BEA 2002: Traffic, Not Trends, in New York

Report on the largest booksellers’ event in the US: surprises, trends, technology, and honest education.

I was struck by the lack of standout books, the lack of trends, and the vast numbers of attenders–and exhibitors (over 2000, filling both floors of the vast Javits Center. Unlike Chicago, there was lots of traffic even on the fringes. In fact, the only booth holder I spoke to who was dissatisfied with the traffic was located way at the end of an aisle around the 4600s, with about six others who were past the natural end of crowd flow. They had end-cap booths, including a very busy one from my publisher, Chelsea Green, on a cross-aisle just in front of them, which logically moved attenders around and on to the next aisle. This guy definitely felt marginalized. But in past years, the entire Small Press section has felt that way.

Some things I did notice:

* The ABSENCE of superpatriotic 911 books. I expected the show to be almost drowning in the flag, to have the twin towers gaping at me from every third booth, and to see a lot of books helping America to “stand tall and proud.”

To my great surprise (and relief), there was very little about that. The publishing community is responding to 911 in a lot of intelligent, sensitive ways: lots of books on understanding Islam or specific countries in the Middle East and Central Asia…lots of books about rekindling one’s own faith…and a few beautifully produced books of photos or writings reflecting on the tragedy…or featuring the heroism of firefighters and other emergency personnel. And the most visible books coming out of the tragedy were leftist critiques showing the patterns behind 911 and the US government response to it: books showing the connections between the Bush and Bin Laden families, and between the ultra-right-wing agenda of the Bush administration and its ability to ram much of it through in the aftermath (for instance, the USA Patriot Act). Writers like Chomsky far outdominated the occasional feel-good flag waving book.

In other words, the publishing community is using this critical moment as an opportunity to return to our primary mission: to educate the public. To which I say, Hurrah! (This is not universal, however. For the tragic story of how Harper Collins attempted to murder Michael Moore’s government-critical book “Stupid white Men,” see my report on the panel with Moore, Barbara Kingsolver, Nat Hentoff, and Rick McCarthy, posted at – I consider this must reading for anyone concerned about publishing, freedom of the press, Big Brother, and the dangers of corporate culture.)

* Children’s picture books were absolutely everywhere. Not surprising considering we are in the midst of another baby boom–but that’s been going on for 15 years now, and yet it seems like far more publishers are doing them, in spite of the high production costs that necessitate high prices, and thus create a big risk in doing unknown authors and illustrators.

* Tehcnology: Color POD is here and affordable; Xerox was displaying an impressive machine. You wouldn’t use it for an art book, but you could use it easily for a text book that used color as an educational tool in design and that included a few instructional photographs. They wholesale at 7 cents per click, so a vendor will probably charge 12-15 cents. If you believe the show, e-books and vanity POD are dead. Major players like 1stBooks and XLibris didn’t even bother showing (though Infinity had constant traffic, and a fine new POD-produced book about POD by John Harnish). I happen to know that both these companies, and several of their smaller competitors, are doing very well indeed. And I also know a gazillion writers who’ve made piles of money with self-published e-books aimed at desktop computers, not dedicated e-reader machines. Overdrive was there with a very high-end solution aimed at large publishers, and Microsoft had a presence. But there was very little talk of Digital Rights Management..I saw, I believe, two booths that had e-book readers. However, my prediction is that there will be a big push in the next 12 months to make e-books viable on PDAs (e.g., Palm Pilot and Handspring Visor). I can’t imagine trying to read a book on my handspring. With the attached keyboard, it’s fabulous for taking notes, but I find I really hate editing on the thing, because it requires close attention to the screen. read a book on it? Not very likely!

* Some non-trend trends that I noticed last year are even more in evidence this year. I wrote:

Not a lot of trends this year. Covers are all over the place,some of them looking very retro (60s & 80s style)–and a surprising number are really hard to read from a distance…

Foreign publisher area is very small this year, range of displayed titles limited. Many Latin American and European publishers that had their own booth in the past now have a few shelves in a country cooperative (including Grupo Norma, which used to have an enormous display)–and they seem for the most part more interested in selling than buying.

Booths seem to be a lot more straightforward, less hype or gimmicks.

These things are all even more true this year. And was once again invisible.