Thursday, April 5, 2012

A New BookExpo America: Is it Time for BEA to Become "Book Con"?

It’s time to bust out your badges and prepare your bag for ARC-stuffing, because it was announced last week that BookExpo America will open its doors to general consumers for the first time ever this June. Publishers Weekly announced last week that the show manager's plan to welcome consumers in 2013 had been accelerated by a year.

Granted, the change will start small, with the show’s managers offering no more than a thousand tickets to consumers. And in its first year tickets won’t be sold directly to consumers. Instead, they’ll be doled out to publishers and booksellers to offer to their avid fans or most active book-talkers—a move which is likely to ensure that this year’s consumer attendees are still unlikely to include many customers far removed from the mainstream publishing bubble. But it’s nonetheless a move that could drastically change the feel of the show in future years, especially if at some point down the line the show decides to make consumer ticket sales its main focus.

And many within the industry are less than enthusiastic, to say the least. “This is a booksellers [sic] convention and we have become the least important entity as to the floor,” said one bookseller in the comments on the article. “Giving the jump on industry professionals is a privilege," commented another. "Now consumers and e-hawkers will be scanning and selling books illegally. Bad move."

Personally, though I think it would take many years and a very drastic change for the show to become entirely consumer-focused, I think the idea of a convention that welcomes customers is a fresh one that could have huge benefits for the industry. In 2005 I read a fantastic article on Publishing Trends which pointed out Comic Con’s strong role in both promoting comics to fans and, perhaps more importantly, keeping comic publishers informed about—and directly in touch with—their market base. Publishing Trends quoted a correspondent from the traditional book publishing industry, who said it even better than I could:
We all talk to each other, to buyers, to marketing and we may even have some research to let us know who is reading our books. But these are numbers, not interactions with real people. This attention to the fan is what I believe has kept comics and will keep graphic novels alive, even in hard times… Imagine if you will a BEA, open to fans, where publishing showcases their best and the brightest they have to offer. How many would show up? How many would dress up like their favorite characters? Is this the type of passion that needs to be ignited in publishing in order to survive the hard times and build for the future?

How much better could we as publishers, and especially as representatives of individual imprints, brand ourselves if given that kind of direct face time with—and avid enthusiasm from—fans? Few general consumers know their Knopfs from their Bantam Dells, but I think we could see a positive change in bookselling if they did, and if they used that knowledge to follow the publications of imprints whose sensibilities they like, just as avid fans might follow a particular author who's struck their fancy. I think it's no coincidence that one of the few imprints which I would argue has come close to achieving household name recognition is Tor, an imprint which produces genre working for a highly specialized audience and devotes significant time to networking and building a community with actual consumers via its forums at But while genre fans flock to Tor's booth at BEA, could a literary audience flock to another imprint's booth to discuss the latest Atwoods and Franzens? Could general consumers of children's books be counted on to dress as their favorite character and drop by the booth of the publisher who brought them that character? Could die-hard fans of a whole variety of genres be brought together in one celebration of the written word—and how much could publishers learn from and connect with their fans if so?

With consumers making up only a twenty-fifth of the show's attendees this year, any such change is a long way off. But still, I have to wonder: could the BEA that Publishing Trends's correspondent imagined be around the corner? Would you welcome it, if so?

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