BEA Redux: Why the Show Must be Refashioned

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With BookExpo America at a comfortable distance for reflection, it’s a good time to take a look at “Random BEA Thoughts,” Chad W. Post’s five-part essay on the need for reevaluating the book trade.

With profit margins in the publishing industry at an all-time low, “0-1%,” and the new industry tagline being, “Zero growth is the new ‘We’re doing great,’”  Post makes a compelling argument for change, and makes a concerted effort to give people in the industry tools to tackle the most oft repeated question since the Expo wrapped: Was the show good for you?

While Post notes Lance Fensterman’s, the organizer of the Expo, argument that it’s difficult to quantify the success of the Expo because the point is to “create buzz,” Post feels out the situation, beginning Part I with a comical description of the Expo as a meeting of the members of something that might be called A.D.D.-Anonymous with people scanning your body for a name badge and self-publishers trolling the floor pandering gimmicks. While there are panels for booksellers and industry insiders, and author lunches, the main attraction is the exhibition floor where the old adage ‘bigger is better’ still holds true. Publishers are judged by the size of the booths they rent, if they’re able to afford one at all. Post gives the impression that you may as well be anonymous if you’re not housed in a palatial booth—see “Random House’s postage-stamp sized embarrassment”—or a person, whether reviewer, author, or publisher sporting a name badge of value in the industry.

And one important factor Post mentions is that the Expo is only open to “members of the trade: Reviewers, booksellers, librarians, book manufacturers, authors, etc.” which he also aptly notes, while not impossible to get into, is an event for which you must still prove, for entry, that “you belong.”

Post begins his analysis in Part II with a breakdown of the Expo’s three chief elements: 1) Attendance, 2) Big Books, and 3) Complaints.

The measure for success at the Expo has become “foot traffic on the floor.” According to this criterion, it would seem that Friday was the most successful as it was the most crowded. However, it was crowded with assistant publicists, marketing people and editors, the choice non-purchasing crowd. And with next year’s Expo slated for Wednesday through Friday, this makes for an even grimmer future prognosis. Post shares a rumor that the aisles were squeezed together to give the appearance that publishers were packing it in. And while the Expo used to be essential for bringing together booksellers and smaller publishers, with the advent of the Winter Institute and the increased use of the internet to network, the face-to-face interface might no longer be quite worth the cost.

More than any other factor, claims Post, the hype about the Big Book at Expo is the putative benefit of the “buzz.” While he claims there were no big books that came out of this Expo, no 2666, though Publishers Weekly would argue otherwise, there was a lot of chatter about how neither The New Yorker nor The New York Review of Books threw parties this year.

Because most businesses dealing in books are at this point “two fuck-ups away from bankruptcy,” and because it’s always been a struggle, there’s a lot of complaining going on at the Expo. Post even provides an amusing hypothetical playlet of the “self-reflexive meta-bitching” that went down if one didn’t get out, or get in, to the Expo this year.

In Part III, Post explores the state of the book publishing industry, which he claims, has become “flatter,” due to the availability of print-on-demand and e-technologies that permit almost anyone to enter the publishing business, which has “upwrenched” the industry. But his argument is slightly undermined by his subsequent claim that large publishers are still in the cat-bird seat because it is to them that the benefits of nationwide distribution and connections with major review sources accrue.

Furthermore, the Editor’s Buzz Panel is nothing if not a pageant staged by large publishers to give the illusion that they’re giving the attending booksellers a leg-up on the big new titles. But the books presented on the panel are the books that will get all the backing, so the booksellers will hear of them come fall, Buzz Panel or no.

Apart from all this posturing, one positive aspect of the Expo is that it gives indie presses an opportunity to meet booksellers and potentially handsell a few dozen copies. But while this model might work for the small presses, who operate on small but sustainable business models, Post argues it is not a winning solution for the traditional business models of corporate publishers.

In the most interesting part of Post’s essay, though his argument becomes somewhat muddled, he relays the unfolding of the Arab-US Editors Panel, where Erroll McDonald of Pantheon claimed that translations don’t do well in the U.S. because Americans are “breathtakingly provincial.” Post replies that McDonald’s problem, and the problem of large publishers is that they equate success not only with sales but with “mega-sales” on par with those of a Stephen King novel. And in rebuttal to McDonald’s claim and in defense of the tastes of the American public, Post offers the example of the success of the translation of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. However, Post earlier claimed that 2666 was the “Big Book” of last year’s Expo, the one that got all the marketing push. So in effect, he is not so much defending the urbanity of American readers, as he is making the claim that Americans, even the self-selecting connoisseurs of quality literature who come to the Expo, are prone to the Oprah effect. But his point that large publishers invest most of their resources into the most accessible literature seems valid enough, and Bolaño has already secured a solid position in the canon, which just about ensures continual future sales.

In Part IV, Post covers the debate between online and print reviewers, showing once again how technology is ushering in the Young Turks who are using Goodreads and Twitter to wrest the soap box from the long-form print book reviewers, while the old guard cleaves desperately to its claim of authority. He discusses The Book Reviewing Panel, at which it was acknowledged that there will be fewer authority figures writing book reviews, and that there is a distinction between “book reviewers” and “book recommenders,” the latter of which you’ll find on Goodreads or Amazon.

The irony of all this is that while Harper Collins was seen trying to connect with bloggers at the Firebrand/NetGalley “blogger signing” area, “the most vital section” of the Expo, the number one reviewer on Amazon isn’t allowed into BookExpo. This reveals an effort by big publishers to preserve the veneer of “authority” while discreetly soliciting the very entity that seeks to pierce that veil, and/or kind of doesn’t care about the veil. But what Post doesn’t say, that I think is relevant, is that there will always be de facto authority figures, people who have the power to influence others, but they are becoming more diffuse, thanks to technology, in response to the variety of tastes that exist in the reading public.

Post asserts a valid question. With the Expo having given slack to the books bloggers, self-publishers, etc., what exactly constitutes the book “trade” today? And he posits that perhaps this new contingent, that is unjaded and excited about reading, may be the answer to the failing industry. Opening the dialogue to new readers and thinkers as well as fans and college kids who want to know a little more about the industry would create a more vibrant book culture.

Post offers his final suggestions in Part V. Both he and Lance Fensterman agree that the Expo should be open to a wider audience, embracing the changing definition of the “trade,” and potentially making it more like ComicCon New York, which Fensterman successfully produced, and which permits entry to anyone willing to pay the fee. But the question re: the Expo is, How exactly would that work?  Post notes one of the niggling obstacles to this idea: “publishers hate readers.”

He offers some workarounds, some of which seem sound. For example, though attendees would be receiving free galleys, giving books away to the public may actually increase sales, as some studies have shown, he states. This makes sense since the increased sales due to word-of-mouth might outweigh any potential loss of sales to new attendees. It would also raise awareness among readers of independent presses. He also suggests dividing the halls so that general readers would be cordoned off from industry insiders.

But other suggestions Post offered seemed less compelling, like including readers on panels to enliven debate—I could see how including an authoritative blogger might—but just your average reader wouldn’t seem like a strong addition to a panel discussion. And to get around the problem of selling directly to readers, which cuts out the middleman (the bookseller), he suggests imposing a 10% tax that could be redistributed to bookstores. This might work in a Platonic world but seems potentially too complicated in the reality of the Expo. And Post does put forth as successful models other international book fairs, such as those in Buenos Aires and Frankfurt, which are open to the public and generate a festive air in the city, and not only to the cabal of publishers, publicists, authors and reviewers.

Overall, Post’s argument is compelling and for further reading on this topic see Post’s “The Future of BEA.” The “trade” is changing, and the festival that aims to benefit the “trade” and connect readers to books will likewise have to grow some legs in order to navigate the terra firma of book culture today.


Rozalia Jovanovic is a founding editor of Gigantic, a magazine of short prose and art. She is the Deputy Editor of Flavorpill and has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and Columbia University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from Unsaid, The Believer, Everyday Genius, Guernica, elimae, and Esquire.com. She blogs at The Astonishing Egg and is The Rumpus New York Editor. More from this author →