Should there be an international conference for publishing professionals in the United States? It is a question numerous people have asked since the demise of BookExpo in 2020. It’s no secret that the bright-lights-big-city buzz that made BookExpo so much fun and so essential for so many years had fizzled out, and booksellers and publishers alike were finding it of limited value. When BookExpo and BookCon were “retired,” parent company Reed Exhibitions made it clear that it was cutting its losses; the company had previously ended production of the Tokyo International Book Fair and subsequently shut down the Salon du Livre in Paris. Reed continues to run the London Book Fair—but should it remain the primary book publishing conference for the English-speaking world?
The simple answer is no. The U.S. is the biggest English-language publishing market it the world, yet it’s one of the few large countries without an industrywide conference. Book fairs held abroad attract dignitaries and celebrities who help put a spotlight on literature, at least for a few days: the Frankfurt Book Fair routinely hosts prime ministers, presidents, and Nobel Prize winners, and the Queen of Spain is a frequent guest of the Madrid Book Fair.
PW, like some other organizations, has attempted to fill the BookExpo void. After two years as a virtual event, this year’s U.S. Book Show, which runs May 22–25, is a hybrid affair and will have a bit of celebrity glamour, with appearances by Chuck D, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Keegan-Michael Key, among others. Industry panels will examine such topics as diversity and inclusion and the role of literary agents, and authors and editors will discuss next season’s hot titles. The live events will be held May 23 and 24 at New York University’s Kimmel Center.
The desire among industry members to get back together has been apparent in the international fairs and domestic shows that have returned over the past year, and there are many reasons a full-blown U.S. show would work. That begins and ends with the books and the thousands of people who want to connect, buy and sell rights, present their work to retailers and the media, and discuss topics and trends. Yes, booksellers have Winter Institute, Children’s Institute, and the regional trade shows, and librarians have the ALA conferences, but there’s still room for the broader form of networking that is the lubricant of the international book trade at events like the Beijing Book Fair, Bologna Children’s Book Fair, Frankfurt Book Fair, Guadalajara International Book Fair, and Sharjah International Book Fair.
How can a show in the U.S., possibly one in New York City, not be on that list?
New York is home to the largest and most influential English-language publishers in the world and is the engine that drives much of trade publishing. Publishing professionals—be they agents, authors, booksellers, or publishers—like to have an excuse to come to the Big Apple to talk shop. The range of people who favor the idea is broad.
David Unger, author and director of the Publishing Certificate Program at the City University of New York, said it’s “unfortunate” that there’s is no fair in New York. “I personally think that if costs can be kept down, there could be an event that could feature U.S. publishers and international publisher collectives that would appeal to international visitors. Otherwise, since the U.S. is the world’s largest exporter of rights, Americans will still have to journey to Frankfurt, Bologna, London, and elsewhere to sell rights to their customers.”
Robert Morgan, publisher of BookLand Press in Canada, was a regular at BookExpo. “I miss it so much,” he said. “It is absolutely mind-boggling that the U.S., being the largest book market in the world, does not have a national book fair. I would love to see it come back.”
“It’s very weird that the biggest country in the world in terms of publishing doesn’t have a decent international book fair,” echoed Sherif Bakr, general manager of Al Arabi Publishing House in Cairo.
Ricardo Costa, managing director of MVB Brazil, speculated that the U.S. market may be too self-sufficient. “I’ve always missed a book fair in the U.S.,” he said. “Honestly, a few months ago I was thinking, Why is there no professional book fair in the U.S.? Is it that they feel they don’t need to share with anyone? Or are they so self-centered? Or do they believe that they know everything and don’t need professional development, networking, exchange experiences?”
Christa Angelios, copyrights associate at Penguin Random House, attended BookExpo in 2018 and 2019 and said it was one of the few times, as someone in a low-level publishing job, she felt connected to the wider publishing community. She would welcome a U.S. fair, as well. “One of the best things about having a fair in New York City,” she said, “is that, for those of us on the bottom rungs of the New York–centered publishing world, if we can’t travel, we were able to have the world come to us.”
Many people feel that not having a fair is simply further isolating the U.S. industry in a time when the world is coming together. Kumar Vikram, publishing editor of the National Book Trust of India, summarized it best: “I believe more than anybody else it is the publishers, agents, authors, and readers in the U.S.A. itself who lose out in not having a book expo platform to host the diversity their publishing world offers.”