Imagine the lone guy on the periphery minding his stand with only a solitary apparently lost attendee to keep him company once an hour. By some accounts that was the state of affairs sometime over the weekend at BookExpo America in Los Angeles. In advance of the fair Thomas Nelson, one of the largest publishers in the US decided to pass on attending the show. This action was different than the publisher boycott of several years ago; in this case, Nelson recognised that exhibiting at BookExpo is increasingly irrelevant in addressing the dynamics of the market place. In an age when the traditional publishing schedule is looking decidedly frayed, how BookExpo measures these dynamics will determine how many publishers continue to value their attendence.
In much the same way that Publisher's Weekly has seen their traditional advertising model change fundamentally as the bulk of bookstore book purchases are made centrally and six - nine months in advance of publication, BookExpo is in danger of suffering a similar dislocation. In PW's world there is no need to advertise and in BookExpo's world attendance becomes an expensive way to reach independents. More publishers will drop out - perhaps not next year as the show is in New York but it will happen, because the current show format is an old and increasingly ineffective tool. The decline will accelerate as more publishers take advantage of electronic marketing and promotions tools such as NetGalley (functionality will rapidly expand across the MarCom value chain) and more publishers will experiment with virtual trade shows , webinars and virtual worlds like Second Life.
There are two segments to BookExpo - the education program and the exhibits - and both need revamping. On the education side, BookExpo is losing ground to new upstarts like TOC and SIIA conferences. In both these cases, the conference organizers are successfully exploring the intersection of publishing and technology which many of us in the traditional publishing world continue to battle. Attending SIIA conferences with its breadth of content and technology companies all addressing new and old problems in unique ways can be a stunning business experience. At BookExpo we may see this in isolated cases but not comprehensively. In the traditional publishing market an education program similar to TOC or SIIA is still a market opportunity given the concentration of publishers attending BookExpo. On the other hand O'Reilly (TOC) may have already established the beach head. Consumers are decidedly lacking at BookExpo and in some other trade education programs panel discussions include consumers - in one memorable case they were all thirteen year old girls. Our business is in complete flux and that's the kind of education we should be looking for.
On the exhibits side, BookExpo must lead in the expansion of marketing and promotion programs that go beyond the physical limits of a three day event in a location not everyone can attend. The BookExpo America site should be a 365 day exhibit space. Many publishers and some websites are hosting e-versions of their catalogs. Coupled with more product details, ordering facilities, merchandising tools, etc. the traditional conference attendee should be able to visit and interact with all publisher products on the BookExpo site. (I do mean all publishers). The experience can and should be better than visiting the physical show. The traditional publishing calendar is disappearing - it serves no purpose (just as television has eroded their producer driven schedules) other than as a reminder of the formulaic approach to publishing. The physical exhibit can continue but it must change unless it is to devolve into a middling trade show for small and medium sized publishers.
BookExpo also needs to think strategically about exhibitors and to seek new categories of attendees. There should be more technology companies, service companies and others. Since the market is retail what is more logical than encouraging more vendors who market store systems and products? On the technology side there are many vendors who want to expand into the publishing business but do not attend BookExpo. They do attend SIIA, TOC and Book Business conferences. Expansion along these lines is a double-edged sword since a target audience needs to be in attendance. For that, a stronger education program and specific outreach programs need to support exhibitors and attendees. First time exhibitors should get two years for one paid year for example. (As an aside, I also believe the central exhibit floor 'neighborhood' where the largest publishers congregate should be broken apart to encourage more interaction).
Anyone who has stayed over the weekend at the Frankfurt bookfair (as I did on my first visit - and never again) will hiss and blubber over the idea that BookExpo be open to consumers. This issue has previously been debated by BookExpo managers, and indeed at Frankfurt, the issue of consumers attending the fair has long been controversial with the UK and US publishers. My suggestion is based on simple logic. Book reading is declining so what better way to introduce consumers to what publishers have to offer than showing them. Look at the success of the various city wide book fairs including the one in DC.
I have always enjoyed attending BookExpo but seeing the lack of traffic in many areas this year I doubt I would be the only one considering rethinking my exhibition participation for next year. The fact that BookExpo is in NYC next year will cover over the troubling issues because of the influx of many publishing staffers. In reality the addition of 10,000 publishing staff attendees from NYC is not really what will help return BookExpo to the preeminence it deserves.