry consensus was that going to the City of Big Shoulders every year was boring, so BEA went back on the road with talk of implementing a rotation of Chicago–West Coast city–East Coast city. After a 10-year effort of shuttling between cities and a rather disastrous Los Angeles event in 2008, BEA arrived in the Big Apple for what would be its last stand. The big New York trade houses, which were by then footing most of the BEA bill, were happy to have the show in their backyard, where they could save money on T&E (well, maybe not that much savings on E), but many out-of-towners complained that the cost of attending a New York show was too high.
BEA was also dogged by complaints about attendance. While most of the complaints took the position that there were not enough booksellers and librarians at the show, others thought there were too many people there who didn’t belong, such as bloggers and would-be authors. And I think it was after my fifth show that I began hearing what is now the familiar refrain from publishers, “We don’t write orders anymore.”
So now, will people complain enough that the show will come back in some form? I hope that they do, and I hope the powers that be can agree on an event that works for everyone so that the world’s largest book market won’t be left without a place to come together. BookExpo was never perfect, but I am reminded of the Joni Mitchell lyric, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” BookExpo was never paradise, but it was better than a parking lot.