BookExpo: The Abridged Editon

Book dealers have always counted on flashy dust jackets to sell difficult titles. That may explain why there’s a new name for the American Booksellers Association’s annual convention at McCormick Place this weekend–“BookExpo America.” But a surprising number of publishing houses have decided not to buy into it.

The massive three-day trade show has traditionally allowed booksellers and publishers from around the world to meet and schmooze, to learn about upcoming book releases, and to–perhaps–talk business. Then last year the ABA, a group mostly made up of independent bookstores, lost Random House after suing the giant publisher for allegedly offering sweetheart deals to the larger chains. Since then other publishing heavy hitters have joined Random House on the no-show list. Doubleday, Simon & Schuster, Harper/Collins, and William Morrow won’t have exhibits at this year’s convention, citing the high cost of attending. BookExpo spokesman Greg Mowery says the defections, while not necessarily permanent, indicate that book publishers are reconsidering the ways they do business: “Publishers were spending a lot of money at these trade shows, and now I think they are in the throes of rethinking what they want to do.” While many of the big publishers are staying home, Mowery says, the total number of booths should remain stable because the fair is now open to more exhibitors with only a peripheral interest in selling at bookstores. These include purveyors of music CDs, videotapes, computer software, and gourmet foods.

But along with the big New York publishing houses, at least two of Chicago’s small, established trade-book companies have also decided to sit out this year’s show. Academy Chicago Publishers and Ivan R. Dee, Inc., cite growing concerns about the effectiveness of the event itself as well as the future direction of publishing and bookselling. Executives at both publishers say the trade show has become too much of a nonbusiness event, and an expensive one at that.

“The number of blue badges–the industry people who actually buy the books–has been decreasing at the trade show in recent years,” says Alexander Dee, Ivan R. Dee’s vice president for sales. Furthermore, he argues, most publishers deal with buyers at bookstores almost every day, so they don’t need a booth at BookExpo. Dee even forfeited his $1,762 deposit, or 75 percent of his total booth fee, when he decided to scuttle his plans; he figured spending the remaining 25 percent plus additional costs wouldn’t have paid off. This will be the company’s first absence in nearly a decade.

For the first time in its 21-year history, Academy Chicago is forgoing the trade fair. Like Alexander Dee, Academy Chicago vice president Jordan Miller has found his company doing less business at the convention. “We used to get 50 or 60 orders during the fair, but that isn’t happening now,” he says. Miller is also unhappy about the high cost of participating in BookExpo, even now that it’s held in his company’s own backyard. “Rates have gone up, and there’s less flexibility about how you pay for your booth.”

Both Ivan R. Dee and Academy Chicago have been affected by sweeping changes in the book business. For one thing, say Miller and Dee, the growth of superstore chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble has hurt smaller publishers. “Too many bookstores with too many books are chasing too few book buyers,” explains Miller. Dee thinks it will eventually harm the large chains: “I think a shakeout is in the offing.”

The onslaught of the superstores has forced publishers to grapple with an avalanche of “returns,” unsold books sent back to publishers for credit. Miller says Academy Chicago’s returns averaged 15.6 percent from 1980 through 1995, but since then the figure has skyrocketed to nearly 35 percent. Dee notes a similar change. “All these returns can destroy a publisher’s cash flow,” he adds. Like others in the publishing business, Dee is looking for ways to cut costs: “One area that’s easier to ignore than others is booths at trade shows.” Miller says he hasn’t decided whether he’ll participate in BookExpo 1998. But Dee says he hopes his company’s absence is only temporary. “Our intention is to be there next year.”

Dreaming of a Green Christmas

It was a far-from-merry Christmas last year for the producers of That’s Christmas! The multimillion-dollar mu-sical at the Shubert Theatre was supposed to become an annual holiday treat, but Chicagoans turned a cold shoulder, forcing the production to quietly cancel performances and sneak out of town earlier than scheduled. Yet that costly debacle won’t deter the granddaddy of all holiday shows–New York’s Radio City Christmas Spectacular–from parading into town next December. A new version of the Radio City Music Hall show, featuring the world-famous Rockettes, will play 22 performances between December 11 and 27 at the Rosemont Theatre.

The holiday show is a huge moneymaker for New York-based Radio City Productions. Last year the show played in two additional locales outside New York City–Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Branson, Missouri–and overall grossed nearly $44 million in just under two months. Now Radio City bigwigs want to find out if it will fly in larger markets like Chicago and Detroit.

One source says Radio City executives raced into town last year to see That’s Christmas!, but nothing they saw at the Shubert made them change their plans. What’s more, they appear to have learned something: The Radio City show will play fewer performances at lower prices. That’s Christmas! charged $60 for its best seats, while the Radio City show will top out at $49.50. For now Radio City appears confident enough to make a long-term commitment–the company has reportedly inked a 20-year deal with the Rosemont.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jordan Miller photo by Nathan Mandell.