Another May has come and gone without BookExpo or any other in-person, industrywide spring show taking its place. As the pandemic eases, more and more publishing and publishing-related conferences, meetings, and fairs are moving from online-only events to either in-person or hybrid affairs. That has raised the question of whether there’s any interest in seeing a new national in-person trade show emerge that could gather the various segments of the book industry together in 2023. Interviews with a myriad of publishers, booksellers, and other publishing players yielded only one consensus: if a new show is to be developed, it should not look like the retired BookExpo. Indeed, no one wants a new show whose business model would rely on exhibitors taking out large, expensive booths.
In the absence of in-person shows, publishers have turned to various digital initiatives to reach their trade partners—particularly independent booksellers. Macmillan said that from June 13 to 17 it will be holding the Macmillan Fall into Summer Reading campaign, a weeklong virtual preview of upcoming titles being published in June through December. A handful of online conferences also sprung up to fill the void left by BookExpo’s demise, including the PW-produced U.S. Book Show. (PW has announced plans for a third U.S. Book Show, currently set for May 23–25, 2023.)
The success of their virtual ventures—augmented by their attendance at smaller in-person events, especially those held by the regional bookseller associations plus ABA’s Winter Institute—seems to have convinced the biggest companies that they can efficiently reach the audiences they need via Zoom and other online services. As one major publisher observed, “The opportunities for account-facing engagements is just not as urgent or productive as pre-Zoom times.” All the biggest companies made it clear that their participation in a national in-person conference would be limited.
Smaller and independent publishers were more interested in a national event, but only if the show underwent a complete makeover from BookExpo in its final years. Booksellers were generally the most enthusiastic about a national event. Many said creating a broader version of Winter Institute, but one that would be held in the summer, would be an attractive prospect. That timing, however, poses one of a number of conflicts any new show operator would need to overcome: while booksellers prefer a summer event, publishers generally favored an early spring trade show.
Another point of disagreement is where the show should be located. Some booksellers said New York City, despite its high cost, is a draw. Since the trade publishing world is centered in New York, it makes the most sense to have it there, noted Pamela Klinger-Horn, special events coordinator at Valley Bookseller in Stillwater, Minn. “BookExpo was the only time during the year when I could see my contacts from every house, every imprint, and most staff members,” she explained. “As fabulous as Winter Institute is, not everyone can be there.”
John Evans, co-owner of Los Angeles’s Diesel Bookstore, said he and his partner, Alison Reid, have discussed what a new show should look like since BookExpo’s demise. He envisions a “Summer Institute kind of thing” that features some education, but is mostly editor, author, and publisher focused and is only for booksellers. Evans would like to see the show move around the country and possibly be attached to a regional show.
Evans was not the only one to suggest that a national show be conducted with another event. IPG CEO Joe Matthews said he has long thought that a national show could be held in conjunction with annual events hosted by such organizations as IBPA, PubWest, ECPA, or the Book Manufacturers Institute. And Matthews has a firm idea of what he would like to see a new show feature: slots to meet with the industry’s big players like Amazon, Ingram, and Barnes & Noble to conduct business reviews. “It would be very cost- and time-efficient for them to meet all of their suppliers, and great for me to knock out all those meetings in a week,” he noted.
Lindsay Matvick, publicity manager at Lerner Publishing Group, also endorsed the idea of a show that could be connected to another organization—in Matvick’s opinion, ABA. “Over the past few months we have started attending live library shows, and we feel the absence of a live show aimed at the trade market,” she added. “Virtual shows are nice in certain situations, but the enthusiasm and energy of live, in-person shows cannot be replaced.”
A number of other independent publishers spoke of the strengths and weaknesses of BookExpo. Milkweed Editions publisher Daniel Slager captured the sentiment of many independents when he said he had “complicated feelings” about a national trade show. He explained that Milkweed had stopped exhibiting at BookExpo because, at Milkweed’s size, it became hard to have an impact there. Milkweed has become more invested in Winter Institute, Slager noted, not only to meet indie booksellers but also because “it’s been a great place for us to go and be heard.”
Still, there are some things that Slager misses about what BookExpo “used to be,” such as its industry panels, networking opportunities, and media coverage. “Winter Institute is not a media show; it really is just for publishers and booksellers,” he said, whereas “BookExpo would always get media coverage outside of the trade.”
Chronicle Books stopped exhibiting at BookExpo a few years ago, and for many of the same reasons as Milkweed. “We weren’t getting enough new eyes on our publishing for the endeavor it commanded,” said Tyrrell Mahoney, CEO of Chronicle, adding that she felt the show had begun to feel “very insider industry.” By comparison, she noted, the annual ALA conference is easy to exhibit at and features the type of authors who can draw crowds to Chronicle’s booth. In addition to the ALA conference, Chronicle still exhibits at a number of regional and national shows.
Attending shows, Mahoney said, gives the publisher the chance to showcase its brand and “feature who we are. It’s one of the few times we can put all our books together.” And for that reason, she noted, she wouldn’t say a definitive no to a new trade fair. “I’d have to think about what’s been lost over this time frame. I’d say we’d never show at the scale we once did, however—that doesn’t make sense anymore.”
Valerie Pierce, director of marketing, retail, and creative services at Sourcebooks, ticked off a host of reasons why she favors a spring show: “It allows us to come together as a publishing community, it provides authors with opportunities to talk to the people who are buying and selling their books, it gives authors and publishing staff a chance to engage in sessions where they can learn about new ideas that can help shape the business, and it creates a platform to launch really big fall books.”
The other big benefit of an industrywide show, Pierce said, is that it creates the opportunity for unexpected deals. “Our partnership with America’s Test Kitchen came about because of BookExpo,” she added.
Pierce would like to see a show that combines the Winter Institute model “with the best of BookExpo sprinkled in,” naming such features as Buzz Book sessions; publisher-bookseller meet-and-greets; rep, editorial, and publicity speed dating; author keynotes; and author receptions.
Dominique Raccah, founder and CEO of Sourcebooks, agreed that attending BookExpo helped Sourcebooks get its start. “The opportunity to meet our customers, to develop relationships with new customers, and to work to grow the business together is exciting and essential to a vibrant and thriving book ecosystem,” she said.
Raccah believes a national event should be a key cultural initiative for the industry, and a number of others wondered why the world’s biggest book market did not have its own trade show. IPG’s Matthews said the lack of an industrywide event prevents publishing’s heavy hitters from getting together. ”We have no national show that brings out heads of houses and CEOs the way London, Bologna, and Frankfurt do,” he noted.
As president of the Combined Book Exhibit, which organizes the USA Pavilion at several international events, Jon Malinowski is frequently in touch with foreign publishers and publisher associations. “The one comment we hear repeatedly is that the U.S. should have a professional book fair for the business of publishing, and it would not only include rights sales but both retail and online sales, distribution opportunities, digital initiatives, and other items,” Malinowski said. “They want a place where they can network, exchange ideas, and find new business opportunities.”
Networking and schmoozing was also on the minds of many other former BookExpo attendees. Nina Barrett of Bookends & Beginnings bookstore in Evanston, Ill., said dinners and parties shouldn’t be overlooked. “This is a people business,” Barrett said, “and if we don’t have these social opportunities to hang out with our peers and also to hang out with publishing people and the authors, the whole business becomes a different animal—almost like a world where you do all your book buying online from an impersonal website.”
In spite of the value industry members saw in the networking opportunities provided by BookExpo, it seems unlikely that a new national in-person trade show will emerge in 2023. One industry insider captured the quandary any company or organization aspiring to start a new trade show would face: an industrywide show isn’t feasible, she said, because “the big boys don’t care and the small presses that need it more cannot afford it.”