For the past five years publishers have talked about the need to consolidate trade shows—and lower their costs. A struggling economy, the increased power of Amazon, and the erosion of print book sales to e-books have only accelerated calls for change from not only publishers but from some booksellers as well.
In a bid to find savings, yhe Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association were the first to try a merged show. After a joint spring show they’re now making plans for a Heartland event in fall 2012. And the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association and the New England Independent Booksellers Association, which share members in New York State, are talking about holding a joint workshop this coming spring. The two already cooperate on a holiday catalogue with GLIBA. As for the other regionals, change will come. The Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association has to shave $75,000 from next year’s budget, and the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association has been forced to pursue new revenue streams. Currently, it’s testing a Web site for signed and used books, www.buzzaboutbooks.org.
That’s not to say that this year’s regional shows were in any way lacking. All had standout moments, like a bookseller dialogue with Michael Moore just blocks from Occupy Oakland at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association show or a trio of authors in conversation with Cathy Langer, head buyer at Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, Colo., at MIBA’s gathering. But as Deb Leonard, executive director of GLIBA, pointed out, “Everything is on the table. People who want things to be the way they were 20 years ago, that’s really nice. But it’s not going to happen.”
However, merging shows isn’t necessarily the easiest or best solution. Two impediments to attendance that NCIBA executive director Hut Landon foresees if he were to work with the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association are the cost of travel and not enough staff for booksellers to take the time to travel. Right now many bookstores rotate booksellers into and out of shows; few stay all three days. In addition, said Landon, “By having more shows, it gives booksellers in outlying areas a chance to get together with other booksellers. If there were fewer shows, I think that’s a real loss for independents.” Nor would it be feasible for MPIBA or the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance to hold joint shows. Both have large territories, in MPIBA’s case covering 12 states, after absorbing stores from the Mid-South Independent Booksellers Association, which ceased operations in 2005.
Even MIBA and GLIBA, which are a step closer to a joint fall show in MIBA’s territory in 2012 and GLIBA’s in 2013, are moving forward cautiously. According to Chris Livingston, outgoing president of MIBA and owner of the Book Shelf in Winona, Minn., it hasn’t been easy simply trying to get both boards, 18 people in all, to meet and discuss how a merged show would look or the financial split. Now with a smaller task force in place, there are still a number of details to work out, including how to get smaller bookstores to attend. “We’ve agreed to agree,” said Livingston, who is excited about the prospect of a joint show that will offer the best of both regionals. “So many more people to network with, so many more options. It’s a two-year experiment. I truly believe that it’s the model for the future.” One idea that Livingston is promoting to make it easier for people in outlying areas to attend affordably is to have a party bus with stops in Indianapolis and Chicago on the way to the show in Minneapolis. It would have the added advantage of letting the networking begin well before the show and continue the momentum after it ends.
Publishers’ main concern isn’t the number of shows, but getting value from them. “In a time of change we should be looking at everything and responding to the changing needs of the marketplace,” said Wendy Sheanin, director of marketing for the Adult Publishing Group at Simon & Schuster. “So while combining shows might be the best plan for the next few years, further down the road having nine separate shows might make the most sense.”
S&S used events like the Author Buzz Lunch at NCIBA and bookseller dinners there and at GLIBA and MIBA to build enthusiasm for Carol Anshaw’s spring novel Carry the One. “We had great success with this strategy when we published Chris Cleave’s Little Bee,” noted Sheanin. “For the right book, the regionals can really make a difference.”
“It all comes down to building buzz by helping to create a connection between a book and a reader, to having conversations that help position our titles so that we can set them up for the best sell-through,” says Jeanette Zwart, v-p, sales, at HarperCollins. “While we’re always evaluating how we allocate our resources, regional trade shows continue to be a way to showcase and build an author.”
For Ken Holland, v-p, director of field sales, at Macmillan, there is no magic number. “When the regionals combine solvency, a viable threshold of bookseller attendance, and a location that doesn’t preclude an unacceptable number of booksellers from attending, that is the number of regionals we will willingly support,” he explained. After participating in launch meetings for books that will pub through fall 2012, he noted that a number of Macmillan authors have already been earmarked to attend next year’s fall conferences. The value of the regionals for Holland is “face time for pitching books, strengthening relationships, making new relations, and personally putting galleys into the hands of the right booksellers.”
Alan Smagler, v-p of sales for Scholastic Trade, agreed that the importance of regionals lies in the ability of publishers, authors, and booksellers to network—to exchanges ideas about books, the marketplace, what works, and what needs improving—and for authors to meet booksellers and librarians. “It is no coincidence,” he said, “that these mutually beneficial experiences often translate not only to big buzz for participating authors but also to elevated sales of their titles.”
Nor do publishers necessarily want to cut back, although Sheanin suggested limiting exhibits to one day and moving rep presentations to the same day to control costs. At Random House, said Ruth Liebmann, v-p, director of account marketing, “We are not looking to reduce our financial support for the shows. What we’re looking to reduce is the amount of time we spend in a traditional booth-and-display environment. We are supportive of innovative ways to connect books and authors to booksellers.” So much so that Liebmann would like to collaborate with the regionals to create the digital equivalent of holiday-catalogue revenue by having Random House’s digital experts brainstorm with associations on digital marketing strategies.
Smaller publishers, too, value the regionals. “Regional shows offer distributed publishers one of the few opportunities we have to speak directly with booksellers out of our own passion for our books. And I like to think they also offer the chance for a deeper conversation between bookseller, author, and publisher about how to sell a book in a community,” said Tom Hallock, associate publisher at Beacon Press, who promoted Boston-area authors Neil Miller’s Banned in Boston and Kate Whouley’s Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words, at NEIBA. Although the costs of travel and staff time usually force him to limit his shows to NEIBA, Hallock plans to introduce Melanie Hoffert’s debut memoir, Prairie Silence, at next year’s Heartland show.
But even though shows like SCIBA had an increase in attendance, regional shows will only be as successful as the independent sector they serve. With e-books likely to be major gift items this year, indies face the prospect of more lost sales. “The regionals are only a reflection of booksellers. I think we’re heading into a period of rapid decline,” worries PNBA executive director Thom Chambliss. Even though booksellers value meeting authors and the education sessions at the shows, he wonders, “How much education can you give a store to allow them to become more profitable when you can’t sell books on a level playing field?” Or at a time when, for many independents, open is the new up.