Doc Martyn’s Soul: BEA and University Presses

O'brien galleys from BEA 2014It already seems a long time ago, but the annual book industry melee that is BookExpo America recently came and went. BEA drew its usual crowd of industry insiders, booksellers, librarians, media, and many others, plus about eight thousand members of the paying public. Publishers took booth space in varying degrees of pomposity, striving to outdo each other’s displays so that those few key people at the show (the buyers and the media) took notice of everyone’s latest attempts to reach the top of the best seller charts. In the build up to the show, during its course, and now, a week or so later, I’ve been pondering how BEA and university presses interact–or perhaps, should interact. Having completed my eighth BEA, I should be a part of the jaded, cynical crowd that complains about the hassle of reaching the Javits Center each day (and leaving at the end of the day, which is quite truly a much worse task), the expense of being in New York for a week, the lack of book buyers placing orders any more, the downtrodden, woebegone publishing industry, and so on. But I don’t feel that way. Instead, I am invigorated each year by the sight of people worming their way through overcrowded walkways between publishers of all sizes and ilk. It is a fascinating mix of people and books, and I love it.

UNP has exhibited at BEA for many years, one of the few university presses that might claim diehard status in this regard. Gone are the oft-discussed glory years when university presses hogged whole sections in the Javits Center, when “University Press Row” was actually a row and not just a block. There were seventeen university presses exhibiting this year. UNP and the University Press of New England were the only two UPs who took a double booth, but fifteen others ranged in size from the University of Hawaii Press to Yale and Harvard. All UPs in attendance were waving their university press flags high and proud. But why? What purpose does exhibiting at BEA serve? The popular publishing cynicism that I noted earlier is not simply, truth be told, not only cynical, it is, surely, based on the quite real statistical measures that publishers can apply to exhibiting: book buyers don’t attend in the numbers they used to and they certainly don’t place on-the-floor orders in the quantity they used to. Of course, part of the lack of orders and buyers can be attributed to the decline in independent bookstores, but even those few stores don’t send their staff to BEA in the numbers they used to. So why do we still bother?

For UNP there is value in attending for prestige, for media contacts, for meeting with vendors and our service providers, and because there are still some buyers who make the annual pilgrimage to our booth, who chat with us about the books we do have, and who actually place orders. Honestly, the orders are no longer the main reason for attending, more hoping for a wonderful spot of serendipity. The main reasons stem from reputation, from convenience of getting people in one place for face-to-face meetings, and from the chance to parade some of our authors through the book signing free-for-all and our booth.

There are few exhibits that provide a full return on investment in the form of dollars taken in, but BEA might be the worst. The sheer cost of taking two booths, staffing the space, shipping equipment, and so on just cannot be balanced by sales of books any more. But that kind of ROI should not be the justification for returning each year. We’ve been toying with the idea of reducing our presence to just one booth space in the future. Each time we discuss this idea in-house we shelve it fairly quickly because we believe that the value of the extra space outweighs the cost. What message do we send to the book industry and to our fellow university presses if we halve our presence with one swift chop? UNP has an impressive trade list; we continue to produce wonderful sports books and memoirs and general histories that have a genuine and significant following. Our Jewish Publication Society partnership and our recent new imprint, Potomac Books, are also trade oriented, and both drew attention and traffic
into the booth this year. Our catalogs were handed out en masse. We gave away almost four hundred galleys (Stephen Snyder-Hill’s Soldier of Change and Dan O’Brien’s Wild Idea) and about three hundred finished books (Sue Silverman’s The Pat Boone Fan Club and Al Clark’s Called Out But Safe) at signings. We took orders. We met with key partners and new vendors. The interaction with librarians, booksellers, and many others means that UNP remains at the forefront of their minds. This is the same when the sales reps swing by or they read the latest review roundup. There is a significant cost associated with this kind of trade show, but to pull away from it completely seems wrongheaded.

What about other university presses? Why are there not more exhibiting at BEA? Is there equal value for another university press if it does not have a strong trade list as there is for UNP? Should university presses take advantage of any chance to herald themselves within the industry simply so that we are not forgotten? I’d argue, yes. But I’d temper that with a call to the organizers of BEA to make it more appealing to university presses. Drop the booth price for university presses. Make a true “University Press Row” in the heart of the show, not in some outlying, no-mans-land in which attendees fear to tread. With better positioning and lower costs university presses could return in droves and we’d instantly foster a wider appreciation for what we all do and how we do it.

Next year, BEA is expanding, adding a day so more paying members of the public can enter and get a chance to meet publishers and authors. With direct-to-consumer sales so important and prominent now, this change seems smart on the part of BEA. All exhibitors have to choose whether they wish to have space in the public zone or the trade zone, but this seems to me to be a simple choice. We want to sell our books direct to the consumer. As such, we need to market direct to the consumer. If we have the chance to place ourselves in front of ten thousand or more consumers and bloggers and book-hungry people then we should take advantage of that opportunity.

UNP will be at BEA again next year. We’ll have a double booth and we’ll almost certainly be in the public side of the show. I doubt there will be more university presses on display. I hope I’m wrong, because despite the costs and the hassle and the all-too-prevalent cynicism, BEA has intrinsic value to any publisher, even those that are not overtly trade oriented. So, my call to university presses is, make the investment and return to BEA. Let’s band together and see if we can work with BEA to create a true university press presence once more, where we can convene, draw positive attention upon ourselves, and create the kind of buzz with the public and the media that we deserve.


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