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BEA '98: Quiet, But On Its Way Back
J. Baker, with D. Roback, J. Milliot, &-- 6/8/98
Exhibitors stress quality, rather than number, of encounters; many foreigners, most majors return
Publishers and booksellers returned to work last week after a BookExpo America show in Chicago, May 30-June 1, that some found profitable, many found too quiet and low key, but all found pleasant and smoothly run.

BookExpo's attendance indicated the beginnings of a return to participation by many of the big publishers that have shunned the show in recent years, though some limited theur showing to meetings on the edge of the floor, and the mammoth stands of yesteryear were remarkable for their absence. The all-important blue badges, representing the nation's dwindling number of independent booksellers, seemed fewer than in previous years, probably reflecting the decline of independent bookstores, but at press time, figures giving any kind of breakdown of attendance were still not available. Show officials blamed the delay on a new vendor's technical problems in classifying show visitors consistently, as well as the strict requirements for accurate show reporting recently imposed by parent company Reed on Association Exhibitions &Services (AES), which runs the show. Final comparative figures are not expected for at least another week, according to AES.

So the bookseller presence had to be assessed subjectively, and the wide aisles and spacious layout of McCormick Center's colossal South Hall proved a difficult setting for creating crowd scenes. One exhibitor who ran his own objective count -- using a clicker to record each bookseller visit to his booth -- was Bob Adams, head of Adams Media Co. By noon on Monday he said he had clocked 115, and figured he would end up with 130; this compared with 160 booksellers who stopped by in 1997. At the big Ingram booth, demonstrating its new I-Page Web database, Jim Chandler said the scene was extremely busy on both Saturday and Sunday; and Baker &Taylor's Jim Ulsamer, whose company was showcasing its similar Title Source II, said that after a slow start the first day, traffic had "picked up steadily."

Several publishers PW spoke to mentioned the quality rather than the quantity of their bookseller encounters. Deb Burns of Merriam-Webster said there was "a lot of good talking and a lot of good business going on," and Houghton Mifflin's Wendy Strothman reported plenty of "the sort of thoughtful talks I like" with bookseller visitors. "They seem to have more time," she added. Steve Garvan of Garvan Marketing agreed, saying he had been having "quality conversations," and that "you don't feel as rushed as you did several years ago." It seemed clear that in the present climate, increases in future bookseller numbers are unlikely.

There was general agreement that participation by foreign publishers, agents and scouts, which reached a nadir last year, was again on the upswing. The agents' center, doubled in size from last year, was full, with most tables bought in advance by agents doing business; last year it was virtually empty most of the time. There was a strikingly large representation of press (preregistration of journalists was double what it was last year), presumably reflecting the much more newsworthy roster of authors. Among the stars to be seen at breakfasts and signings were Sophia Loren, Charlton Heston, Peter Jennings, George Stephanopoulos, Nelson DeMille, Alice Walker, and Tom Wolfe.

Courtney Muller, AES industry v-p who managed the show, commented at its conclusion to PW: "I couldn't be happier that the show seemed to go well as it did for the various constituencies who attended. I was especially pleased that everyone arrived in Chicago with such an upbeat and positive attitude."

An important factor in making the show work better than last year's rather downbeat occasion was, of course, the return of many of the big houses that had stayed away, some for the past several years. Typical of the big-publisher returnees last week was Random House, whose huge block-long exhibit of yore was reduced to a small island booth with four tables; the company offered none of the lavish parties for which it was once famous. Executive v-p Bruce Harris said that while there weren't many booksellers, "the ones that are here are choice." He noted that Random was promoting now only its fall line but also emphasizing books recently published. Other returnees, such as the Hearst Group, were taking a similar tack, with new Morrow publisher Michael Murphy using BEA as a base to launch a series of selling get-togethers with major indie accounts, while Penguin Putnam, also in an edge-of-floor meeting "tent," was stressing foreign-rights sales. Bantam Doubleday Dell had a fair-sized floor exhibit, though nothing on the scale of previous shows. St. Martin's, back on a small scale after seven years away, was "very pleased with the traffic," said sales director Alison Lazarus.

The fact that next year's show will provide a welcome change of location, to Los Angeles, seems certain to cement the continuing attendance of the majors and perhaps to persuade a remaining few holdouts, like Hyperion, to return; it's also likely to further increase foreign-rights activity, as the West Coast is a favorite destination for overseas visitors. The very early date for the show, however -- it will be a full month earlier than usual, April 20-May 2 -- prompted considerable anxiety among some publishers as to whether they could be ready in time. Warner's Maureen Egen said: "we wil have to re-do a lot of our schedules, and it's around our sales conference time." Laurie Brown, v-p of marketing at Farrar, Straus &Giroux, said, "We hate that date. We won't be able to have as much material as we'd like, and it comes at a time when we're already running as fast as we can." But HarperCollins' Ginger Curwen said that "the timing is a little early, but not terrible. It could give the convention what it used to have, back when the fall list would be unveiled there." And Simon &Schuster's Jack Romanos found that "the timing next year is more in sync with what we need," adding, "I like the idea of moving the show around. Chicago has its limits."

No major squabble marked the 1998 convention, as when the ABA launched its suit against publishers in Los Angeles four years ago, but Barnes &Noble CEO Len Riggio took advantage of the occasion to distribute an "open letter" attacking the ABA's new anti-chain suit. And on another legal front, Bill Kramer, co-owner of Washington's Kramerbooks &Afterwords, said at a BEA press conference that the store intends to appeal a recent court decision allowing special prosecutor Kenneth Starr to proceed with his subp na of the store's records for Monica Lewinsky's purchases there.

The annual ABA business meeting was a quiet affair that sqw the post of ABA president move from Barbara Bonds Thomas to Richard Howarth of Square Books in Oxford, Miss. The only significant new business that came up was a request by Cody Books' Andy Ross that the ABA consider developing its own Internet book database to help indies compete with other online booksellers.

One of the show's big attention-getters was the display of on-demand printing technology. Ingram's Lightning Print operation had a printer near the autographing area that created finished bound books while you waited. The entire process, from blank paper to finished bound book, took no more than a minute. Xerox, whose stand boasted "Point of No Returns," also showed its rapid digital demand printing technology. It was all enough to make one wonder if a conventional book show for conventional publishers and booksellers could last much beyond the millenium.
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