Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Hating BookExpo: Just Let it Go

Few people will miss BookExpo now that Reed Elsevier has placed a hold on future BookExpo and BookCon conferences. BookExpo has been knocking on deaths door for at least ten years now. Then again, it’s hard to run a vibrant industry conference when the primary constituencies are at war and hate each other. When I first attended BookExpo, it was in the shadow of the American Booksellers Association (ABA) lawsuit over unfair trading practices and when I stopped attending regularly the industry was reeling over Agency pricing. Spaced in between, was Len Riggio berating publishers from the keynote podium. In those early years, we were counting the inexorable increase in Barnes & Noble and Border superstores, but at least we had competition and choice: Now the single Amazon superstore reigns.

As an executive deciding on attendance, BookExpo was important through the mid-2000s but as the show’s focus became narrower and attendance fell with fewer and fewer decision makers, the companies I ran declined to attend at all. But this was not the case with the London and Frankfurt fairs which were far more international and addressed a broader market. Oddly, Bookexpo never brought together the wider range of publisher which the other international fairs managed to do and this contributed to the decline. In retrospect, BooksExpo was always a regional show, we just didn’t see it. A reliance on the New York location was also a sad decision made mainly in the interest of cost cutting. As Trade became narrower and narrower, Reed Elsevier failed to deal with this dynamic.

Way back in 2008, I wrote a complaining piece about the show and encouraged the organizers to bring in actual readers and open the show to the public. This wasn’t a unique view by any means but all that got me was an invite to sit on their advisory group. This turned out to be an annual waste of time but at least I got a free pass to the show. As a group we were never encouraged to reinvent the show and, in the end, the group disbanded. As it turned out, I was excised without notice at some point.

Sadly, as part of the Reed Elsevier announcement they are also placing BookCon on ice. While they were a little late to the party in launching this add-on conference (which does include the public) the direction made more sense. It is a shame Reed Elsevier were unable to do more with BookCon but perhaps this will be revived down the road. I believe someone will fill the gap that exists to support the reading public with an informative and interesting conference but obviously, in the current COVID environment that may not be in our immediate future.

BookExpo will never return. In the old days, conflicts could be diluted across a wider group of somewhat equally powerful participants; there was more respect for equal partners in the fight. Today though, the market has become over weighted – the concentration of trade publishing and the power of Amazon. If you are an independent bookseller, which was the core of the old ABA conference, you have been left out in the cold for a while now. No one will miss BookExpo.

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