The barbarians at the gates of Book Expo America, by Richard Nash

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Sorry for the slow pace of content creation here from the publisher! I’ve plans to speed up production: rather than wait for the perfect post,  I’m going to write about this process a few days a week no matter how boring i fear the topic might be! Why? Because I find I’ve learned a lot about building a business from watching writers build their books. So you, as writers and readers, might find this business creation process useful too. Moreover the lesson many writers learn, that when stuck you just have to write no matter what, is a lesson I should apply.

Last week, Mark Warholak (co-founder) and Vanessa Veselka and Lynne Tillman (authors) and Abby Kagle (volunteer on legal and licensing) and I were at Book Expo America. It used to be where publishers go to show off their wares, though in recent years it began to look like it was where publishers went to die.

This year, there was a sheen of optimism atop the water. Though it was IMHO an oil slick, it had the effect of making everything seem more under control, less desperate. Now, as a congenital optimist I should be cheering this newfound positivity, surely, yes?

No. My optimism is firmed anchored in radicalism. It’s the optimism of the early Christians, not the Romans. I don’t think, it’s going to be OK. I think, if we convert we will be saved and it will be bliss. If we don’t…

The brute reality is that nothing has changed at Book Expo America. Oh yes, Apple and Google and Amazon were around. There were app vendors galore. (I tell you, there were more app vendors than there are app customers—it’s like the San Francisco gold rush had five hundred miners and five thousands folks selling them jeans and pans…) That was hte oily sheen of pseudo progress…

That’s not change though, those are just vultures circling and the psychotropic effects of the formaldehyde.

There is, however, one change that betokens real change in the industry and there is no sign of it and that is the show opening to the public.

This is not the organizers fault. In 2009 they floated a trail balloon of having the exhibits open on Tuesday, the day before the convention opens. (Already the convention had been changed from its customary Friday-Sunday, to a late Tuesday-Thursday schedule, to accommodate publishers’ desire for reduced costs.) The idea was that the floor would be open for a couple hours in the late afternoon-early evening, allowing for an opening night party as is done at the French book fair, the Salon du Livre, and at the American Library Association’s Annual Convention. An opportunity to party, invite media, booksellers, authors, to hang out, have a keg at one booth, cheap wine at another, have a Stormtrooper mix you a cocktail at a third. Celebrate books. Create a sense of occasion, of event.

Nope. Not in publishing. Don’t want to have to rush erecting our foamcore cover mock-ups.

I confess, I’m on the show’s Advisory Committee. I and others have been crying out not just for a party but for at least one day of the show to be open to the public. Witness the remarkable success of events like the LA Times Festival of Books (140,000 attending), the Decatur Book Festival (70,000 attending after only five years in existence), the Brooklyn Book Festival, to name some outdoor events, and New York Comicon, organized by the same folks that organize BEA, but with exhibitors who actually care about the fans, 70,000 of whom show up. (And that’s the me-too Con, not the original Comicon in San Diego!).

Books was once a business where publishers sold to booksellers, and booksellers sold to readers. So BEA was an event where publishers sold to booksellers. But with the chain(s) not needing an event to meet everyone, since everyone beats a path to their door, and with the explosion in the number of books available means that publishers need to motivate readers to read their books, and not take for granted they’ll walk into bookstores and buy, the event needs to be about exciting readers/customers, not hustling the retailers.

But not only are we not getting the public let in for a day, we can’t even be bothered to throw a party for the damn insiders.

Don’t blame the organizers. The decisions get made by the exhibitors that pay for the most square feet at the show. I hate to repeat myself, quoting my own self, but I’m being forced to do so by the obtuseness of the industry I love.

The publishing business is not in trouble because there’s no demand for books. It is in trouble because there are changes afoot in how best to satisfy the demand, changes to which there are suitable responses, two of which are fostering fan culture and generating a sense of occasion, and the leaders of the largest publishing organizations are failing in their professional responsibility to implement these responses. By reducing their participation in BEA at the same time the media participation has increased by almost 50%, by refusing to open the Fair to the readers on Sunday, these CEOs have effectively thrown in the towel. They are managing the demise of the book business, pointing fingers at any generic social forces they can find, failing to see the one place the responsibility can be found, their own damn offices.

Book Expo America is a microcosm of the industry. What it shows is that right now, the book industry thinks $10-$20 digital files is the change we need. No. The change we need is right there in the tagline of this site, the change we need is to invite you folks reading this, to invite you to BEA. When we can do that, that’s when change begins, that’s when we can earn optimism.

Via Richard Nash’s Red Lemonade blog.

2 Comments on The barbarians at the gates of Book Expo America, by Richard Nash

  1. I have always envied the industry insiders who can get into these book expos and I know I’m not alone. There are lots and lots and LOTS of us out here, looking in the windows, wanting to come in from the cold.

    Note to publishers: I am your customer. Why can’t I come in and meet you, talk to you? Is it because you don’t really care what I think? want? need? wish for?

    I can’t think of any other business that insulates itself from its core customer the way you do. Your business model is so, well , so 20th century! It is 2011, the second decade of the new milleneum–the era of social networking and easy access. Open your eyes! LET US IN!

  2. I can’t think of any other business that insulates itself from its core customer the way you do.

    Plenty of commodity business do this. Fabric designers don’t meet with the public to discuss the winter patterns. Cookware designers don’t have expos where people can barrage them with requests for handles made of wood/plastic/silicon/whatever’s trendy right now. (There might be such expos, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone to find out there are manufacturer-storefront expos where the public is not welcome.)

    Books are only recently available from the creator to the public without several intermediaries. I’m not at all surprised that many of the intermediaries are putting effort into maintaining their existing practices in the hopes that those will continue to be profitable, instead of trying to find new practices & approaches that might be more profitable with the new technological advances.

    It’s entirely understandable. Stupid, but understandable.

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