Despite low turnout, seminars made for lively discussion of industry issues

The Literary Congress held its second meeting ever, in Ph nix, Ariz., the weekend of January 16-18. It was a mixed affair, with the attendance of 400, less than last year's 600 at the inaugural meeting in Nashville, Tenn.The trade-show floor suffered the most from the low attendance. Traffic was very slow, and many exhibitors expressed dissatisfaction. As one said, "This year is slower than last year, and last year I was saying, `Would you rather be here or at the dentist?' " He indicated he would not exhibit next year.

Exhibitors included wholesalers Baker &Taylor, Booksource and Partners, the National Association of Independent Publishers Representatives, the Book Industry Study Group, Brodart, Dover Publications, ForeWord magazine, DC Comics, Random House Value Publishing, Soundprints, Mountaineers Books, Running Press/Courage Promotional Books and Thomas Nelson. In addition, members of PROSE (the Promotional Remainder Overstock Sideline Expo) exhibited remainder books.

Some major exhibitors that were at last year's show -- including Time Warner and St. Martin's -- did not return.

On the other hand, the low attendance helped make many of the workshops the lively forums for exchanges of information and opinions that show organizer and managing director Eileen Dengler had envisioned for the Literary Congress.

Pat Holt, the former San Francisco Chronicle book editor who now writes the e-mail newsletter Holt Uncensored, and Andy Ross, owner of Cody's Books, Berkeley, Calif., gave the keynote address, speaking about the "good fight," or what Holt called the "sacred," endangered role of independent booksellers in creating a bridge between authors and readers. She decried the growth of conglomerates in all realms of the book business, saying, "When decisions about anything in the United States, especially in literature, are concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, we're in trouble."

Holt made some specific recommendations for bookstores: they should "make friends" with local media representatives; "exploit the coming chain-store backlash"; create ties with various potential allies, including other retailers, grants groups, arts groups and politicians; "enlist author support"; get on the Web and send out e-mail press releases; use promotions to encourage customers to use the store's Web site; and offer "readers' club-like discounts."

In his remarks, Ross said, "I'm pessimistic. But we create our own history. The chain story is not inexorable." He argued that "e-commerce is severely damaging to communities and infrastructures" because companies like do not pay taxes or provide employment in the vast majority of places they do business. He also mocked Wall Street's and the media's fascination with Amazon, saying that the online bookseller is "not doing a lot that's new. Their company is a database with a warehouse attached to the stock market." Referring to Amazon's continuing losses, Ross joked that he did "better than Amazon last year -- I just about broke even."

Several audience members suggested, however, that, Barnes &Noble and Borders are "offering something that the public wants," and that booksellers ought to tone down the rhetoric and "ask what it is in the mindset of customers that draws them" to those companies.

Although recognizing that the task is daunting, Dick Harte of BookSite discussed reasons booksellers should compete online. He noted that's sales will soon exceed sales of all independents; Amazon's cost of doing business is 115% of sales, compared to 95% for traditional booksellers, with Amazon's extra 20 cents per sales dollar going to "advertising, discounting and ensuring top quality"; and Amazon has an economy of scale that gives it a great advantage. Still, he emphasized, "If we don't compete with Amazon, they will win and will win without any competition."

Three speakers at a panel on wholesaling emphasized the changing nature of the book business and the importance of exploiting niches. Sandy Jaffe of the Booksource said, "Each person or company needs to find its market and figure out how best to reach it. Everyone has some expertise." Sam Speigel of Partners Book Distributing said that his company considered its specialty regional and small publishers. "We do a little wholesaling, distribution and publishing," he continued. "We have found niches."

Bill Preston of Baker &Taylor discussed the company's services and pointed out the value of TitleSource, the database that has some 2.2 million entries, 500,000 annotations, more than 50,000 tables of contents and book reviews.Commenting on this year's Literary Congress, Dengler, the onetime convention manager of the ABA, said, "The structure is great. We just have to get more people to come. We have to pump up the volume." She noted, too, that the changed date for the show -- it was originally to be held in February or March-"threw some people off."

Kerry Smith of Intertec, which funds the Literary Congress, said that the show "may break even" this year. The Literary Congress is scheduled to meet in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., February 3-6, 2000.