By Edward Nawotka
This article originally appeared in BookBrunch.
It is no secret that this year’s BookExpo America – the primary event in the US book trade calendar – was significantly smaller than in years past, maybe by as much as 25% (official numbers are due shortly). Part of the reason is that the fair moved from its home in New York City, where it has been based for the past dozen years, to Chicago. While many lauded the opportunity to meet the Midwestern booksellers – and Chicago has some of the most impressive bookstores in the US, including Seminary Co-Op and Unabridged Books – the truth is that many New York publishers big and small either sent small teams of junior staff or didn’t come at all. Also contributing to the shrinkage of the fair was the sale of Perseus’ publishing imprints to Hachette and its distribution business to Ingram earlier this year, with the result that another significant company was consolidated away.
Unlike London or Frankfurt, where rights trading is the main event, BEA (as it is colloquially known) has instead functioned primarily as a marketing platform and a hype machine catering to booksellers and the media. Signings featuring celebrities are used to gin up attention – and this year was definitely subdued: aging icons such as actress Jamie Lee Curtis, basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the musician Kenny Loggins appeared, while speaking as a member of the press, I saw perhaps a dozen of my colleagues, including several who were semi-retired (such is the state of traditional, professional book coverage in the US). When it comes to generating buzz these days, it’s all about bloggers – who had their own day-long conference concurrent with BEA.
As for booksellers, Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association told Publishers Weekly that “65% of the ABA members attending BEA have not been to BEA in the past two years”, and many of those were from the central United States, a region not typically catered to by New York publishers, who tend to be oriented toward the two coasts. Still, independent booksellers remain the key constituency to influence when it comes to generating buzz around a book. Much of this is done early in the year – in January or February – when an event called The Winter Institute is held. Over the past half dozen years, this gathering of the top independent booksellers run by the American Booksellers Association has supplanted BookExpo America in its ability to “make books”.
During previous BEAs, one could expect at least one or two titles to emerge from the pack, but with the professional press having a limited bandwidth for books and booksellers being more economical in allocating shelf-space, publishers tend to focus their attention and lavish money on a handful of potential hits and surefire bestsellers. While old war horse bestsellers such as John Grisham and Nicholas Sparks have new books coming out, this year’s BEA rolled out more or less as anticipated. On the show floor, praise was loudest for Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad (publishing in September from Doubleday), which puts an alt-historical spin on the story of a slave seeking freedom in the antebellum South, while bookseller favorite Ann Patchett – who runs her own bookstore in Nashville, Tenn – garnered attention for her family saga Commonwealth (Harper, publishing in September). Among debuts, The Nix by Nathan Hill (publishing in August from Knopf), which offers a comedic look at politics circa 1968 and timed to hit stores just as American election cycle is about to hit its apex, was repeatedly cited as a potential breakout hit, and Emma Cline’s The Girls, a novel about a young woman caught up in a Charles Manson-like cult, is the first book to emerge from a rumoured $2 million, three-book deal the now 26-year-old author signed with Random House – so there’s a lot at stake in making it work.
BEA is famous for its “Buzz” panels – which cover Adult, Young Adult and Middle Grade books – as well as breakfasts and private lunches hosted by publishers. These are useful providers of a kind of instant curation for the thousands of new titles on offer and a snapshot of prevailing trends. Here, “youth-in-peril books” was a prevailing theme – be they Emma Flint’s Little Deaths, about a New York mother accused of murdering her own children in 1965 (Hachette publishes it in January 2017) or Emily Fridlund’s novelHistory of Wolves (published by Atlantic Monthly Press in January 2017), which features child pornography and murder. Among the few non-fiction titles being touted at the show was Gary Younge’s Another Day in the Death of America, which tells the stories of minors shot in a single 24-hour period in 2013 (published by Nation Books in October). Surprisingly, no political blockbusters emerged – not even a Trump title – despite the media circus surrounding the presumptive Republican nominee for President.
Globally, the industry is primed for another phenomenon the likes of which we haven’t seen since Harry Potter or Fifty Shades– though greatest anticipation in YA is for the January publication of Carve the Markfrom Veronica Roth, the first of a new duology from the author of the wildly popular Divergent series. Reed, the company responsible for producing BEA, has capitalised on the popularity of the young adult genre, launching BookCon three years ago. This year’s edition in Chicago, held on the Saturday after BEA in the same venue, attracted some 7,000 mostly-teenage fans whose parents paid for them to join friends in snapping selfies with some of the dozens of authors signing books, and to buy discounted editions from publishers. Rumour has it that BEA, which this year was cut down to two-and-a-half days, will be cut even shorter next year when the event returns to New York, with an additional day added for BookCon.
On the digital side, there was little action at this BEA. This is unsurprising, considering that unit sales of ebooks in the US fell 13% last year, according to Nielsen. As is well known, print books surged on the back of colouring books and, further to this trend towards mindful creativity, Workman is positioning itself to lead the next charge with its forthcoming “Paint by Sticker” series, which lets you recreate artistic masterpieces (Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, for examples) “one sticker at a time”. Look for them in stores this September.