Business Musings: BookExpo, Bookstores, and Libraries
In 2020, BookExpo finally died. BookExpo was, once upon a time, a convention for booksellers, put on by the publishing industry. Back then, it was called The American Booksellers Association Convention, and honestly, it was marvelous. If you were a book person, it was like the best place ever.
Books everywhere. So many books in such large convention halls that you couldn’t see everything. You couldn’t even try.
Dean and I went as authors a few times, and always hoped to go back with our bookseller friends. If you had a bookseller badge, you got free everything. Free books. Free posters. Free autographs from famous writers. Free admission into fascinating talks. Everything but free shipping—because you got so much free stuff that you had to ship it back home, where you would finally have time to look at it, sort it out, and maybe make purchases.
In one long hallway at the convention, foreign publishers sat and discussed rights sales with agents and a handful of savvy writers. A lot of deals got made right there. And in a separate building, the small and specialty and regional presses lived. On the way, you could run into the new technology wing…which was filled with things that almost never came to fruition.
It was loud and exhausting and fascination. I remember watching a few of my out-of-shape bookseller friends treating their bodies like Christmas trees, hanging book bags off arms, shoulders, around their necks, and waists, staggering out of the convention hall to the even bigger parking lot to drop off the bags, then go back and get even more piles and piles of stuff.
No one does this anymore. In fact, no one has done this in…oh, maybe 10 to 15 years. BookExpo got sold to Reed Exhibitions in 1995, and the convention declined from there. Of course, bookselling changed too. There was too much consolidation in the 1990s, the book distribution system collapsed, and Barnes & Noble and the other chain stores took over. The small booksellers remained, hanging on by their fingertips.
Attendance at BookExpo got smaller and the freebies rarer. Publishers found other ways to introduce new books to the “trade.” And then in the past few years, Reed spun off the rights fair, which was, really the only reason to go. You could meet foreign publishers face to face and actually sell a few things, if you felt so inclined.
Ah, but let’s face it. The rise of the internet meant that all of the information that used to be shared in person could be shared quicker and in more depth over the internet. And it wasn’t as tiring as using your body like a Christmas tree or spending hundreds on shipping freebies that you probably didn’t even want.
For years, everyone in the industry complained about BookExpo, calling it a shadow of its former self. Reed Exhibitions moved BookExpo to the pop culture part of its organization and added BookCon, hoping to bring in “readers” (forgetting, I guess, that booksellers are readers). That didn’t work.
They canceled the convention in the spring, like damn near every other convention, and held a virtual convention on the usual dates, a convention that made little news or impact. And so, in December, ReedPop, the organization that now manages BookExpo announced there would be no BookExpo in 2021 or maybe ever again. BookExpo was “retired.”
The event director, Jenny Martin, issued a surprisingly candid (for this kind of business) statement:
The pandemic arrived at a time in the life cycle of BookExpo and BookCon where we were already examining the restructure of our events to best meet our community’s needs. This has led us to make the difficult decision to retire the events in their current formats, as we take the necessary time to evaluate the best way to move forward and rebuild our events that will better serve the industry and reach more people than we were able to before. We remain committed to serving the book community and look forward to sharing more information in the future.
I don’t really expect to see anything like this again. The annual meeting of a lot of booksellers and a lot of publishers made sense when there were a lot of booksellers and a lot of publishers, thirty or so years ago. Now, though, in the traditional publishing arena, there just aren’t a lot of big traditional publishers.
And after this year, maybe not that many booksellers. The American Booksellers Association reported that 35 member bookstores had closed due to the pandemic as of October. Another 20% are in danger of closing.
Even those that are managing are struggling. They’re holding on through a combination of cost-cutting, online sales, crowdfunding, and PPP loans—which are (as of this writing) no longer available. Between April and June, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation issued $2.7 million in grants, and has given 443% more in grants than last year.
Some famous booksellers have relied on their international customer base to stay in business. When it became clear that the iconic Shakespeare & Company Bookstore in Paris was going to permanently shut down, book lovers worldwide chipped in. After the announcement, so many orders came into the bookstore’s online site that the site crashed several times. Now, it looks like the bookstore might revive a subscription model that Shakespeare & Company first debuted in the 1930s.
The Strand Bookstore in New York put out a similar call in October, and their website crashed as well. They raised nearly two hundred thousand in two days through book sales, and seem to be in less dire straits now.
Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon was one of the first bookstores to issue a cry for help, early in the pandemic. Powell’s has an established online presence, so their site didn’t crash as traffic increased. They were able to switch to primarily online orders through part of 2020, with the stores reopening partially anyway in August.
Still, Powell’s is revamping its entire business model. It closed its airport store in July, and in December shuttered a home and garden neighborhood store.
The famous Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington D.C. is changing its business model as well. Politics and Prose is well known for the events that it puts on. They’re usually interesting and often controversial. But book sales at the events are no longer making enough money for the events, so Politics and Prose are trying to find ways to monetize the actual conversations. I doubt they’ll reimburse their authors for doing this (except for the really big names, like former Presidents and First Spouses), but it is an interesting and somewhat eye-opening model.
Bookstore owners all say they’re working harder for less money. The stores that are open are spending on cleaning and PPE, as well as dealing with the stress of ordering customers to mask. Some stores have gone to curbside pickup and what used to be called special ordering. Others have done fundraisers and are linking with other businesses. They’re hanging on, but just barely.
And they’re all worrying about the supply chain. They are smaller, so they often don’t get the bigger books as early as say, Amazon or Barnes & Noble, because of the limitations in the supply chain.
(I dealt with the supply chain in an earlier post in this series. I’m writing the posts and posting them on Patreon first, hence the Patreon link. The rest will appear throughout the next few weeks on this website. Please note that when I link to the previous essays in this series, I’m linking to them on Patreon. If you’re reading this on my website, you’ll have to search “2020 in Review” to get all of the essays.)
Bookstores will hang on, but in smaller numbers. Just like conventions will continue, but in smaller numbers. Rather than being the Way We Do Things, they will become an experience, something to be done as a special event rather than a common activity.
This has major implications for traditional publishers, as I discussed in the three trainwreck blogs I wrote over the spring and fall.
However, one of the 2020 bright spots have been libraries. Just like every other place where people gather, library buildings had to close, some early in the pandemic and then again in this winter surge we’re going through.
But library services remain online, and libraries are working hard to keep people in books and information. According to Overdrive, which provides digital materials to libraries, weekly ebook lending has risen 50% across the United States since March 9.
Interestingly, traditionally published books are harder to find in libraries than indie books. That’s because traditional publishers have come to view libraries as the enemy. (Don’t ask me to explain. Just look at the trainwreck posts.) Smart indie writers make their books available for libraries on Overdrive, and those books have seen an uptick in readership as well.
National Geographic has a totally cool article on the ways that libraries worldwide have innovated during the pandemic. Rather than regurgitate the article point by point, let me simply recommend that you click on over and read it for yourself.
With every parent struggling to help their kids handle virtual school, libraries have assisted in that effort. If anything, libraries have become more useful in the pandemic rather than less. People are actually remembering that libraries are there, and libraries are providing much-needed resources, from free wi-fi to curated reading lists and more.
Low-income families in particular have made use of the libraries around the U.S. and the libraries are reaching out to them. Some are helping with non-book related things like providing food for food-insecure families and digital access for the homeless.
While traditional publishers are making it harder for libraries to get books (yes, even in the pandemic [idiots]), indies shouldn’t. If you aren’t already in libraries, change how your books are distributed. Make sure you check the library boxes on your distribution services, so that libraries can get your work.
Weirdly, in this pandemic (and before), it has become easier to get indie-published books and harder to get traditionally published books.
The traditional is still mourning services that should have disappeared decades ago, like BookExpo, and not thinking about the future at all. Indies are the future, and I think, strangely enough, it’s the interactions with libraries that show why.
Indies want to go direct to readers, which is what libraries are all about. Traditional is still thinking—somehow—that they can find someone else to interact with the smelly reader/customer. Traditionals are panicking about the things they’ve already lost (like BookExpo) and not looking at what they need to do now.
In 2021 and beyond, those of us who are publishing indie will find more ways to get our books to readers, rather than fewer ways. I’m starting to feel excitement again over the future, and while that future includes bookstores and the occasional in-person conference (because seeing your friends is fun), I suspect the real future will be about going wide and making sure that every service that wants your book can get its hands on your book.
It’s fascinating to me that the things people in the traditional publishing industry say we’re losing are things that were already lost. The good trade shows, the bulk of the local bookstores. I have a hunch that the Twenties will be about innovating and solidifying those innovations. At least, I hope so.
More on 2020 in the next few posts…and then on to a few thoughts about 2021.
I have a lot of topics to cover as I try to grapple with this earthshattering year. I’m going to try to write all of these posts in the same week or so. You’ll be able to read all of them on my Patreon page in the next few weeks, or one per week here on the website.
I will probably put other posts in-between some of these, particularly if there’s truly important industry news, or I feel we need a break from the memories of this unreal year. But as I sketch out this series, I’m realizing there is a lot of ground to cover. Not just in what we lost or what changed, but on what might be coming ahead of us.
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“Business Musings: BookExpo, Bookstores, and Libraries,” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / PinkBadger.
Regarding bookstores, begging for money does not seem like a long-term business plan. If it’s gotten to that point, coming back from the far side of that hill seems like it would be tricky.
I’d heard stories about Book Expo from the older days (apparently), and it always sounded like a blast. It’s a shame those days are gone. That said, I remember how hard it used to be (in the pre-internet era) to contact publishers. If you were lucky, they had an address on the copyright page, then you had to mail them a letter, hope they got it, hope it didn’t get lost on a desk, and then hope for a reply. In that world, the big book fairs must have been a godsend.
This got me thinking about how for a while there we also had conferences which overlapped with Book Expo. Then I looed it up and I realized that only happened from 2010 to 215.
The conference renaissance only lasted six years. It seemed permanent at the time, and yet it was just a blip.