Book Biz: Chicago Book Expo 2016, Not Exactly New York (thank God)

After skipping the last six or seven NYC Book Expos I was anxious to see what the 2016 Chicago version would be like.

Frankly, I liked it.

Sure, the energy level on the floor wasn’t actually a buzz. At times it seemed more like a snore. The hall seemed to clear out an hour or two before the show closed, and even during the mid afternoon many attendees seemed a bit Zombie-like, dutifully trolling the aisles, tote bags, which two hours earlier had been empty, now overflowing with books, dangling just centimeters above the carpet, their carrier’s shoulders sagging and weary.

Kind of quiet an hour before opening.

I was there to reconnect, if only with a hand-shake to renew our friendship, with publishers who’d built substantial markets without the help of James Patterson or J.K. Rowling. To label them as niche or regional publishers underestimates their consistent sales and voluminous backlists. Those I admire and appreciate are those that began their journey with a passion not to sell books but to fill a vacuum in the content pantheon. They not only recognized a market, it was a market that interested them, which meant they most likely understood that their customers, their readers, were hungry for the same titles they themselves would buy.

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After so many years in the industry and dozens of ABAs and BEAs well behind me, I’ve come to appreciate the sheer magnitude of our industry. Young bloggers and pundits offer grave observations about whatever facet of book selling they understand, but the truth is it’s just that: a facet. We are blind people running our fingers over an elephant, wildly and loudly defining what we can’t even imagine.

As the Expo wound down, the East Coast syndicate pronounced the event DOA. They bemoaned the scale of the exhibits (apparently less is never more), decreased attendance (sniffing that even the Starbucks line was manageable), calling the zeitgeist on the floor “tumbleweedy”.


Aside from the difference in cost of attending Chicago vs. New York for a Midwesterner, one of my beefs about BEA-NYC is how Big 6 centric those shows are. Yes, the six largest American publishers (all of which have bountiful NYC office space) construct “whose is bigger” exhibits,and believe they define American publishing; to an extent they do. But in industry this large they’re untrustworthy bell-weathers generating as many miscues as bankable hunches.

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And lately they seem a bit stodgy as they try to emboss the digital age with their logos instead of jumping off the diving board and cannon-balling into it. Even as I remain skeptical about the continued explosion of ebook sales, I acknowledge that what passes for an ebook a decade from now will probably bear no relation to the rented Kindle fillers of today.

The pages of this book were folded, not cut.


The only thing that sets the Big 6 apart from their smaller kin isn’t the quality of their writers or the inventive covers adorning their books. Quite simply, they’ve solved the distribution problem. I know, I know. Amazon is a mega book distributor. So ask Amazon if they’ll take a hundred copies of your new book to fulfill orders. But you’re not supposed to have a hundred books because you’re printing them with Lightning Source, right? Fair enough but setting your discount is a tricky business (I was rebuffed for offering a 50% discount) and making a buck off it is even harder. Just do an ebook edition? Some titles are designed for ebooks some aren’t: avoid doing a cookbook.


Distributors available to buy and sell your titles are few and far between if you’re a very small press. I used to print the membership directory for the AWBA (American Book Wholesalers Association). It wasn’t a thick book, but today there is no directory.

Which is why self publishing and digital presses may be able to eventually solve the warehousing problem but for now that comes with a price. Well-known authors have tried digital only editions or self published their own titles print-on-demand only to return to the flock after realizing the post-production headaches involved in book-selling.

Cute stunt but he wasn’t exactly a look-alike.

So excuse me if I yawn off the criticism that it just wasn’t a NYC BEA. Cracks are beginning to show in the Big 6 veneer. This article enumerates those fault lines and ends, “In broader publishing, Big Publishing still forms the only counterweight to Amazon, and the galaxy of small and smaller publishers flourishes (as ever)in spite of both.”

Given that the 2016 Chicago BEA didn’t have the snap of previous Expos back when real live bookstore owners and buyers crammed the aisles and free reader’s advances were offered only to those whose id tags had the “Book Retailer” color coding, it was an enjoyable opportunity to learn from old acquaintances, collecting their opinions on the book’s past and the future..

New voices? Riding the shuttle to McCormick one morning I met a Children’s Librarian from a local suburb. I asked what was new in the childrens’ book arena. She said, “Play-Away.” You may know what that is but I sure didn’t. Click here to see the newest fad in childrens’ books.

Chicago had old friends, new ideas and three days to glory in a restructuring industry that many claimed died a decade ago.

Inner Traditions
When the Expo is wrapping up, real publishers catch up with each other.

All without 5,000 NYC publishing interns clogging the aisles like it was Senior Skip Day while surreptitiously passing out curricula vitae to anyone who would take one.


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I've worked in book manufacturing for over 30 years, closing my company Baker Johnson, Inc. in 2005. Currently I work freelance with a large group of publishers, advising them on the printing options available to them as the book industry endures major restructuring.
My wife Cathy is a retired psychologist and spent most of her career working with the youth at Maxey Boys Training School. She is a small mammal rehabilitator with Friends of Wildlife.
Our daughter Whitney is a PharmD working in the Denver area evaluating the pharmaceutical requirements of nursing homes. Our son Eliot lives in Waterloo and is an editor at Mathematical Reviews in Ann Arbor.