After exhibiting at the BEA for maybe 15 years, I didn’t have a booth this year, even though it was a local show. For that matter, neither did two gurus of self-publishing, Dan Poynter and John Kremer. The open secret is that after a while, for most, the BEA Convention is a waste of money–money that could be better spent on other methods of marketing.
What happened? Why am I knocking a hallowed tradition?
Once upon a time, back when there were many independent booksellers, BEA–then called the ABA (American Booksellers Association) Convention–provided a way for publishers to show their new books to bookstores. You could also acquire foreign rights, but the real reason for exhibiting was to show off your books to booksellers.
Then along came Barnes & Noble, Borders, and other chain stores. Instead of looking at your books at the convention, they want you to go to their headquarters to sell your books. And along came closings for lots of independent bookstores. At BEA conventions now, we find that the blue badge of the bookstore is a rare and endangered species. The show action is mostly exhibitors looking at the books of other exhibitors.
Sure, booksellers do come by. Also, there may be a lot of foreign rights activity, and you do see authors and members of the press, especially book reviewers (or people pretending to be reviewers who want free books). But the question for each small press to decide is whether the $4,000-$10,000 spent on exhibiting at BEA is worth it.
What Might Bring Me Back
Every publisher has to decide what is right for their company, but I submit that BEA could be much more useful with a simple change… allow booksellers and their staff to enter free.
I know that Reed encourages booksellers to attend. One of my bookseller friends was actually allowed to go one day without charge. The problem in that case was that his assistant also wanted to go, but she would have had to pay. So, she didn’t go.
Since word of mouth is a great way to sell books, it would be to our advantage for as many booksellers as possible to attend–including people who work in a bookstore part-time. These are the people who love books.
Why not accept a minor loss of income for the greater good of the event?
Many years ago, I worked for the Pickwick Bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. At the time, it was the largest bookstore west of the Mississippi. I marveled at how easy it was to sell books to customers, just on my recommendation. It was great fun to point out books that I loved. Even sight unseen, with a phone order, I could easily sell books I thought the customer would like. This is the basic practice of bookselling.
So I hope you folks at Reed Exhibitions will make more of an effort to get more booksellers into the convention for free. The effort would require moving the show around, since many booksellers can’t afford to go unless the show is close by. I realize that it takes more work to move the show around the country, but I think it may be necessary if BEA is to remain a dynamic useful show. Otherwise, more and more publishers will look at the numbers and find that the expense isn’t worth it. It’s already happening!
Bob Adjemian has been in the book business for more than 30 years, and he has managed Vedanta Press as the Publisher since 1975.