As the international publishing community prepares to gather at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair, the North American publishing industry is evaluating the future direction of the continent's two major trade fairs, BookExpo America and BookExpo Canada. The effectiveness of BEC has been in question for some time, ever since Indigo came to dominate Canadian bookselling, while the examination of BEA began in large part after the Los Angeles show last May, an event that was a disappointment to many publishers, especially the major New York houses.
Publishers have long complained about the cost of attending BEA (and the ABA before that), but with sales flat and costs rising, the payback is again drawing intense scrutiny. Random House spokesperson Stuart Applebaum said that while many of the company's publishers were dissatisfied with the Los Angeles BEA, the company, after much internal deliberation, will have a major presence at the show in New York next year. Alison Lazarus, president of Macmillan's sales division, says that while BEA is a good venue for promoting key titles, escalating costs have prompted the company to take “a hard look” at its convention expenditures. According to Lazarus, Macmillan is assessing the money it spends at BEA compared to the benefits it gains to determine if it should adjust its presence at the 2009 show.
There is widespread agreement—even from BEA and BEC executives—that the shows need to change, but exactly what those changes should be is far from clear. (BEA and BEC are both run by Reed Exhibitions, sister company of PW.) If it's not clear what BEA needs to become, it is evident what BEA is no longer —an order-writing show. “BEA is not a bookseller show any more and the BEA and ABA need to understand that,” says an executive at one of the major houses. While attendance is always highest when BEA is in New York, thanks to the large numbers of local publishing staff who go, the Los Angeles convention, without such a boost, exposed just how few booksellers now attend BEA. “Any time the show moves out of New York, the amount of time and money you put into it seems out of whack with what you get back,” says Michael Jacobs, president of Harry N. Abrams. The lack of booksellers “really hit me hard last year [in Los Angeles],” Jacobs says.
One step the BEA is considering is giving the show a more frequent East Coast presence. The 2009 New York event will be followed with shows in Washington and Las Vegas, but after that no firm sites have been established. New York's high attendance is not just from staff but from international publishers as well. Jon Malinowski, president of the Combined Book Exhibit, says he will take more space in New York in 2009 than in Los Angeles to accommodate a bigger international contingent as well as more independent domestic houses. “I prefer when it is in New York because it's always a good show,” Malinowski says, “and the international people always say they like New York.” Applebaum notes that the New York venue “was the deciding factor” in RH's decision to attend the 2009 show.
Lance Fensterman and Courtney Muller, industry v-p and show manager for BEA, and group v-p, respectively, say they have been doing lots of listening to their customers the last three months and are examining venues and dates after the 2011 show in Las Vegas. “I think it is fair to say we'll have a more consistent East Coast presence,” Fensterman says. A rotation system that would feature New York and possible trips to Washington and Chicago is one possible scenario. That arrangement might be good enough to satisfy the New York houses and publishers outside the immediate region. Mary Ann Sabia, v-p and associate publisher of Charlesbridge Publishing in Watertown, Mass., favors limiting the convention to a few cities, something that would make it unnecessary to “reinvent the show every year.” But being in New York permanently “would be a bad idea. There are publishers west of New York City.” Michael Kerber, president of Red Wheel Weiser Conari, in Newburyport, Mass., says that if New York is to be the primary location for the show, BEA needs to help national publishers with the costs, particularly for hotels. “Hotel rooms are a killer,” he says. (BEA is offering a 5% discount on booth space for all AAP members beginning in 2009.)
One of the publishers farthest west is Jack Jensen, president of San Francisco—based Chronicle Books. For Jensen, the question of geography is superseded by a more central issue. “The BEA has lost much of its newsworthiness,” Jensen maintains. With order-writing mostly a memory, Jensen can live with BEA being a marketing show, but for that the convention needs lots of media attention. “The programming needs to be improved,” Jensen says. “It can't be just book-and-author breakfasts. We need some big voices that will attract the media.” Muller notes that media attendance in Los Angeles topped 1,100 and that the podcasting initiative launched in 2006 generated 196,750 downloads last year. Muller says BEA will continue to develop events that bring media attention. Dick Heffernan, president of adult hardcover sales and marketing for Penguin, says several of its authors received lots of media exposure at the show last year, citing national attention for Alan Greenspan, Khaled Hosseini and Lewis Black.
Improved programming doesn't necessarily mean more programming. One consistent complaint from publishers is that the educational panels are taking booksellers away from the convention floor. Muller says those panels will be scaled back, and BEA has created an advisory board whose tasks will include suggesting better panels and speakers. The exhibition hall could also be improved with a “less is more” strategy, many publishers think. Michael Selleck, executive v-p of sales and marketing at Simon & Schuster, says he would like to see the size of the floor reduced and more serious professionals working the show. Too many attendees at recent conventions “are more interested in getting free books than engaging in conversations about the books,” Selleck says. Muller says BEA is prepared to “take some aggressive action to keep out unwanted attendees.” Under consideration is charging steeply higher prices for marginal book industry members. BEA is also launching a Hosted Buyer Program in 2009, in which leading exhibitors will be asked to provide names of buyers who they would like to see at the show, and BEA will help to underwrite their participation. Fensterman sees that initiative as another step in BEA's mission to create connectivity and more interaction between publishers, booksellers and authors. That would suit Selleck, whose BEA wish list includes a venue that would foster more publisher-author-bookseller-librarian meetings.
But while some publishers want more targeted audiences, others (and in some cases the same ones) would like to see BEA, in the words of Jacobs “broaden the show's constituency.” If that means opening the show to the public, “I think it would be worth a try,” Jacobs says, noting the phenomenal public turnout for New York Comic-Con. Opening the show to the public, however, “is a very polarizing issue,” Muller says. “It would be a disaster,” Sabia says. “There already is enough chaos in New York.” Nevertheless, Fensterman says there will likely be a consumer component in New York next year: it will be separate from the actual convention, but held at the same time, offering publishers the chance to promote authors both to the trade and the public. Applebaum says Random has an “open mind” about the public attending. Such a move could change the complexion of the show, but that is all right with Jacobs. “I'm up for trying something new,” Jacobs says. “Any sort of radical idea should be considered,” agrees Jensen.
What to Do with BEC
The debate over BEC ranges from when the fair should be held to whether it is too expensive to continue to attend. There have been reliable but unconfirmed reports that BEC is looking at continuing both its trade show, currently scheduled for June 21 and June 22, as well as launching a consumer event in the Fall in response to many publishers' desire to see a consumer based event introduced in Toronto. Officials at BEC have confirmed that changes are underway and that an announcement detailing the new configuration of the show will be made in the very near future.
Moving the show to September has supporters and detractors. Firmly against the move is the Canadian Booksellers Association. While Susan Dayus, executive director of the CBA, supports the additional opportunity for booksellers to meet authors and publishers at a fall event, the CBA's position on moving the convention to the fall continues to be that no booksellers would attend an event at that time of year. “For campus [booksellers], they are in fall rush. For independents, they have already purchased their fall books, arranged their author tours and worked with their sales reps on co-op opportunities,” Dayus says. “There would not be the return on investment for booksellers at this time of year.”
Firefly Books head Lionel Koffler says he also sees little return for a fall show and most likely would not attend a September convention. “BEA and BEC are a chance to see our customers before fall season begins. Meeting them for this purpose in September is not useful for us at all. I don't understand that there is any logic to moving a professional book industry show to the end of the wholesale selling season,” Koffler says. Doug Pepper of McClelland & Stewart cites two reasons for his stance against the switch. “First of all, it is a month that is already chock-a-block with publishing events, not to mention Jewish holidays, back to school for those of us who have school-age kids,” he says. “Second, moving the fair doesn't really address its longstanding problems, that of the fair itself and what it's supposed to be and what it is ultimately worth to publishers and authors.”
Kim McArthur, president of McArthur & Co., favors a move to the fall as one step in making BEC more relevant. “The usefulness of BEC in June has passed,” she says. “Gone are the days when we would get all kinds of frontlist or backlist orders from independent booksellers—not enough of them come these days to make it worth the expenditure.” According to McArthur, booksellers who do come to BEC—mainly Toronto-area Indigo/Chapters/Coles managers and staff—are a joy to give galleys to, because she knows they'll read them and meet the authors and hand-sell like crazy. “But,” McArthur adds, “we also know that a show in Toronto in September will pull these same Toronto-area managers, as well as the Indigo managers from across the country. We have already sold the fall list in June to the buyers at Indigo, HDS and Costco—September will be just as useful in terms of promoting our lead titles to the managers at all of our accounts.”
But as McArthur and Pepper mentioned, it's not just the timing of BEC but its cost effectiveness that is in question. For Jamie Broadhurst, v-p of marketing at Raincoast Books, the ideal scenario would be a show that is shorter, far cheaper and happens before the fall and that serves as a forum for industry networking and for meeting with CBA members. Containing costs and using marketing budgets wisely is also at the top of the agenda for some of Canada's largest publishers. According to David Kent, CEO of HarperCollinsCanada, the June BEC in its current and recent setup is not at all cost effective for most publishers. “It's always great to see our booksellers—it's why I've been traveling so much,” says Kent, “but I would rather see the $1 million spent talking to each other [at BEC] used for a marketing campaign to remind consumers of the importance of reading books and the true value—dollar for dollar—of books.”
Tracey Turriff, senior v-p and director of marketing at Random House of Canada, is direct in her firm's assessment of the situation. “We aren't sure a trade fair is a business model that works in our marketplace any longer. We think we need to find ways to engage the reader,” says Turriff. “But we haven't made our decision yet and are waiting to see what Reed proposes for 2009.”
David Davidar of CEO of Penguin Group Canada is a little more guarded, but probably speaks for most players in the industry. “We have participated in many of the discussions about the future of BEC and will support any sensible plan to keep the show viable and focused on the changing needs of the Canadian publishing and book-selling community.”
The big question: is there a sensible plan to be had?