2017 marked the 34th year that the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) represented member titles at BookExpo. Much has changed in three decades, of course, but the rapidity of change over the past several years has been especially head spinning. The introduction of BookCon in 2014 has proved a major precipitator of this change, but it’s not the only factor to consider. Incredibly high booth prices, an increased focus on celebrity authors and Big 5 publishers, and the intentional squeezing out of technology providers, self-published authors, book bloggers, and small presses have all contributed to a rapid shift in how the industry experiences BookExpo today.
According to ReedPOP, the organization that produces both BookExpo and BookCon, “BookExpo is meant to create meaningful interactions in a focused professional environment while BookCon is built to directly connect fans with the authors and brands they love.” In other words, BookExpo is a B2B show and BookCon is a B2C show.
For now, let’s leave BookCon aside and talk directly about BookExpo. The 2017 BookExpo shrunk in multiple ways.
The name shrunk from BookExpo America to just “BookExpo.”
The timeline shrunk from a three-day show to a two-day show.
The total event attendance shrunk from around 20,000 attendees in 2015 (the last time BookExpo was in New York City) to around 7,500 attendees in 2017.
In addition, I read in Brooke Warner’s extremely honest recap of the show, “The Incredible Shrinking BookExpo: A 2017 Recap From An Indie Publisher’s Perspective,” that she heard eight years ago BookExpo’s floor space was 600,000 square feet (including booths, rights, stages, programming, etc.) and that this year it was 98,000. One-sixth of the size. This is hearsay, of course, and can’t be proven. Regardless, the fact that many joked about the professional sports that could be played in the extremely wide aisles exemplifies how “airy” the show floor was in 2017.
It felt small because it was small. As mentioned above, total conference attendance in 2015 was verified by ReedPOP at 20,895. In 2017, exhibit hall and conference attendance (excluding exhibitors) was verified by ReedPOP at 7,425. Since ReedPOP hasn't (yet) released exhibitor numbers for 2017 I can't say how much the addition of these would change the conversation. It won't be by more than a couple thousand, however.
The spin from BookExpo is that the drop in attendance was intentional. Brien McDonald, Event Director for BookExpo and BookCon, explained it this way:
"As many of you know, our main goal for BookExpo this year was to curate a high-quality attendance of the people exhibitors told us they value the most. We did this through a professional application process that reviewed and qualified all non-buying categories like self-published authors, bloggers, digital service providers and consultants. The result was a solid group of 7,425 attendees comprised primarily of booksellers, librarians, retailers and media. This gave the right people the time and space for meaningful interactions on the show floor.
From IBPA’s perspective (and mine), there is so much wrong with the statement above. The main issue is the deliberate snubbing of non-traditional players. BookExpo used to be a place where book industry professionals, the new and the seasoned, could all gather and learn from one another. It was a celebration of all things publishing. Now it’s a show for the Big 5. We’ve been feeling the pinch here at IBPA for a few years, but still believed there was value for the IBPA members who displayed and attended the show. Considering this year’s show, our views are changing.
IBPA Activities at BookExpo and BookCon
Before expanding on IBPA’s changing views of the show itself, I want to take a second to highlight some of the amazing books and people that participated in the 2017 show as a benefit of their IBPA membership. BookExpo may be shrinking, but the quality of books coming out of independent publishing certainly isn’t.
Spanning 50 feet and featuring 280 unique titles, IBPA’s cooperative booth was a beacon of inclusivity and activity for members and non-members alike. In addition to displaying our members’ books, IBPA staff facilitated thirty-two in-booth author signings, hosted a networking cocktail hour, and recorded six author interviews. We’re excited about these interactive elements because of how they help level the playing field for independent publishers by providing cost effective (in the case of the cocktail reception: free!) on-site marketing and networking opportunities.
IBPA's 50-foot cooperative booth at BookExpo 2017 in New York City.
Author, artist, and musician Michael Koep signs copies of his book, LEAVES OF FIRE, in IBPA's cooperative booth during BookExpo 2017. Koep is published by IBPA member Will Dreamly Arts. LEAVES OF FIRE is part 2 in his Newirth Mythology series. (Also pictured: IBPA staff member Joanne Kenny scans attendee badges, capturing leads that are then shared with the participating publisher.)
We didn’t just bring books onsite, of course, we also brought people. In 2017, IBPA ordered 146 badges for members who wanted to attend the expo. Most were free badges connected to displaying a book in IBPA’s cooperative booth. The rest were discounted badges saving members 100s of dollars off the general badge price. Honestly, I wish more members would take advantage of the free or discounted badge benefit. Experiencing BookExpo first-hand is still one of the best ways to understand how the traditional book industry works and stay connected to colleagues and others who can be a benefit to you (…and who you can benefit).
I, for example, held meetings with several organizations in my role as CEO of IBPA with the goal of helping level the playing field for our members. Here is the list of organizations I held meetings with:
A consistent agenda item for my meetings with the organizations above was the introduction of IBPA's Industry Standards Checklist for a Professionally Published Book. In March 2017, IBPA's Advocacy Committee published the Industry Standards Checklist with the goal of providing book authors and industry professionals an at-a-glance gauge of the professional presentation of any book in order to help level the playing field between indie publishers and large-scale conglomerates. I'm happy to report the checklist was warmly received by those I spoke to. More about the checklist and the goals surrounding its publication is available online.
I could take all the meetings above in large part because of the amazing IBPA staff and volunteers who made sure the IBPA cooperative booth was covered. This year, three IBPA members volunteered their time to assist in the cooperative booth. Many thanks go to Don Stevens of Merge Publishing, Ebonye Gussine Wilkins of August Rose Press, and Kimberly Peticolas of Bigger Pocket Books for the numerous hours they spent on their feet talking with booth visitors about the IBPA member books on display.
In addition, I’m sincerely grateful for those members who purchased a private booth through IBPA. These members were:
Finally, it’s no exaggeration to say this program would not be possible without the incredible dedication and overall good cheer of Terry Nathan, IBPA Chief Operations Officer, and Joanne Kenny, IBPA Member Benefits Liaison. Thank you, Terry and Joanne, for all you do!
The IBPA cooperative booth team consisted of staff and member volunteers alike. From left to right: Ebonye Gussine Wilkins (August Rose Press - volunteer), Don Stevens (Merge Publishing - volunteer), Angela Bole (IBPA - staff), Terry Nathan (IBPA - staff), Joanne Kenny (IBPA - staff), and Kimberly Peticolas (Bigger Pockets Books - volunteer).
What about BookCon?
Again, BookCon, held Saturday and Sunday, is billed as a show connecting “fans with the authors and brands they love.” The fans are mostly teenage girls and the authors are mostly big sellers. If you’re trying to reach either a YA audience or readers in their 20s, the show could work for you from a business perspective. Or, I think it could be fun to attend as a fan girl or boy. Unless you're interested in one of these two options, however (i.e., reaching younger readers or participating as a fan), I recommend giving it a pass.
The show floor chatter about the health of BookExpo wasn’t positive. Many people speculated that ReedPOP may, in fact, be phasing out BookExpo in favor of BookCon. Bets were made as to how long this phase out might take and where the industry would go for its B2B interactions should it happen.
ReedPOP heard the grumblings and addressed them in a June 7, 2017 letter to exhibitors (copied below) where they reaffirmed their commitment to a BookExpo, BookCon combo. Even so, in its current form, BookExpo is much less inclusive then it used to be and the value proposition for smaller independent publishers and self-published authors is becoming harder and harder to see.
At its best, BookExpo is where the industry meets and reinvigorates itself, leaving attendees exhausted, but inspired. This could still be the case for IBPA members who attend the show in person and IBPA will promote physical attendance for 2018. I think there is still value in attending and getting a sense for what the traditional book industry is all about. In addition, through IBPA, you can participate in an author signing, record an author interview, and gain access to the educational sessions.
On the other hand, it’s becoming harder and harder for us to promote passive book display without physical attendance. Foot traffic is something unknown publishers with limited budgets depend on and BookExpo’s smaller attendance numbers mean less foot traffic. At the same time, those 7,425 people who did attend seemed to skip the traditional browsing that was such a part of previous shows in favor of jumping from pre-planned meeting to pre-planned meeting – a good enough use of time, I suppose, but not something that fosters the serendipitous discovery of new books.
The net outcome of all above is that the value proposition for passive book display alone simply isn’t there. It’s too early to know exactly how, but I can imagine IBPA’s cooperative booth to be a very different place in 2018 as we move to a focus on active opportunities (attendance, book signings, author interviews, educational sessions, etc.) rather than passive display.
Stay tuned for further details about IBPA programming at BookExpo and BookCon 2018. In the meantime, feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below or email them to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d be happy to hear from you.
Below, in full, is the recap letter sent from Brien McDonald, Event Director of BookExpo and BookCon, to all BookExpo exhibitors.
LEADING THE BOOK INDUSTRY INTO THE FUTURE
Thank you for participating in this year's BookExpo and BookCon. Instead of the usual press release to recap the state of the show, I wanted to share my thoughts with you directly.
Like the book industry our event is in transition, but the story remains the same ...BookExpo is meant to create meaningful interactions in a focused professional environment while BookCon is built to directly connect fans with the authors and brands they love. They are both designed to energize and empower our industry.
As we just experienced, BookExpo and BookCon are powerful platforms to launch books to your most important audiences: trade, media and readers. We are proud of the work we are doing with BookCon as it provides value to our customers in a rapidly changing market, but these changes will not come at the expense of BookExpo's B2B environment. Serving the trade is more important and crucial than ever.
BookCon was created to support and celebrate the powerful position readers hold while continuing to drive value to BookExpo. These two worlds must coexist at our events just as they do in the market. One will not grow at the expense of the other; it's the combination of the two that make our events so invaluable.
Last week gave us a lot to celebrate as an industry. Attendance at our education sessions and author talks was exceptionally high and audiences engaged with a diverse lineup that showcased the new face of the industry and reflected a more modern readership. It was a week where booksellers and librarians grew connections through workshops, panels, luncheons and networking receptions. We connected exhibitors and attendees in new ways, some digital and some analog. We personally matched over one hundred exhibitors and attendees in our new Recommendations booth, hosted a roundtable for museum store buyers, toured key buyers through the show floor to introduce them to exhibitors and gave customers the tools to arrange meetings beforehand and capture data onsite.
Now let's talk about numbers. As many of you know our main goal for BookExpo this year was to curate a high-quality attendance of the people exhibitors told us they value the most. We did this through a professional application process that reviewed and qualified all non-buying categories like self-published authors, bloggers, digital service providers and consultants. The result was a solid group of 7,425 attendees comprised primarily of booksellers, librarians, retailers and media. All of these categories were up drastically from last year. This gave the right people the time and space for meaningful interactions on the show floor. For BookCon we're proud to say we hit our goal of 20,000 fans - an amazing community of passionate readers.
We do recognize that our choice to make the event more compact on the calendar created challenges for domestic and international exhibitors that seek only B2B interaction and we are actively addressing those challenges. Very soon you will see a strategy that is more productive for these communities and in line with our commitment to a robust trade environment and are eager to strengthen distribution, rights and international business at the show.
Ultimately, we know that creating strong connections between authors, brands, retailers and readers is critical for the health of the industry. We also know that an effective trade event that injects vibrancy and celebrates books in the publishing capital of the U.S. is equally critical. We are working hard to make sure BookExpo reflects both of these and evolves to meet the needs of an industry that has transformed significantly in the hundred years since this event was conceived. This evolution is not without its challenges, we know this and see it but we remain committed to refining the amazing core that is BookExpo and pushing our combined platform to new heights as the place to launch books in the largest publishing market in the world.
Thank you again for your participation and I encourage you to contact me with any questions or thoughts you have.
Event Director | BookExpo & BookCon
Adding a follow-up comment to that which I just posted. 1,000 characters is limiting.
Many thanks to Angela, Terry, and others at IBPA. I would never have come this far without you! And the journey continues!
I’m a new author; this was my first Expo. My observations/discussions with seasoned participants parallel IBPA’s report.
When the initial awe abated, determining an author’s role proved challenging. I wanted neither publisher nor agent. My goal -- plant seeds for my own book, "Write to Influence!" I placed info in the media room; sat at tables with strangers to initiate lucrative conversations; and chatted with taxi drivers (who also want powerful resumes), people on the subway, and seatmates on Broadway.
Worthwhile? Don't know. I planted seeds; we'll see what results. Glad I went? Yes! Learning experience? Definitely. The Expo also offered workshops. Benefits are subjective, based on the author’s interest/knowledge about the offered topics. Would I attend again? Hmm.
Wish me luck at the ALA show. This time, I’ll sign books (Sat, 24 Jun, 10:00 a.m., booth 3529; please tell librarians. "Write to Influence!" really does change lives … It’s why I began this journey.