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Looking forward to Book Expo 2010

May 24, 2010 |  2:08 pm
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Book Expo America, the publishing industry's annual conference, kicks off Tuesday in New York City, and I'm on my way to cover it for The Times. And by "on my way," I mean "at 30,000 feet," brought to you here, en route, by the miracle of in-flight Wi-Fi.

The conference -- known to those who attend as BEA -- has been contracting in recent years. Tough times in the publishing industry led event organizers to stop rotating the conference between major cities (Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and New York) and announce that going forward it will remain in New York, publishing's hub. This year will be the second consecutive year BEA is held in New York City.

And in a new twist, it's the first year in recent memory that the conference will not take place over a weekend. Will this mean that fewer publishing staffers will be able to attend, stuck instead at their desks across town? Will it affect how many people can attend the conference from elsewhere?

These questions point to a larger one: Who, exactly, goes to these things? Once, the conference had provided an opportunity for agents to make deals, but that is largely a thing of the past (and other book conferences, notably London and Frankfurt). Lately, publishers focus on previewing their upcoming books to members of the media and, more importantly, to booksellers. Booksellers don't just scan for familiar names and nice-looking covers; they notice the size of posters and banners and the number of free copies the publisher is giving away. Part of this is, admittedly, due to the heady desire for conference swag, but there is also something to be learned from these indicators: They show the kind of resources a publisher has committed to promoting a book, which affects how many a bookstore will think it can sell.

Big chain booksellers don't need to come to Book Expo to make deals -- although perhaps they will get business done here. Instead, independents from all over the country come to map out what they'll pick up and sell from their stores, feeding the long tail of the publishing industry. The Associated Press reports (via Boston.com) says that things are looking good -- or at least, no worse -- for independent booksellers heading into the conference this year. Booksellers have been thought of as publishing's primary customer, and at BEA, there is a well-articulated exercise in promotional titillation for them.

This year's most glamorous example is Barbra Streisand, who will make an appearance for her upcoming home-decor book. She's got more star power than many bookish people are used to seeing up close, and her appearance demonstrates that Streisand is planning to promote the book, which means more than if she doesn't. In addition to Streisand, soccer icon Pele, musician and actor Rick Springfield and fashion sage Tim "make it work!" Gunn are celebrities who will be at Book Expo. So will just about any writer who has a book coming up, including bestelling authors Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark, R.L. Stine, Rick Riordan, Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) and Gary Trudeau.

Some of these authors also appeared at the L.A. Times Festival of Books in April. Any of you might have seen them -- but you won't be able to at Book Expo, unless you're a bookseller or in publishing or one of these people like me who writes about books because BEA is not open to the public. Could opening up Book Expo to the public help the conference expand, rather than contract? If so, is there a good reason not to try it?

In one way, BEA has stretched open its doors. It used to be very hard to convince the staff that a book blog was a viable venue. Now, anyone who has registered for the separate Book Blogger Convention -- the first-ever, scheduled to take place on Friday -- also gets a BEA press pass. Whether this can be considered an expansion of press coverage, or if it's the first step in allowing enthusiastic readers into Book Expo's pass-only halls is hard to say.

Last year, book editor David L. Ulin saw Book Expo as a snapshot of an industry in transition. This year, how the conference itself tries to address its constituents -- publishers, media and readers -- may also indicate where the industry is headed. 

One last thing: Yes, ebooks will be a big deal. Exactly how? We'll see.

-- Carolyn Kellogg
twitter.com/paperhaus

Photo: BEA 2009 banner. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg


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