Many of the same challenges that turned 2009 into a transitional year for BookExpo America—declining ABA membership, a down economy and cost-consciousness on the part of both booksellers and exhibitors—are playing havoc with the approaching fall regional trade shows. Unlike the ABA, however, the fate of the regionals is more closely tied to the success of their shows, which, along with holiday catalogues, is their leading source of revenue.

Fewer booths and smaller exhibits, as well as fewer authors—all of which are paid for by publishers—could affect more than just show profits. They could also cut into some associations' ability to pay staff and conduct educational activities throughout the year. But will the changes that regionals are implementing at this year's shows be enough? Should regionals forgo exhibits and be more education-driven, like the ABA's Winter Institute? Or is the regional trade show just too broken?

Each of the nine shows is scaling back in some way this year: the New England Independent Booksellers Association, for example, is now small enough to move to Hartford for the first time and will fit into a ballroom. The Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association, after last year's hiatus in Colorado Springs, is returning to Denver, but to an airport hotel. The Southern California Independent Booksellers Association is looking to trim its exhibits, even though the entire show lasts only one day, while last year, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association cut its exhibit space by more than half, to 14,500 square feet, and barely sold out. Now, with that show a month away, executive director Thom Chambliss isn't sure he will sell out the smaller venue.

Certainly the fact that the independent channel accounted for only 7% of book sales in 2008, according to Bowker's PubTrack service (down from an Ipsos BookTrends report of 16% in 2003) contributes to the decline in exhibitors. But that's not the whole picture. “Exhibits aren't as essential a component as they used to be,” says Steve Fischer, executive director of NEIBA. “Publisher consolidation has meant a smaller footprint. Increasingly, the fall show is about education, connections and support.” At the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, “There's no question that the exhibit piece has shrunk. We're not losing exhibitors per se,” says executive director Hut Landon, “but the amount of space. [Publishers think] make it a little smaller, pay a little less.”

To accommodate these changes, some regionals, like the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, have significantly revamped their shows in recent years, and NAIBA is testing a new model at this year's show. As Jim Dana, executive director of the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association, sees it, problems with the regional shows reflect other issues in the book business. “This is a transitional year for the book industry as a whole,” Dana says. “Things have been so bad in publishing and in the book business that everyone's looking for ways to spend less and sell more. It's created a sense of uncertainty throughout the business.”

That's not to say that in some cases, bookseller attendance won't be up this year, although it will likely never reach pre-9/11 highs again. With BEA ensconced in New York City for a while, NCIBA's Landon anticipates that his show will benefit. For Wanda Jewell, executive director of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, this year's move to Greenville, S.C., which is more centrally located than Mobile, the site of last year's show, should definitely help. “There is no doubt that industry professionals are eager to get together and share and learn from one another. And there is no better way in the South to do this than through the SIBA show,” Jewell says.

Nor does down attendance necessarily reflect a lack of enthusiasm on the part of booksellers. Susan Walker, executive director of MBA, solicited comments like this from area booksellers to persuade publishers to exhibit: “For me, the trade show is an opportunity to meet face-to-face with the reps I deal with by e-mail and on the phone the rest of the year,” comments Sally Wizik Wills of Sister Wolf Books and Beagle Books in Park Rapids, Minn.

“I ask myself, and our board asks: what would our region look like if there were no show? And we can't imagine that. There is a sense of community that people value and want to retain,” says GLIBA's Dana. Just as important, for some, the trade show is synched to holiday buying. “This is bookselling's biggest season,” says NAIBA executive director Eileen Dengler, who begs publishers to focus on the fall, not winter/spring titles. “Help us promote the books that are in our stores now.”

Exhibitor Support

Wholesalers and commission reps continue to provide the regionals' financial backbone. “We made a conscious decision to have a greater presence at the regionals,” says Kathleen Willoughby, v-p of marketing and online development for Bookazine, which will have booths at NEIBA, NAIBA, SIBA and GLIBA this year. “We increased our presence two years ago, when we started supporting the Buy Local movements.”

“The regional shows are very important to us,” notes Christopher Kerr, owner of Parson Weems. “They're really one of the few places where you can see a lot of booksellers. They're even more important now that the national trade show is a colossal failure [for us]. We had very few people who came, even though it's in our territory. The regionals are much more relaxed, much more casual and fun than BookExpo. I still think that this is a face-to-face business. You can have these surrogates like e-mail and Twitter, but it's a relationship business.”

Chip Mercer of Southeastern Book Travelers agrees. “Attending SIBA,” he says, “is like having Christmas dinner at your momma's house. You would definitely be noticed by your absence.” Still, he can see a time when he will no longer attend. “Most of the publishers supporting us have taken half the space they took in prior years,” he says. “If this trend continues, it will impact our presence.”

All the major houses will be represented at the regionals this year, but with a lot less stuff. “We're still sending a healthy amount of ARCs,” says Ruth Liebmann, v-p, director, of retail field marketing and merchandising at Random House, who is also bringing fewer catalogues. She's also sending fewer finished books, because, she says, “so many booksellers are telling us they are cutting back on initials and waiting to reorder until closer to the holidays.”

Simon & Schuster may cut back on giveaways, but it plans to continue providing tote bags to all nine regionals, a promotion begun last year. It will donate 140 red Simon/IndieBound bags to each, with two releases from its Atria imprint. “We had such a good response last year that Judith Curr [executive v-p and publisher of Atria Books] had this in her plans from the get-go,” says Wendy Sheanin, director of marketing, adult publishing group.

Although it may not be readily apparent when marquee authors like Nick Hornby, Neil Gaiman and Elizabeth Kostova are slated to appear at many of the shows, publishers have cut back there, too. “We have 65 authors going to the shows, down from 100 last fall,” acknowledges Carl Lennertz, v-p of indie retailing at HarperCollins. “But we went for more speaking slots and fewer one-hour signings.” While Harper is not reducing its booth size, other New York houses are. Random House, for one, is removing its display tables and experimenting with replacing them with round meeting tables and more chairs to foster conversations with booksellers.

With all these publisher cutbacks, some regionals could come up short financially. NEIBA and PNBA are among those regionals yet to reserve space for next year's shows. More importantly, the shows are key to the long-term survival of the regionals. “We are 93% dependent on publishing income,” says PNBA's Chambliss, who told his board back in January to expect to lose somewhere between $100,000 and $125,000 this year. “If we just continue to tweak our shows and our catalogues, we'll be out of business in three or four years. We need to get away from exhibits and find another source of income.” For him, that could be a new PNBA Web site that sells books—a project currently under development.

Although some regionals have long had librarians as associate members, few are actively going after librarians or teachers to bolster attendance this year. SCIBA is adding educational seminars geared to both groups, including one on programming partnerships with bookstores and public libraries. MBA gives members the option to bring their favorite librarian or teacher. But, notes Walker, “No matter what we do with librarians, the focus is on booksellers.”

That the regionals have been trimming their trade shows for several years is not new, but perhaps there's a better way to measure success than orders or attendance. “The amount of order writing at the show is pretty limited these days,” says Kerr. GLIBA board member Roy Schonfeld, a commission rep with Abraham Associates, has also watched orders decline at the shows. “At least at the GLiBA show,” he says, “we have been taking enough to cover some of our costs. We consider it a success if we can break out a few of our titles in the booth.”

The real key could be both education and the face-to-face time that booksellers and publishers so clearly want. “If booksellers attend the shows in full force, and if the show floors are full of energy, the shows will continue to serve an important purpose,” says Random House's Liebmann, adding, “We think educational programming is the beating heart of every show.”