NEW YORK — On the eve of BookExpo America, the publishing industry's annual convention, independent booksellers are enjoying a pleasant surprise: Membership is up.
"Despite fears of a significant number of store closings as a result of the worst economy since the Depression, the good news is that much of the ABA membership is holding its own," says Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, which represents independent stores.
The rise is tiny, from 1,401 a year ago to 1,410, but a deluge in comparison to the past two decades, when membership dropped from more than 3,000 to last year's low. Independent stores have been on the wrong end of some of the biggest trends: the spread of superstore chains; the emergence of Amazon.com and online retailers; the rise of the e-book, a tiny market three years ago, but now, for some major publishers, approaching 8 percent of total sales.
Teicher credits last year's turnaround mostly to the smarts of the independent community and a willingness to experiment, such as the literary day camp at BookPeople in Austin, Texas, or the clothing store in the Northshire Bookstore in Vermont. ABA president Michael Tucker, co-owner of Books Inc. in San Francisco, says the economy may have helped some stores, making it cheaper to find retail space in downtown locations.
"People aren't willing anymore to travel great distances just to buy a book, so you can't really afford to be off the beaten path," Tucker says. "You have to be close to the Laundromat, or the movie theater or the hardware store. Our members appreciate that you have to be part of a mix of stores."
Booksellers have also learned to economize, and BookExpo, which begins Tuesday, is one opportunity. Show manager Steven Rosato says that until recently a given store might send five to six employees. This year, two to three is more common. Librarians, enduring budget cuts nationwide, are following a similar pattern.
BookExpo has itself grown smaller, with floor space at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center down around 10 percent from last year. Organizers Reed Exhibitions have moved the show from the weekend to midweek and reduced the number of days from four to three. Instead of rotating among cities around the country, the convention has settled indefinitely in New York, home to virtually all the major publishers, who have openly questioned whether BookExpo is worth the expense when so much business can be completed online.
"I have mixed feelings, because it does add some excitement when you're moving around to different cities. But if you look at it, as a cost basis, New York is preferable," says Jamie Raab, executive vice president and publisher of Grand Central Publishing.
For three days, authors, agents, booksellers and publishers will meet in person – like a dispersed and quarrelsome, but functioning family – and discuss the virtual life. Panels include "Welcome to the eBook Revolution" and "EPUB Boot Camp: Learn How to Produce eBooks in the Industry Standard." Around 5,000 square feet of floor space, more than 10 times bigger than last year, will be dedicated to digital companies. The convention itself has accounts on Facebook and Twitter and has designed its first ever app.
"If we don't embrace the Internet the show will quickly lose its relevancy," Rosato says.
Ironically, the biggest name at this week's convention, Barbra Streisand, will not have an e-book to promote. Streisand will be discussing "My Passion for Design," a coffee table book about the decoration of her homes, from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Malibu, Calif. But a deluxe, illustrated text won't work on Amazon's Kindle and other e-devices, so publisher Viking plans no electronic edition.
The talk may be digital at BookExpo, but writers remain the story, whether celebrities (Streisand, Jon Stewart), government officials (former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice), athletes (Pele) or just plain writers (Pat Conroy). A "Celebration of Bookselling" luncheon, sponsored by the ABA, will include "The Help" novelist Kathryn Stockett, Suzanne Collins ("Catching Fire") and Paul Harding, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Tinkers," a novel greatly helped by the independent community.
Authors get to eat, but they also come to work. Best seller Nelson DeMille will spend part of Wednesday morning discussing his novels with the man who narrates the audio editions, actor Scott Brick, and another part in the autograph area ("The corral," DeMille calls it). In the afternoon, he will sign books at the booth of his publisher, the Hachette Book Group.
"Then," he says, "about 5 o'clock, I'm going for a drink."