There’s No Business Like Book Show Business

In Editorial & Opinion by Guest Contributor

93-year-old publishing attorney and author Martin Levin reflects on 60 years of book fairs, starting with the American Booksellers Association meeting in 1950.

By Martin Levin

In a career that spans six decades, and still counting, I have found that there is nothing quite like the annual trade shows in book publishing.

Martin Levin

1950s: Washington D.C.

I recall my first American Bookseller’s Show in 1950 and chuckle at my clumsy attempt at erecting a display stand. Back then, the American Booksellers Association held its annual meeting at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. The booksellers met in the ballroom of the hotel to share ideas and trade gossip, while the publishers were relegated to a basement area where they displayed their books. The booksellers would leave their fashionable setting and go down to the basement during their breaks to meet the salesmen and place orders for the Fall season.

I had just joined Grosset & Dunlap as assistant to the Assistant Sales Manager, a position charitably at the lowest level in the company, and was given the “honor” of attending the ABA and setting up our display. When I arrived, there was an assortment of wood and several bags of hardware, as well as a folding table and two banquet chairs. I was (and am) the least qualified person to assemble anything, let alone erect a booth from scratch, but I had help: Celeste Barnes, and her husband, John, (I believe of the family that then owned Barnes & Noble) took over building my “booth.”

Now, when I walk into Javits Center I am staggered by the opulence of the stands. I recall my simple table in the basement of the Shoreham Hotel and shake my head in disbelief. To think that 13,872 verified industry professionals along with 8,047 exhibitors showed up in 2010…this attendance is virtually the population of a small city, such as Rye, NY where I live. Simply amazing.

1960s: Frankfurt

Every time I leave Frankfurt after pressure-filled days and nights, I say I am never coming back. And yet every year, I return because the scope of economic activity and opportunity is unlike anywhere else. In the 1950s, I was an occasional visitor to the Fair, but started my current pattern of yearly attendance in 1966 when I took over as President of the Times Mirror Book Group. Then, the entire Frankfurt Book Fair was housed in what is now Halle 5 and 6; the UK publishers were in Halle 5 along with U.S. publishers. The publishers in languages other than English were housed across the street in Halle 6.

Now by my count there are ten “Hallen” and the number keeps on growing. It is hard to exceed the attendance: 11,000 journalists from 66 countries, over 7,000 exhibitors from 113 countries and more than 180,000 trade visitors. Simply put, the Frankfurt Book Fair is dominant and it still has the best frankfurters and rolls served anywhere in the world.

1970s: Moscow

In October 1976, Boris Stukalin, head of all publishing in the Soviet Union, invited ten American publishers to visit Moscow with the goal of introducing the Americans to their Soviet counterparts. The opening day was consumed by boring recitations by major publishers, in Russian, describing their companies. At the end of the day Stukalin, who speaks English, announced that he was establishing a Russian Book Fair to be held in 1977 and was seeking the participation of the U.S. publishers.

The American publishers asked the inevitable probing questions: Will there be censorship? Will all countries be invited? Israel? How much and what currency will be provided? Dollars? Will tickets to the Fair be available to all Russians, including the dissidents? Will we be able to meet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Stukalin hid his annoyance. He handled the questions diplomatically promising answers.

The first Moscow Book Fair was a success. Admission to the Fair was open to the general public, a delegation of Israeli publishers were invited, an agreement was reached on a bookstore stocked solely with American books without censorship. As a result of the Moscow Book Fairs that followed, I was able to get permission for the Reader’s Digest to publish in the Russian language. And Solzhenitsyn, who we asked about all those years ago, was eventually honored at the 2009 Moscow Book Fair.

Letters from Angel by Martin Levin

2011: London

Of all the locales for book fairs, London feels the most like home. It was in London that Harold Robbins (author of The Carpetbagger and a series of steamy novels) escorted me to Piccadilly and commanded that I buy him a Rolls Royce before he would sign his next three-book contract: which I did. (The accounting department is still trying to figure this out.) Then a perchance meeting with Bob Guiccione over time led to a deal to distribute Penthouse magazine throughout the world, including the United States. The London Book Fair is — always — an adventure.

…Today

This year at BEA, I am hopeful I can share more of my experiences with my colleagues from around the world, if you don’t mind my saying it, sell more rights to my just published book All I Know About Management I Learned From My Dog (just published in the United States, rights sold in seven countries) and introduce my new book Letters From Angel to be published by Skyhorse in October 2011. It is the story of my dog, Angel, “as told to me in her own words.”

There is much more to be written about the book fairs and their role in bringing countries and cultures together. The overview of international book fairs developed by the Frankfurt Book Fair lists over 60 Fairs spanning the globe scheduled for every month of the year. With scores of devices that allow for instant communication, these Fairs exist and will continue to grow because they are demonstrably better than email or Skype. They enable publishers and booksellers, authors and agents, librarians and scholars to meet in person. Where people meet to advance knowledge and share their literary heritage, it is, indeed, hallowed ground.

From 1967 to 1983, Martin Levin was CEO of the Times Mirror Book Group, growing it to become fifth largest publishing company in US at the time. He is currently an attorney at Cowan Liebowitz & Latman, specializing in mergers and acquisitions. He teaches Publishing Law at New York Law School and is a resident Fellow of the Yale Publishing Course.

DISCUSS: What’s the Best Business Deal You’ve Done at a Book Fair?

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.