BookExpo, Bookstores, and Libraries

From Kristine Kathryn Rus ch:

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.

. . . .

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.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

PG notes that, during a major catastrophe that substantially disrupts the personal, family, social and business lives of many people at the same time, a great many people make predictions about what life will be like after the disruption is complete.

After the disruption is complete, some predictions are wrong and some are right. For PG, the most interesting post-disruption happenings are those that few or no one predicted.

One thing that often occurs is that business enterprises that were in poor or marginal condition prior to the disruption are more likely to be destroyed or, if they survive, substantially changed from their prior form. Often and unfortunately, a great many people employed by those businesses have to find another line of work through no fault of their own.

Examples of many such disappeared businesses will come to mind for most visitors to TPV, so PG will not list examples.

PG will, however, make one prediction that will surprise no one who hangs around these environs very often – the parts of the traditional book business that deal in the now-expensive process of creating and selling physical books will be much-diminished after the economy opens up again.

Traditional publishing and selling physical books are, in the 21st century, narrow-margin operations without a lot of room for error or financial difficulties.

Some may continue because they are owned or funded by those not overly reliant upon the book business for their ongoing financial welfare, but the status of an organization that is an expensive hobby, business or personal, is fraught. It is difficult for such organizations to attract and retain talent or intelligence when other opportunities look like a much better bet.

Morale among the employees of such organizations becomes lower and lower, to the detriment of the organization’s business operations and financial results. Those who can get out, leave.

Perhaps the owners of a business in a declining sector hope to find a greater fool to whom to sell the business, but even fools can often recognize a death spiral.

Considering the future, traditional bookstores are essentially just another retail business. They may sell something regarded as of more cultural worth than a load of gravel, but, ultimately, to quote an old phrase, when their outgo exceeds their income, their upkeep will be their downfall.

A traditional publisher is somewhat different in that its principle assets consist of intangible intellectual property, essentially long-term licenses that permit them to use the words contained in the works licensed to them by authors in a wide variety of ways. Much of the time, the author has only retained the right to be paid by the publisher for “sales” or licenses of the author’s work.

The author may hold the copyright to a book or story, but the publisher has exclusive control over all of the means by which that book or story can be used to generate money.

If someone acquired the assets of a publisher for a good price and that new owner of rights under the typical publishing contracts of hundreds or thousands of authors, if the new owner wanted to maximize its revenue from such contract rights, the owner has a variety of ways of doing so.

Under the provisions of typical publishing contracts used by large publishers and a lot of medium-sized or small publishers, PG opines that an unscrupulous owner could game those contracts in a manner that would minimize or eliminate royalty payments to some or all of its authors.

PG is not going to provide any details because he doesn’t want to see any author being treated poorly or cheated out of income she/he reasonably expects to receive from their art and labors.

He will only say that he has not reviewed a publishing contract that he could not game to the author’s financial detriment if he were suddenly had ownership and control of the publisher’s rights to that contract.

PG has reviewed more contracts of different types and used in different businesses during the centuries of his legal career than he can remember. He has reviewed and negotiated extremely well-written contracts prepared by highly-competent attorneys working for very, very wealthy organizations owned and operated by very, very talented and intelligent individuals. He has also reviewed and negotiated contracts prepared by incompetents and idiots on the other side of the deal.

Based upon that experience, he can say that traditional publishing contracts are close to the bottom in terms of precision, enforceability and a lack of ways a publisher could avoid its expected financial obligations to its authors without the author ever knowing about it. In the event the author discovered what the publisher was doing, if the publisher was careful and willing to game the provisions of the publishing agreement in its financial favor, it might be difficult or impossible for an author to persuade a court to help the author out of the mess.

But, as usual, PG could be wrong or, given the current world situation, have been driven crazy by Covid and its attendant distortions of nearly everything.

(However, through some sort of minor miracle, PG and Mrs. PG did receive their first of two anti-Covid vaccinations earlier today, so PG’s thoughts may be muddled by unreported vaccine side effects in addition to the usual causes.)

10 thoughts on “BookExpo, Bookstores, and Libraries”

  1. My daughter (who only reads paper. Kids.) asked for a few books for Christmas, so I gave her a gift card to our local branch of a very well known used book store.

    They had none of them.

    I bought some of the titles off thriftbooks.

  2. Post pandemic non-chain bookstores will be facing good news and bad news, like pretty much everybody else.

    The (relatively) good news is that stores in big cities won’t be facing as much pressure from rising rents with the glut of commercial real estate from closing/right-sizing businesses.

    The bad news? Double the minimum wage.

    The ones with robust online operations will probably survive but even those folks will find it hard. Darwinian times won’t favor labor intensive, foot traffic dependent, low margin businesses. Any of the three will be crippling to small businesses but all three combined?

    It won’t be pretty.

    • I suspect the minimum wage is part of the economic agenda overwhelmingly supported by independent bookstores owners.

      • And the rest of the 30.2 million small business in the country, making up around half the GDP. Of course, 20 million are self-employed, like author/publishers, so they are safely out of reach of these kinds of unfunded mandates. But not any rules to treat freelancers as employees.

        It’s great when those that pass the laws don’t have to deal with the consequences.

        Rationally, minimum wage should be indexed to the Peak Cost of living in each state. But that would cause a bigger exodus of companies than the Weath Taxes that are coming.

        • Minimum wage becomes very important to politicians who want to open the borders to allow millions of unskilled laborers into the country. Without MW, this would cause wages to fall. That would affect many more than those earning the MW.

          MW keeps wages up, and increases the rolls of unemployed who depend on government for their needs.

  3. Thanks for this column, even though it made me sad. I attended some BookExpos when they were held in LA. I was both an author and a member of the press, representing AP. What an exciting, thrilling event, with famous writers and nonfiction (often autobiography) writers, including Shirley Temple Black at one event I attended. Much as my kids enjoy the laptops and iPhones and other gadgets that weren’t around then, they’ve missed a lot, too. Gone forever, those days.

    • Sounds like the Book Expo was a market. Markets exist to facilitate trade. When they do less of that, they fade away. When they do more, they grow. Amazon vs B&N?

      • Depends on which sense of “market” you use.
        While some direct and indirect sales happen there, at industry-specific shows their primary function is/was marketing and networking. Think of it as a mix of Linkedin and Facebook with some twitter and PR Webpages and a smidge of eBay, Rakuten, and Alibaba thrown in.

        And that is why these shows (Bookexpo, CES, etc) are fading and dying; their purpose has migrated online to persistent channels that replace the once or twice a year events and physical gatherings. The latter are more effective and cheaper, if less memorable.

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