Dinner Saturday night. 12 of us. Three spouses who had no particular interest in the BEA. Eight of us with one interest or another in the book business, but no possibility of personally being an exhibitor. And one publishing company CEO with a stand.
Of course, I got my money’s worth. I got in free as a speaker and live in Manhattan. I had several meetings with publishers and distributors on stands they were paying for that could result in assignments. I had other meetings with a bookstore chain and some technologists that came because of the publishers too that also could result in work.
An ROI of pretty much infinity. We all felt that way. Except for the exhibitor.
“No way it is worth it,” he reported. He even had to plan on having four people at the show on Sunday, just to cover the booth when he knew in advance there’d be hardly any productive business conversation. (BEA is fixing this next year by shifting to a mid-week schedule.)
I am always skeptical of any individual’s ability to characterize a show like this based on their own experience. After all, there were considerably more than 20,000 people there. There were dozens of panels going on that had great impact that I didn’t even know were happening, because I was engaged doing something on the floor. But, speaking for me, it was a great show. Lots of fun and lots of business.
Martin Levin, whose first ABA was in 1950 and who commented on my previous BEA post, argued with me about my prediction that BEA would soon come to an end. I had to remind him not to confuse what I say I think will happen from what I would hope would happen. It is work to keep those things separate.
Martin said, “being fat is no reason to commit suicide. This show is fat. It needs to go on a diet!” Another trade show veteran from one of the supporting technology companies said very much the same thing.
But wait, there’s another point of view. Make it bigger! Richard Nash and Michael Cairns (two smart guys I agree with a lot, but not this time) both suggest “open the show up to the public.” Frankfurt does! Book festivals in Los Angeles and Miami attract huge crowds!
Sorry, public participation is not the “solution” for this show. What ails this industry is horizontality! What ails this industry is dedication to the book as a form! Publishers need to understand niches better; they don’t need to try to replicate the horizontal world that is disappearing in newspapers and bookstores through trade shows!
What made BEA such a fabulous experience for those of us for whom it was that was the aggregating of all of the industry players from around the world. And not just publishers! What do Bowker, Bookmasters, and Klopotek (just to name three exhibitors who were important to me at this past weekend’s show) have to gain by having the public come in? The smartest publishers who are beginning to understand verticality — like Wiley or F+W or Taunton — need to meet the public in verticals. They don’t need to spend a beautiful Sunday fending off people looking for a free novel or a free children’s book. (And, of course, the German model isn’t “free books for the public”. Exhibitors sell the books to the public off the stands! I wonder what the sales tax authorities in New York would say to that…)
I’d love it if Reed would keep BEA going for years and years, particularly when they bring the mountain to me on my very own home island. But I’m still having trouble seeing why publishers will keep paying and, if they don’t, no more show. I’m afraid that what will work for publishers is smaller and more focused, not larger and more horizontal. That may very well not work for Reed. I expect very shortly it won’t work for Reed. I think the rights-trading piece can be revived in a much cheaper form. The retailer-facing piece — horizontally — is a dinosaur. And all the PR opportunities occur because of the size and glitz. Like most horizontal PR opportunities for books, that won’t get replaced either.
My message of verticality is clearly not getting through! The Washington Post was kind enough to feature me on the front page of today’s Style section with a lengthy and, as far as it went, accurate summary of my Shift speech from last Thursday. But, you know what? Not one mention of the central theme: verticality!
These are twilight times for the good old days.