University presses are rethinking how they approach the publishing industry's biggest shindig. Scott McLemee reports.

May 26, 2010

Seldom do professors have more than a vague notion of publishing as an industry -- of all that happens between the moment when the manuscript of a book is accepted and its final materialization on the shelves of bookstores and libraries. And this is as it should be. Innocence is no fault. It is best to think of the whole thing as miraculous. You write, and a grateful world reads.

My own naivete began to erode a few years ago from attending Book Expo America, the annual trade show for the publishing industry. This is a gigantic affair, lasting just over two days, usually scheduled over the weekend before Memorial Day. For some reason BEA 2010 has been scheduled for the middle of the week. By the time this column appears, I will be on my way to the cavernous display hall of the Javits Center in New York City, where Mammon exacts tribute from the Muses.

Hundreds of publishers from around the world meet with distributors and with buyers for major bookstores. The big trade presses have massive displays for their potential bestsellers, overshadowing even the most prestigious of university presses. There is a constant hum of busy people making transactions. Rights are secured. Translations are arranged. Members of the media (print and digital, mass and micro, professional and amateur) visit the booths to learn what new books are coming down the pike. Small crowds watch as translucent print-on-demand machines turn digital texts into fresh, hot paperbacks. There will be someone dressed as, say, Nostradamus, promoting a new historical novel in which he was both a vampire and a member of the Knights Templar. He may attempt to bite passers-by.

Authors make appearances and sign books – though usually not at the university press booths, which is probably for the best. There is such a thing as going from innocence to experience much too quickly.

Better to debate theories about commodification than to land in the big middle of it. You may not think of your scholarship as a commodity, but that is exactly what it is at Book Expo.

Or maybe not, this year. Preparing to make the long march up and down the aisles of the BEA, I've noticed how many university presses won't have exhibits this time.

We’re not talking about a total collapse of the scholarly book trade or anything close to it. Many large university presses will be there, including Cambridge, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, SUNY, and Yale. So will the presses of Fordham, Mercer, Minnesota, North Carolina, and many others.

Not counting something called Summit University Press (which publishes the teachings of various disembodied "Ascended Masters" regarding cosmic energies and the end of the world), there are at least 30 scholarly presses listed among the exhibitors. But there are conspicuous absences from the directory this time. The University of California Press is not listed, nor are the university presses of Iowa, Oxford, Stanford, Temple, or Texas.

I've been in touch with people from various presses to find out more about their decision to attend, or not. In some cases, it turns out their personnel will be roaming around the hall, rather than operating from a booth. Others have simply concluded that Book Expo has outlived its centrality. At least a couple of the presses listed in the directory will have a smaller presence than they have in the past.

Much of this is, of course, a predictable response to recent economic strains. Small publishers have long grumbled about the expense of having an exhibit. The smallest available booth size (a cozy one hundred square feet) costs $3,810. There are charges for every amenity, including chairs; you cannot bring your own. It is necessary for publishers to ship books, galleys, catalogs and so forth -- running to a few hundred dollars, at least, and often much more. People staffing the booth must find lodgings. And failure to pack a lunch will leave them at the mercy of rapacious hot dog vendors.

“We haven’t been to BEA in a few years,” Joseph Parsons, the acquisitions editor for the University of Iowa Press, tells me. “I talked with my marketing colleagues about this, and they told me it was a decision based on efficient allocation of resources: time and money. BEA is so big and expensive and time is at such a premium in that setting that we’ve found it a lot more productive to send our publicity manager to New York and Chicago twice a year, where she meets with media people over several days in one-on-one settings and can have real conversations about the books in the catalog. If it’s about building relationships, which it is, our approach has worked out well.”

MIT Press won’t have a booth in the exhibit hall, as in previous years -- though members of its sales force will have a spot in one of the meeting rooms set aside elsewhere on site. Colleen Lanick, MIT's publicity director, will be attending in a footloose capacity, rendezvousing with journalists and bloggers at various locations around the convention center.

"Not having a booth means I will miss some of the walk-by traffic," she says, "but it also has an upside, since I can attend more panels and sessions."

The University of Chicago Press has a strong profile for both specialized and crossover titles, so I fully expected to visit its booth for a look at forthcoming titles. But while there will be personnel to handle inquiries about publishing rights (an increasingly important matter, given the digital market) the press won't have books in the exhibit hall.

“We'll have a table in the rights area,” says Levi Stahl, the press’s publicity director, “but not the typical booth out on the floor....With the economy as troubled as it was last summer, when we had to make our decision about this year's show, we weren't convinced that having a booth there was the most efficient use of our resources."

I wondered if this was the shape of things to come. "That's not to say there's no chance we'll ever be back," says Stahl. "Rather, we'll be evaluating this year-by-year for a good while, I expect.”

In the past, Duke University Press has occupied two booths. This time, the staff will be operating out of a single one, where its representatives can meet “not only with traditional distributors and our sales reps," says publicity director Laura Sell, "but also with some of the many e-Book vendors, metadata distributors, and various other electronic vendors who frequent the show.”

But the publicist herself won’t be attending this time. In keeping with a theme that has emerged from my discussions with other university press folk, she indicates that Book Expo is simply not the red-letter event it once was.

“I did not find the show very productive for media encounters last year,” she tells me, “and I'd rather schedule a separate trip to NYC for regular publicity calls. I think we reach the book bloggers well on Twitter, so it's not worth it to go just for them.”

The decision not to have a booth for Temple University Press “was pretty much a no-brainer given financial considerations,” says Ann-Marie Anderson, its marketing director. Book Expo America “is a rather large expense on the budget with no good arguable return. Then the marketing budget was reduced; it was obvious BEA was no longer feasible.”

Anderson’s says Temple's publicist and foreign-rights coordinator will head up to New York to make the rounds, even so. But Anderson herself isn’t interested.

“I have asked myself as marketing director why I no longer feel a need to attend,” she says. “My answer is that since so few booksellers attend, I no longer get orders, so why go? I can send our special to all my accounts and to our sales reps. I use BEA merely as a professional and social networking tool. Yes, I fear our ‘trade’ titles miss out on the seasonal buzz but I ask, given the fickleness of bookbuying these days, would it have made any difference?”

Hard to say, of course. If you are publishing a book that somehow catches the attention of a person from Jon Stewart's staff, I guess it is worth the trouble and very considerable expense.

But that is a long gamble. Most books have small, distinctive audiences -- and the drift of the past few years has been toward using the less expensive (if not necessarily less demanding) approach of finding those audiences online. When you talk with university press publicists, it is clear that they are counting more now than in previous years on their authors knowing what websites, blogs, or social networking venues will be most helpful in getting out the word about their books.

Does this mean that scholars need to learn to think about that, whether they pay attention to the rest of the publishing industry or not? I'm afraid it does. There is such a thing as being too innocent. And anyway, it could be a lot worse. At least nobody is forcing you to dress like Nostradamus.


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