Ruminations on BEA, Books (or the Lack Thereof), and Bookselling: A Letter From ABA’s President

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Dear Booksellers:

Newly returned from BookExpo America, I was struck by a couple of things: one that was great, one worrying. The first is the growing emphasis on the relationship between independent booksellers and publishers — a terrific thing from our perspective. The second, something that worries me, is that what has always set BEA apart — the books themselves — seems to have a diminishing presence on the trade show floor.

This saddens me. Not that I long to have back the tired old model where every publisher brings vast quantities of books, and booksellers, librarians, bloggers, along with whomever else manages to score a badge, assault the floor, bags and roller-carts in hand, scooping up whatever has pages.

What’s new and good for booksellers about today’s BEA — the chance to mingle with publishers and publicists in fresh ways — offers opportunity: a heightened chance to introduce ourselves to the people who might send authors our way and to make a case for the skill sets of each of our individual stores in managing events and creating interest, not to mention publicity, for those authors we long to feature and promote. It seems to me that such opportunities are win-win situations for all involved.

Still, the thing that always stirred my heart about BEA was the books themselves. So, yes, I did want to get my hands on some of them — those by authors I love, the Louise Erdrichs and Terry Tempest Williamses and Richard Russos of the world, along with debut efforts by the likes of Molly Prentiss, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Sunil Yapa. And books other booksellers have told me about: the new Maggie O’Farrell, the new Amor Towles, the new Colson Whitehead.

Speaking personally, now that I don’t spend as much time buying as I once did, I want to see what’s coming next — as do the frontline booksellers who don’t buy but do hand-sell these wondrous books.

I’m not sure why change seems to inevitably result in wildly swinging pendulums rather than measured movement, but I do feel that the arc of this particular pendulum is troubling. I want to see new books at BEA — not just at author dinners or in long signing lines (I’d far rather read a new book than get a signed copy), but on the floor in publishers’ booths. I want to know what’s coming and have a chance to talk about it, to sample it. As Richard Russo said at this year’s Celebration of Bookselling, “When we press books upon one another — authors on their publishers, publishers on booksellers, booksellers on readers — we are doing what we’ve always done and always for the same reason. ‘You'll like this,’ we tell each other.”

And it’s exactly that interaction, that conversation, that always distinguished BEA from other industry events. I don’t want to lose that part — the book part. Reinvent it? Yes. Lose it? No.

I don’t know how many would agree with what I’ve said, and if some do, I’m not sure what the answer might be for such reinvention. Certainly, the increased presence of ARCs and galleys in the ABA lounge helps, and more would be better, even if it doesn’t make up for the absence of books on the floor. Maybe if booksellers and publishers put their heads together we could find some middle ground. Different-colored badges for booksellers? A full range of titles on display but galleys only given upon request?

What I do know is that booksellers sell books. Axiomatic. And to sell them we need to see them. Read them. Our sales reps are the main channel in accomplishing this, but BEA was always another channel of discovery and I’d hate to lose that channel, hate for BEA to lose its old magic even while it acquires a new purpose.

Another thing I’ve been mulling since BEA is backlist. As most of you know, we’re talking about backlist to publishers, offering up the notion that, given the opportunity, we could do far more with backlist than we presently do. That with some new incentives we could promote — and sell — backlist the way we do frontlist. Use the passionate, razzle-dazzle, promotional know-how that we all know launches so many bestsellers to relaunch backlist titles as well. With similar success.

We have posited that the major obstacle to success in selling more backlist is that we need incentives to do this because it requires work as well as expertise on our part (increased payroll, in other words). However, publishers, in order to offer incentives, currently require us to feature titles of their choosing and make the offers too complex and too short-term to be truly useful to booksellers. For our part, we know what we can and cannot do successfully. What we can do is promote and sell the books we love; what we cannot do is promote and sell books that we know aren’t right for our stores and that we aren’t passionate about — especially if such promotions are short-term or require complicated backroom procedures.

And yet … we jointly long to find a way for backlist to be reborn: To make it a far more significant part of our business — in bookstores and publishing houses alike — as it ought to be. Maybe we can attain that mutual goal by thinking of backlist differently, by thinking of our mutual promotion of backlist as a movement rather than a business tool or transaction — as something to change the playing field for all of us and serve the cause of books in the process. Maybe it’s time to fly high above the yardage lines of our old playing field and imagine the whole game anew.

It will take give on both sides, along with passion and creativity, to make this work — to make backlist a movement. But we are all long on passion and creativity when it comes to books. So my plea would be for all of us to figure this out. If we do, the rewards will be huge — for publishers, for booksellers, and for authors, but, most of all, for books themselves.

Betsy Burton
President, American Booksellers Association
The King’s English Bookshop
Salt Lake City, Utah