Reports of BEA’s Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: The 2010 Book Expo America

According to quite a few book-industry pundits, this year’s Book Expo was to have been the death rattle of a mortally wounded institution taking its last gasps.

Fortunately, this was not the case at all. It was last year that BEA’s health seemed a bit rickety. This year, I saw a vibrant show highlighting an industry whose creativity certainly doesn’t seem to be in decline, at least judging by the new titles coming out. Yes, I know the realities: the number of independent bookstores that have closed, the massive pressures on a book industry fraught with deep problems: the returns mess, competition from non-book sources of entertainment and information, piracy, and a host of other very real concerns—plus a book industry absolutely flooded by new titles (up to a million per year, by some estimates), and therefore a much more splintered market for any single title.

But I also saw that BEA’s gamble of going to midweek and staying in New York worked. The aisles were jammed the first day, even all the way out in the fringes where micropublishers take their discounted tables and usually spend the whole show talking mostly to each other. I saw a lot more bookseller, agent, and librarian badges than I’ve been accustomed to in recent years, and pretty much everywhere I looked on Wednesday, there were crowds. Thursday’s attendance seemed considerably lighter, but even then, both in-booth and autograph-area signings were consistently crowded.

And the new format of having everything on one floor was great! It made the show feel a lot more accessible and the logistics much easier. However, what made that possible was a definite drop-off in exhibitors. Even some companies that have been mainstays for years were absent, and the number of attenders from far away seemed to be down as well (but balanced by the huge number of NYC-area publishing folk who were delighted to get out of the office and troop through the Javits Center for a couple of hours).

While publishers weren’t back to giving out galleys at the level of a few years ago, it did seem that quite a number of ARCs (advance review copies, a/k/a galleys) and finished books were available. Some authors were signing blads (booklet-sized previews) instead of books, but real books have returned to their previous position of dominance.

One change that is not for the better is the way the New Title Showcase (an unstaffed display area near the main entrance, very popular with both booksellers and exhibiting authors) was done this year. At least two-thirds of the exhibit was given over to branded book displays from the various Author Solutions vanity brands: Author House, iUniverse, XLibris, and Trafford. Since many book professionals will pass by any of those offerings without a second glance, it put the remaining exhibiting titles at a severe disadvantage. If I’d had a book in there, I would have demanded my money back.

Several award ceremonies are held before and during the show. I went to the Ben Franklin and Ippy Award candidates, and spent time visiting the vendors exhibiting at IBPA’s Publishing University, and spotted some trends before I even hit the show floor:

    • More books that require thinking (could this have something to do with having a President who thinks and deliberates?)
    • Green is HOT (good news for my B2B book, Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green, as well as my consumer e-book, Painless Green)
    • Books about animals are extremely strong
    • A return to cover designs that are somewhat less user-friendly: print often too small to read from a distance, and rather a surprising number with more than one graphic on the front, often against a stark, rural/isolated background
    • Other publishers still see the value in a bold, easy-to-read cover, and there are some gorgeous and very creative designs out there
    • When publishers have more money to spend, some very creative three-D, lenticular (image-moving), unusually textured, and otherwise atypical covers are showing up—some of them quite spectacular
    • Digital color printing has become cheaper, much more widely offered, and of better quality—thus allowing a lot more flexibility in interior design
    • Most of the major book printers now offer digital options, with the handholding you don’t get from LSI or CreateSpace
    • Recycled paper stocks are now pretty cost-competitive and widely available (many with FSC certification), and many printers are specifically courting the Green market

These trends were carried through on the show floor, too. Many publishers have at least one and often several books on some aspect of Green, or some aspect of animals. A high percentage of covers are either much simpler or much more elaborate than I’ve seen over the past few years.

Other observations:

The show had noticeably fewer booths. I often find it a struggle to get all the way through in three days. In this year’s two-day show, I was done an hour into the second day. While there were several factors that left me with a lot fewer appointments and therefore more time to spend walking the floor, there was also simply less to see.

Fiction seems heavily influenced by Harry Potter covers, especially in fantasy/vampire/SF but out of the genre too. Those publishers not going minimalist or retro are putting out some gorgeous books. My favorite: a lenticular 10th anniversary edition of Carl Sams’ Stranger in the Woods (not finalized by the show)—no dragon or vampire on this one, only a deer—but it’s not fiction.

Laminated shirt-pocket guides to wildlife, easy to carry. They’ve been doing them for 15 years (Waterford Press).

“Book Club in a Box” study guides for reading clubs; unlike Cliff Notes, these will only be useful if you’ve actually read the book.

Lots of political books, including seemingly more on the right than the left.

Children’s books took up an enormous amount of room. Picture books were everywhere. I’m sure there are lots of YA fiction titles published, but those without dragons or vampires on the covers were not much in evidence at the show. One nice trend is kid books that treat kids as intelligent and capable. For instance, Chicago Review Press as a series of activity books for older kids involving renewable energy experiments, container gardening, and investing.

Interesting partnerships between publishers and nonprofits continue to spring up. Example: pairs female professional writers with urban at-risk teen girls, and publishes anthologies of the writing that results.

Shel Horowitz’s latest book is Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green: Winning Strategies to Improve Your Profits and Your Planet