The Incredible Shrinking BookExpo: A 2017 Recap From An Indie Publisher's Perspective

06/04/2017 11:22 am ET Updated Jun 04, 2017

I’ve attended BookExpo (formerly BEA) ten to twelve times since I started working in book publishing in 2000. I always go with a mix of dread and anticipation. The dread has to do with the sheer overwhelm of it all. But in years past that’s generally melted away as soon as I walk onto the floor and marvel at the number of booths, the enthusiasm of bibliophiles and committed industry people, and also—importantly—the cool new ideas. I’ve always left inspired. It’s impressive out there on the floor. The big houses have booths constructed in such a way that you feel like you’re entering into a little village of sorts. And while the big presses have always dominated BookExpo, this year they succeeded in gobbling it up.

A View of Penguin Random House from 2015.
Random House
A View of Penguin Random House from 2015.

Obviously it wasn’t the intention of the organizers of BookExpo to shrink the show, nor can we blame the Big Five, but the whole thing was noticeably small. This is hearsay and I couldn’t confirm it, but an industry insider told me that eight years ago BEA’s floor space was 600,000 square feet (including booths, rights, stages, programming, etc.) and that this year it was 98,000. One-sixth. I certainly felt it.

What’s different?

1. The show’s focus has shifted from the expo to BookCon. BookCon is more about genre fiction, YA, and fan fiction, more ComicCon than BookExpo. It’s even branded as “the event where storytelling and pop culture collide.” When She Writes Press signed up for floor space at BookExpo, we were given the option to be on the “main floor” if we agreed to stay through BookCon, but it was twice the time and expense, and She Writes Press is more literary than anything, so it didn’t make sense.

2. The industry, whether consciously or not, has squeezed out small, passionate players with their intense and consistent marginalization of newcomers, their predictable resistance to change and new ideas, and the relentless drive to stack their lists with celebrity authors. Even well-meaning people propagate this. An agent I’ve known for years, when remarking on how small the show was, said, “Well I certainly don’t miss all the ‘tchotchkes.’” I know what she meant, but a lot of those tchotchkes were at least book-related services and ideas, and they added to the enthusiasm and passion of the show. I was also struck by a new subscription box called OwlCrate that had a corner booth on the main floor. It’s a cute concept, and their promised deliverable is a monthly “magical box tailored to a super fun theme!” But when I talked to the young woman at the booth about the books they include she told me, curtly, “only the Big Five.” And I said, “Oh, okay, so you wouldn’t consider indie books?” She said, “No, only the Big Five. Our readers have only expressed interest in the Big Five.” And I was like, Hmmm...really? Because in my experience readers really don’t know what imprints they’re reading. I doubt their readers are only interested in Big Five books only, but rather that it’s an easy (and frankly lazy) way to curate.

3. It’s more expensive than ever. The booth space is crazy expensive (especially in light of this year’s light foot traffic), and especially given the fact that they relegated any non-BookCon exhibitors to a secondary hall that had a different vibe. Yes, it was quiet and they couldn’t control that. But they could have controlled the fact that the ABA lounge situated at the main entrance to secondary hall (where all of us non-BookCon folks were relegated to) was an enormous curtained-off area that basically funneled people to the main floor and blocked visibility to the booths behind it.

4. I’m not the only industry person I know who’s disturbed by the celebritization of book publishing. This has been going on for years, but every year it gets more and more intense—with more featured “actor-authors” than authors who got famous from authoring books. I didn’t get a good shot of the Tom Hanks banner, but you can see it there behind the John Grisham poster—a huge banner of Tom Hanks, promoting his new book of short stories. My colleague commented that seeing this banner upon walking in to Javits sucked all the oxygen out of the room. I felt the same way.

Read Dan’s post about promoting books at BEA for a totally different angle on the show:
Dan Blank
Read Dan’s post about promoting books at BEA for a totally different angle on the show:

And here’s Isla Fisher, also a great actress, who apparently qualified to the audience at the Children’s Author Breakfast that she’s “not a real author.” But you have a book, Isla. You have multiple books. So you are an author. And I can’t think of anything that takes the wind of the sails of aspiring authors faster than celebrities insisting they’re not authors at events designed to promote said books. Because guess what? It’s SUPER EASY to get a book deal when you’re already famous. In fact, that’s basically the prerequisite to get a book deal in today’s publishing climate.

Isla Fisher at BookExpo Children’s Author Breakfast
Daily Mail
Isla Fisher at BookExpo Children’s Author Breakfast

We at She Writes Press have sort of been hanging on in the past two years, believing that BookExpo gives us visibility and legitimacy. We want to participate in our industry’s largest annual book trade fair. There have been a lot of good things about being there. We get tons of positive feedback. I take meetings, but honestly, I could make a trip to New York and have those meetings outside of BookExpo for a lot less money. We have invited our authors in the past three years, giving them our honest assessment of what to expect. Jane Friedman wrote an important post earlier this year called “Authors: Think Twice Before Paying to Exhibit at Book Expo (BEA),” in which she rightly warned authors about scams and expressly shared her opinion (which I share) that authors aren’t welcome at BookExpo. I felt a little bad at our author dinner on Wednesday night when I old my attending authors that the people on the floor were not going to be impressed that they had a new book out, but then again, this is BookExpo, and there are authors and books everywhere. So having a book of your own is a little mundane, yes. I still think BookExpo is an amazing experience for a new author, but I think it’s more about “the experience” of taking it all in and soaking up your own legitimacy as an author than it is about tangible publicity outcomes.

I can’t say whether or not there will be a next year for us where BookExpo is concerned, but many people I talked to feel the way I do. They don’t feel that BookExpo is a place for independents. Instead BookExpo has catered to the big players and made the rest of us feel second-best. This is what the industry does well, though—to the detriment of creativity, community, passion, and inclusivity. You can only shout so much at the people in their ivory towers, but maybe this year’s BookExpo opened the industry’s eyes. But maybe not. After all, if you didn’t stray from the main room, you might not even have noticed just how drastic a change this year’s BookExpo really was.