I went to my first ABA (American Booksellers Association) Convention in Washington, DC in 1970. I had just written “The View from Section 111” for Prentice-Hall, about the New York Knicks’ first championship season, which was going to be published that October. Prentice-Hall threw a party for authors with a book coming that Fall, and among the others the only name I knew was Senator Barry Goldwater.
I started to attend regularly beginning with the 1973 ABA in Los Angeles. Since then I think I’ve missed one, so this year would make number 37, including that first one at the Shoreham.
The ABA at the Shoreham was in the basement of a not terribly huge hotel. It was probably a bit bigger than this, but it felt like it was about the size as the exhibition at Book Business Conference & Expo at the Marriott was this year. The 1973 show in Los Angeles was bigger, indicating, I think, that there was growth the Shoreham wasn’t large enough to handle, because the ABA had been at the Shoreham for many years. After that it bounced around: frequently at McCormick Place in Chicago, split between two hotels in New York (before Javits existed) in 1975, San Francisco when they opened Moscone in the late 1970s.
When I was a pup, the ABA was definitely an order-writing show. The number of independent bookstores who bought a big chunk of any trade list properly presented to them was in the thousands. (Now: what would you say? the dozens? wouldn’t hundreds be an exaggeration?) Only a few of the biggest publishers had sales forces large enough and disciplined enough to really cover them all, so most exhibitors encountered retailers who would do immediate business. Everybody had some sort of show “special” to encourage ordering. I think for many years it was “blue badges” that signified booksellers: you kept an eagle-eye out for them as the traffic streamed by and you knew exactly what and how you were going to pitch them.
Each night at the main convention hotels, several publishers — and all the mass-market publishers — ran “hospitality suites” offering liquid refreshment and munchies very deep into the evening. You’d make the rounds of those after you had gone to whatever events, dinners, and parties had taken place in other locations. I always found the time in the hospitality suites to be a highlight of the convention.
The show floor for many years was open all day Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday morning. Friday was set-up day. On Tuesday night was the ABA banquet, and people stayed and went to it! Those who know me that banquets aren’t my cup of tea, but for some reason I was at the one at the San Francisco ABA in 77 or 78. I remember it well because I was seated at a table with Jill Krementz, the noted photographer and wife of Kurt Vonnegut.
Roysce Smith was the longtime Executive Director of the ABA and he was the Major Domo of the burgeoning convention. Toward the end of his career Roysce’s legs couldn’t carry his large-ish body around the growing acreage of convention floor, so he cruised the aisles in a motorized vehicle.
Daisy Maryles was one of PW’s key reporters then. Daisy didn’t work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, so she really worked the hall on Friday while people were setting up. In those days, of a smaller industry and smaller companies and the ABA being a very important annual event, the executive team (maybe the CEO, certainly the sales execs) was in the hall in blue jeans on set-up day making sure everything was shipshape. So Daisy actually got much more bandwidth and information by working the hall on Friday than she would on Saturday, when the publishers’ attention turned to the booksellers.
The Walden and Dalton chains grew fast in the 1970s and 1980s, but the independents continued to thrive as well. So the ABA Convention continued to just grow and grow. I remember there was a point when there were only a handful of places in the country that could host it because the convention hall acreage required was so great.
Then in the 1990s, new ABA Director Bernie Rath, who had replaced Roysce when he retired. sold the show to Reed Exhibitions. First Bernie sold Reed 49% of the show in 1992 and then the additional 2% that gave Reed control of the show in 1996. After that, its name changed to BookExpo America.
Although “education” had become part of the show during the ABA’s tenure, Reed set out to expand that aspect of things and to make the show bigger and better. But their timing was terribly unfortunate. The long expansion of the US book trade, which had continued pretty much unabated from World War II until the mid-1990s, stopped and started to reverse in the internet age. Even worse for the industry trade show, consolidation of both big publishers and retailers accelerated. That meant fewer publisher customers to buy the booth space, and fewer retailers walking the aisles to make the booth space valuable.
Last year’s convention in Los Angeles was the first where it really felt slower and sparser. At the time, BEA was scheduled to go to Las Vegas in 2010 and it seemed to me that, if they did, it would be the last convention. Things had evolved to the point where publishers were paying good money for booth space to be sitting targets for consultants and new tech propositions to put forth their propositions. How long, I wondered, would publishers pay good money to make prospecting for work efficient for me and others like me?
The BEA got the same message. It has been announced that the show is in New York from now on. That makes sense in that the publishers who pay the most for booth space can now, at least, avoid the great expense of flying New York staff somewhere else in the country and putting them up. That forestalls Armageddon, but it can’t be permanently avoided. New plans have been announced to make the trade show run mid-week, rather than across the weekend. That anticipates what will be this year’s embarrassment, which is that hardly anybody will be there on Sunday.
The BEA of today isn’t the ABA of old. The booksellers are just about gone. The late-night hospitality suites don’t exist anymore. And hardly any publisher goes to the show expecting to write orders. It is time to organize a betting pool where the question is: how many more BEAs before, like its Canadian counterpart, it simply ceases? Three? Four? Hard to see more than that.