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Notes from a Visit to BookExpo America

The Purple Crayon Blog February 2008
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These notes are from my visit to BookExpo in New York City in the summer of 2007. It's taken me several months to write them up, which actually gives me some perspective on it, and the opportunity to compare it to the ALA Midwinter recently held in Philadelphia. ALA is clearly a better place for writers and illustrators to go to scout publishers, for reasons that I'll make clear.

BookExpo America started out as the American Bookseller's Association's annual convention. It was a convention put on by and for booksellers, and so publishers attended and put out their new books for the booksellers to see. Some years ago, the ABA sold the rights to the show to Reed, a publishing conglomerate that also owns Publishers Weekly. What's now called BEA is still held every June, but is now aimed at "publishers, booksellers, librarians and rights professionals from around the world" to quote the official BookExpo America web site. Here are some of my observations from my visit:

BEA has always been a place where publishers promote the books they hope will be big sellers, which means it has always been more of a venue for adult books than children's books. Recently the divide between ALA and BEA as a place to go to learn about publishers and their lists has widened. At ALA, you are more likely to see a publisher's entire frontlist, and parts of their backlist, and catalogs are easy to obtain; at BEA, the large publishers, in particular, are showcasing only some of their books. In the large, cross-aisle booth of one children's publisher I found only large reproductions of jackets and book-signings; in another, carefully arranged stacks of ARCs (advance reader copies)--great if you wanted to pick up reading material, not so great to learn about a publisher's entire list.

Now that BEA is owned by Reed, they have also tried to broaden its scope--if they relied on booksellers it would be shrinking along with the number of independent bookstores. So BEA has also become a rights show, like Frankfurt and Bologna. Rights business is only a component of the show, but there is a special rights area for meetings. And a sizable number of the children's book publishers at BEA during my 2007 visit were from the UK and other countries. They were at BEA not to sell to booksellers but to sell the US rights to their books to US publishers, or perhaps to find a distribution partner; I talked to a few of these companies to confirm this. I was impressed by some of their lists, but since they aren't US publishers they may not be open to working with US-based writers and illustrators.

I also noticed a surprising number of booths put up by companies that, when I talked to the people in the booth, turned out to be self-publishers or very close--either all of their titles were written by the owner, or most of them were, with a few others thrown in. It was a bit of a downer to realize this. When I first arrived at BEA and had a quick look around, I was excited to see quite a large and varied children's publishing contingent, including a number of new companies, but after I had walked around, and subtracted the foreign publishers and self-publishers, I realized that there really weren't that many companies there.

Other than surveying the publishers and how they were presenting themselves, I also noticed a few fairly obvious developments in the books being published:

In general BEA has never been a show where you will find editors. This is a show for the marketing staff, and now for the subrights department. Add that to the way publishers are showing off their books--or not showing them off--and BEA today is really not worth going out of your way to get to, if you are a writer or illustrator.

The mid-winter and summer ALA conventions, however, are still worthwhile, so see also my notes on the ALA convention, written when I was working at Charlesbridge but relevant several years later--ALA has not changed much at all.

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