A Recap of BookExpo 2018

{For some reason, I didn’t make this post live after last year’s event. Some of it still seems on point in describing current trends. So why not share it?}

At the end of May, I attended BookExpo, the largest publishing trade show in the United States. Over the years, I’ve gone to reconnect with past colleagues, to talk shop with other editors and marketers about their approach to publishing, and of course to scout for gems among all the forthcoming books on display for the fall and beyond.

More Questions than Answers

According to the show’s organizers, the 2018 BookExpo was “reimagined.” I had a hard time seeing how the changes benefited publishers or booksellers. More space than ever before was dedicated to lines for author signings and small stages for various talks or demonstrations. And there were noticeably fewer publishers and less representation of smaller and independent presses. So the big five seemed to dominate much of the show, with a few noteworthy exceptions. I gather that some of the changes attracted more school librarians, but don’t they have their own show?

An obvious question came to mind: What is BookExpo for? I don’t know that the show organizers know anymore. They’re certainly not thinking about me or my role within the industry. (And that’s okay. For my limited purposes, I am surely in the minority.) Most of the talks were not about industry trends or best practices but about an author’s “creative process” or experience being published (or rejected). And the purpose from ages past—taking orders on the floor—was whittled away over the course of many years.

I would describe the mood as chipper but disoriented. There wasn’t a clear “big book” of the show, unless you count The President Is Missing: A Novel by the dynamic duo James Patterson and Bill Clinton or Michelle Obama’s forthcoming memoir Becoming. Neither sound like my cup of tea, but apart from gigantic banners hanging in Javits Center, I didn’t hear much “buzz” about them. Then again, the reviews of these books are only now just dribbling out.

The worry in years past about disruptive technologies seems to have faded or been absorbed by the industry, which I take to sign of the industry’s health. Margins continue to be thin, but who gets into publishing expecting to get rich, let alone rich quick?

That said, I also get a sense that people don’t really even know what reading is for. Is it entertainment? Is it a hallmark of being educated and well informed? Is it a necessity to participate in certain cultural conversations? Is it about escapism, imagination, or play? Is it a necessity, or just a leisure good, in a culture that simultaneously loves DYI references, cooking tricks and tips, and relationship advice but also wants to celebrate individual experience, identity politics, and emotivism above all else? It would be hard to answer any of those questions by attending BookExpo.

The Readers Are Missing

In March of this year, it was reported that “about a quarter of American adults (24%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form.” This figure should be troubling to publishers and educators.

The report noted, “The share of Americans who report not reading any books in the past 12 months has bounced around a bit since 2011, when Pew Research Center first began conducting surveys about book-reading habits. That year, 19% of adults reported not reading any books. The share of non-book readers hit a high point of 27% in 2015.”

What’s behind this trend? Are Americans consuming more online? Are we lost in the threads of social media? Are we held captive by YouTube videos? What other activities are filling our leisure time and displacing reading?

For the full report, see Andrew Perrin, “Who doesn’t read books in America?,” or this 2014 lament in The Atlantic.

Brick & Mortar Comeback

Despite the disappearance of Borders superstores in September 2011, which once claimed more than 500 outlets, it seems that independent booksellers are now clawing their way back into the marketplace. I was delighted to see the opening of Bard’s Alley in Vienna, Virginia. Just one shop among many that have opened within the last year. Even Amazon senses the need to open its own “brick and mortar” stores.

Even with these developments, some industry experts are honing in on what sets publishers and bookstores apart. I liked the following two quotations for their optimism and their assessment of what matters most.

The American Booksellers Association’s CEO Oren Teicher said: “While there may be a small army of smart people working for Amazon, in the more than two decades that they have been selling books it’s important to recognize that none of them has come up with computer coding or an algorithm that can beat what you all do every day: putting the right book in a customer’s hands.” (reported in “BookExpo 2018: ABA Annual Meeting,” Shelf Awareness for Friday, June 1, 2018.)

Macmillan CEO John Sargent “agreed that the “long-term health of the industry” was good, but said he thought that in the coming years publishers will face “some serious issues” pertaining to “changing consumer buying behaviors.” As consumers shop more and more online, it will be harder for them to discover books; Sargent argued that what publishers need to protect is “lots and lots of shelf space” in which customers can browse and discover books.” (reported in “BookExpo 2018: CEO Roundtable,” Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, June 5, 2018.)

And, to close, this nugget about opportunities for the independents is worth requoting:

The independent bookstores that have proved successful are uniquely suited to the community they’re in. Some are big. Some are small. Some are homey and stitched together with found shelving. Others are practically works of art and architecture. They stock the books that the community wants, and, while their selections are minuscule compared with Barnes & Noble, the staff can speak to the books on those shelves with authority. In other words, they are all different. (David Sax, “What Barnes & Noble Doesn’t Get About Bookstores,” The New Yorker)

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One thought on “A Recap of BookExpo 2018

  1. Nice evaluation, and thank you. It seems that I can trace a different use for books with the passage of decades during a lifetime. There was a time when we all knew the answer to ‘What are books for?” In the decade after college, they were friends that had been there, an intimate part of our formation in the spiritual and academic disciplines. They brought comfort by never leaving one, always making up part of physical space and surrounding us with a mental reminders of our journey (together with the awareness of the authors themselves). In subsequent decades, with focus and specialization on work, I have lost some of that sense of pleasure and groundedness in my ‘friends’. Now I have to set goals to read however many ‘real’ books per year.

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