One of the most important questions of all is whether BEA has a future.
BEA was once known as ABA, and was the official annual show for American Booksellers Association. The Book Expo America thing was intended to broaden the event. It still has ABA involvement but is run by the same Reed Exhibitions people that do London Book Fair and many other non-publishing shows. It was intended as the big opportunity for booksellers and librarians to connect with publishers, find out about their fall lists specifically, meet authors and one another, place orders, etc.
I've never seen BEA as entire essential myself. In large part because I can probably do 90% of what I'd like to do in a single day, so if it's in NYC and you can go for a day you can go for a day, but it's not something really worth traveling very far to attend. DC, quick train ride, maybe. Chicago enh. LA not. But the show would move around to these various places, theoretically so that booksellers from different parts of the country would have it near them every once in a while.
But there are big problems with all of the long-time theoretical purposes for having BEA. There are fewer independent booksellers in the world, and major publishers certainly don't need a BEA to sell their lists to B&N, Borders, Amazon, and other major national accounts. BEA is expensive. Especially if you're a big publisher used to having a big booth and dozens of staff members in attendance, and maybe flying in authors as Tor did this year with Brandon Sanderson. Especially in the current economy, a lot of libraries and small booksellers and smaller publishers have a much harder time justifying their expenses.
So I am hugely worried that we're going to see a downward spiral start to take root that may end up killing off BEA. And even though I don't think BEA is essential, I'm not sure the publishing industry would be better off without. But there are signs.
Some big publishers decided not to take big booths. Macmillan USA was entirely off the show floor, and doing meetings invitation only in a basement meeting room. I got to go in because Brandon Sanderson and I were meeting with Macmillan audio people. But it wasn't very welcoming. No food or drink, really. I asked at a Holt table if I could take a galley for a book I thought my sister might find interesting, and I wasn't made to feel very welcome. Tom Doherty at the Tor imprint of Macmillan explained to me at length how a floor space cost $x to try and sell to the 10% of their sales that might be resulting from independent booksellers, and how that $x might be able to buy two more field reps to sell books. Knowing how publishers work and how many of them under-invest in their sales efforts, I have my doubts that the money saved by having no floor presence for Tor, St. Martin's, Holt, Farrar Straus and other Macmillan imprints will be spent on two field reps.
Harcourt/Houghton Mifflin was somewhat better, with a two-sided meeting room with a private section and a public section. You still had to traipse to the basement, but at least you could go in, look at tables with catalogs and some galley copies, and have some serendipitous exposure to their lists.
Random House cut their floor space back to a few tables for author autographings and some catalogs available for pick-up but did most of their business in a basement meeting room.
Other publishers like Wizards of the Coast and Kensington did not have their traditional presence on the floor, either skipping or going the meeting room only route.
The upshot of this was that there were distinctly fewer people on the exhibit floor giving away distinctly fewer quantities of things. I still did OK getting galleys for my book-group sister and my Amazon Vine younger brother and my media specialist older brother, but it was definitely harder. If it's harder to score swag, it makes BEA less appealing to booksellers and librarians, and even for that matter to me. That might reduce attendance, which might make it less attractive for any of these publishers to return to the exhibit floor or for publishers like Harper and Hachette that still had major floor presences to continue to have in the future, etc. etc.
After a disappointing attendance in LA last year, the organizers decided to keep BEA in NYC only for the near future. This reduces costs for the major NYC publishers and puts the show in the media capital of the world (well, LA kind of is, but in a different way) and is probably a good idea.
The internet is a wonderful thing, but it does lend itself to finding things you already know you want to find. I think there's a benefit to showing the flag, to opening yourself to serendipity, to see and to being seen. For all of these very fuzzy reasons that have a hard time competing with $x to have a big booth on the floor, I think the industry needs BEA.
We'll see what happens. There were still hundreds of publishers and thousands of attendees and I do not think a disappearing act like BEA Canada is in the future. But I worry.
More to come...