BookExpo America: Still Valuable for Many Publishers, Though Questions of Its Future Lurk on the Horizon
In advance of this year's BookExpo America (BEA), held May 28-31 at the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York City, one might have expected to see tumbleweeds blowing through the aisles, based on pre-show media coverage and word in the blogosphere pondering the show's future and its role in the industry. While a number of exhibitors noted that traffic seemed lighter this year, and many publishers downsized their booth space or decided not to exhibit at all (Thomas Nelson, which announced its decision prior to the 2008 BEA, was among the most notable not to exhibit), the event was successful for many publishers—though their objectives for "success" varied, and few seem to include actual sales. Also, many publishers' booths were difficult to traverse due to crowds.
Still, some publishers question the future of the venerable event, suggesting changes must be made in order to sustain it. A number of people also questioned the show's lack of its usual presence of celebrities and evening soirees, suggesting the show may be losing some of its high-brow appeal. The number of educational sessions was also down this year—to about 50 from 100 in previous years.
As for actual attendance, according to BookExpo's official post-event release, the final number of verified attendees, excluding exhibitor personnel, was 12,025—representing a 30-percent increase over the 2008 show held in Los Angeles, but a 30-percent decrease over the 2007 show in New York City.
According to BEA, "Large attendee contingents from the three major national retailers (Borders, Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million) were in attendance, as was Amazon.com. Buyers from Hastings, Urban Outfitters, Target, Costco, Wal-Mart and other major nationwide retailers also attended."
Lance Festerman, vice president and show manager for BEA, was not available at press time for direct comment on whether or not BEA organizers felt this year's show was a success.
David Borgenicht, president and publisher of Philadelphia-based publisher Quirk Books, says, "BEA this year was as good as it's ever been for us—not better, not worse. Which is to say that it was also of no more or less debatable value than it ever has been."
Like many other publishers, a large benefit of the show for Quirk is getting face time with partners. "It was great to see and thank all the booksellers and librarians and media who have embraced our list (and have made "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" a huge hit this year)," notes Borgenicht, referring to one of his company's most recently successful titles.
Also, like some other publishers, Quirk "cut back on the cost of the booth by about 50 percent this year, so that was good as well," says Borgenicht. "For us (and probably everyone), BEA has become a marketing show, not a sales or rights show. So we feel it's good and necessary to continue to go, but it's not something we want to spend a lot of money on."
For Clint Greenleaf, chairman and CEO of Greenleaf Book Group, for whom this year was his 11th at BEA, says, "We had a good BEA. I think it was, generally, a smaller show with reduced expectations, so it felt pretty moderately successful. It certainly wasn't what it was in the past, but we got a lot of benefit out of it. We got lucky with a good location, and that helped us with our traffic. The meetings were good, in general, so it was a pretty good investment for us."
Greenleaf's objectives for determining the success of the show are numerous. "We go for a lot of different reasons—we listen to pitches from authors, we sell books, we discuss rights, we market ourselves, and we also use it as a training tool for our staff. The last one is our biggest benefit we can't get from direct meetings, and my favorite part," he says.
Despite having a "moderately successful" show, Greenleaf questions the event's future. "As a viable investment, I'm not sure it has staying power. I think the majority of the companies there (us included) benefit from big names being there, and I just don't see why they would go with the format as it is," he says. "They [the big industry players] meet with their accounts all year long—the show is expensive, and as long as there are no major changes, … I think anyone (including BEA staff) would have a hard time saying Thomas Nelson missed out this year by not coming. When the big guys stop coming, it will make a lot less sense for us to be there."
Dominique Raccah, CEO and publisher of Sourcebooks, one of the country's largest independent publishers, was pleased with the event. "I thought it was an outstanding BEA. Easily the most productive three days of the year," a view which she says her colleagues at Sourcebooks shared.
Merriam-Webster President and Publisher John Morse found the face time with partners the most valuable. "It was actually a very busy show for us, as we had the opportunity to meet with many of our partners in all parts of our business—including print manufacturing vendors, electronic publishing partners, major print-product licensees and licensors, domestic school and library wholesalers, and some of our international distributors, including those from Canda, Korea, Taiwan, Philippines and the Middle East," he says.
"We think that BEA has proven itself to be tremendously useful for small and medium-size publishers to meet with the wide variety of publishing partners that one must have in order to survive in today's turbulent business climate," says Morse. "If we were disappointed by anything, it was the lack of attendance over the weekend. Although this did not directly affect anything we were doing, it's hard not think that some publishers' lack of presence over the weekend sends an unfortunate signal about the level of support our industry is ready to give to this important business-building opportunity."
Changes Coming for Next Year
BEA organizers are making some changes to the show's format for next year. The show will remain in New York City through 2012, rather than rotating locations between Washington, D.C., and the West Coast, as it usually does.
The show also will feature a different schedule next year—eliminating the weekend show hours. It will start on a Tuesday (May 25), with conference sessions and special events. The expo hall also will open that day (usually the expo opens on the second day), though only from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. The expo will be open for full days on Wednesday and Thursday.