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Want To Sell Books? Start Gathering Fans

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This morning Book Expo America, the largest book convention in the US, and one of the largest in the world, announced that they'd dropped plans to have the exhibits open on Tuesday, the day before the convention opens. (Already the convention had been changed from its customary Friday-Sunday, to a late Tuesday-Thursday schedule, to accommodate publishers' desire for reduced costs.) The idea was that the floor would be open for a couple hours in the late afternoon-early evening, allowing for an opening night party as is done at the French book fair, the Salon du Livre, and at the American Library Association's Annual Convention. An opportunity to party, invite media, booksellers, authors, to hang out, have a keg at one booth, cheap wine at another, have a Stormtrooper mix you a cocktail at at third. Celebrate books. Create a sense of occasion, of event.

Nope. Not in publishing. Don't want to have to rush erecting our foamcore cover mock-ups.

As I confess in this article I wrote for Publishers Weekly the final day of BEA 2009, I'm on the show's Advisory Committee. I and others have been crying out not just for a party but for at least one day of the show to be open to the public. Witness the remarkable success of events like the LA Times Festival of Books (140,000 attending), the Decatur Book Festival (70,000 attending after only five years in existence), the Brooklyn Book Festival, to name some outdoor events, and New York Comicon, organized by the same folks that organize BEA, but with exhibitors who actually care about the fans, 70,000 of whom show up. (And that's the me-too Con, not the original Comicon in San Diego!).

Books was once a business where publishers sold to booksellers, and booksellers sold to readers. So BEA was an event where publishers sold to booksellers. But with the chains not needing an event to meet everyone, since everyone beats a path to their door, and with the explosion in the number of books available means that publishers need to motivate readers to read their books, and not take for granted they'll walk into bookstores and buy, the event needs to be about exciting readers/customers, not hustling the retailers.

But not only are we not getting the public let in for a day, we can't even be bothered to throw a party for the damn insiders.

Don't blame the organizers. The decisions get made by the exhibitors that pay for the most square feet at the show. I hate to repeat myself, quoting my own self, but I'm being forced to do so by the obtuseness of the industry I love.

The publishing business is not in trouble because there's no demand for books. It is in trouble because there are changes afoot in how best to satisfy the demand, changes to which there are suitable responses, two of which are fostering fan culture and generating a sense of occasion, and the leaders of the largest publishing organizations are failing in their professional responsibility to implement these responses. By reducing their participation in BEA at the same time the media participation has increased by almost 50%, by refusing to open the Fair to the readers on Sunday, these CEOs have effectively thrown in the towel. They are managing the demise of the book business, pointing fingers at any generic social forces they can find, failing to see the one place the responsibility can be found, their own damn offices.

Steve Ross, on this site, beseeched folks to stop taking potshots at publishing industry. Steve, our problem isn't the folks taking potshots at us, it is us. That pain in our foot? It's not outsiders stomping on it, it's us, shooting ourselves.


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