ReedPop Cancels BookExpo, ‘Retiring’ the Trade Show and BookCon

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

After the physical events were canceled earlier this year because of the pandemic, BookExpo and its public-facing BookCon are being closed after shrinking in size and scope for years.

At the 2019 BookExpo main entrance at the Javits Center. Image: Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

ReedPop: ‘We Remain Committed’
The “retirement” of BookExpo today (December 1) in an announcement from ReedPop is something speculated on by some in the American publishing industry after the cancellation of the physical event earlier this year.

As Michael Cader wrote in his Publishers Lunch squib about the news today, “The show itself had diminished for years.”

And the immediate impact of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic on the parent company of BookExpo has been substantial, as described by Jim Milliot at Publishers Weekly. “Through the first nine months of 2020,” Milliot writes, “revenue was down 70 percent, parent company RELX reported. It expects full year revenue of £330 million to £360 million and after a range of cost-lowering initiatives—including layoffs—total costs for the year are expected to be £530 million to £540 million, excluding one-off costs related to restructuring and cancellations. Total Reed Exhibitions revenue in 2019 was £1.3 billion.”

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, the 2020 physical event was cancelled amid the spectacle of its venue, the Jacob Javits Center in New York City, being used as a military field hospital during the height of the coronavirus response, as Manhattan became the first American epicenter of the virus’ outbreaks. As most major world publishing events have done this year, BookExpo mounted a digital evocation of itself, but even in that instance, seemed to do this as something of an afterthought.

It had become conspicuous in recent weeks that BookExpo wasn’t announcing a 2021 plan. As our readership knows, London Book Fair—also a Reed event—has announced a June 29 to July 1 event in 2021 under Andy Ventris’ direction, and a return in 2022 to its usual springtime spot on the calendar. And Bologna Children’s Book Fair has followed suit, taking its dates as June 14 and 17 and adding a new conference event to its week, as well.

In a statement today from BookExpo director Jenny Martin, we read, “The pandemic arrived at a time in the life cycle of BookExpo and BookCon where we were already examining the restructure of our events to best meet our community’s needs.

“This has led us to make the difficult decision to retire the events in their current formats, as we take the necessary time to evaluate the best way to move forward and rebuild our events that will better serve the industry and reach more people than we were able to before.

“We remain committed to serving the book community and look forward to sharing more information in the future.”

Dohle: ‘To Connect Our Community Members’

At BookExpo in May 2018, a CEO roundtable with, from left, the Association of American Publishers’ Maria A. Pallante, Macmillan’s John Sargent, Simon & Schuster’s Carolyn Reidy, and Penguin Random House’s Markus Dohle. Since this photo was taken, Sargent has announced his departure from Macmillan and Holtzbrinck for January 1, 2021, with Don Weisberg scheduled to succeed him as Macmillan’s CEO. Reidy died of a reported heart attack in May 2020. She has been succeeded as president and CEO of Simon & Schuster by Jonathan Karp. Image: Porter Anderson

As clear as the fading fortunes of BookExpo had been to regular attendees for years, the closure of the event won’t be received in the US industry with much joy. Many still remember its stronger years of Tuesday-through-Sunday programming including pre-trade-show conference days. Like so many of these key events in world publishing, the show also had a way of serving as a kind of check point: the issues of the day, the challenges and successes could be assessed, discussed, evaluated.

Some of this community value is reflected in the comment provided to Publishing Perspectives today by Penguin Random House from Markus Dohle, the company’s global CEO. You’ll find an interesting reference to exploring “a newly imagined event,” which some surely will see as a potential and welcome note of hope that a major program of some kind may be within reach in the future.

“Among the many traditions we greatly missed this year,” Dohle says, “was having an industry event that brings together booksellers, authors and publishers.

“In this virtual world, Penguin Random House is continuously investing in innovative ways to connect our community members with one another, and we look forward to working with our industry partners to explore a newly imagined event where we all can come together to celebrate books and their essential role in our society and culture.”

Italie: ‘Once a Prime Venue’

At BookExpo 2018. Image: Porter Anderson

Hillel Italie at the Associated Press refers to the contemporary BookExpo America or “BEA”—later renamed simply BookExpo—and its development in the 1940s under the aegis of the American Booksellers Association. Production would later be sold to Reed, which of course is a convention-floor producer of events in many businesses, many disciplines. While certain levels of staffing were dedicated to BookExpo each year, it no longer was being staged by an element of the industry itself.

Still, less than 10 years ago, the show still commanded the cavernous Javits Center space with an exhibition floor stretching from the southern end of the building to near its northern walls, and extensive conference- and seminar-room use of its underground facilities.

There were “Market Focus” programs, as Reed has branded its international guest-of-honor style programming both at BookExpo and at London Book Fair. The major publishers arrived with large stands, and many international publishing professionals included BookExpo in their annual list of key world trade shows.

There could be half a dozen or more signal conferences running just before and during the trade show, and BookExpo’s agent center was seated in the huge upper-level pavilion overlooking the Hudson River. The addition in 2014 of Lance Fensterman’s BookCon formalized an outreach beyond the industry itself with a public-facing weekend event. Geared toward young readers and fans of celebrities in the “con” tradition Fensterman has mastered, within a couple of years, BookCon was beginning to outdraw the main professional show and its programs.

Pivotal Moments

At Chicago’s University Club, a Books From Poland events at BookExpo 2016. Image: Porter Anderson

Asked to pinpoint a moment when the show pivoted toward its decline, some might point to the one-year 2016 move from New York’s Javits Center to Chicago’s McCormick Place. “BEA Lite,” as it was dubbed by many regulars may have had the effect of making some who didn’t make the trip realize that they weren’t as dependent on BEA’s mix of meetings and parties as they’d thought.

In ensuing years—while the enthusiasm with which so many publishing pros enjoy gathering with each other never was missing—the will to buy stands and travel to New York for the show clearly was waning. No one needed to be told the show’s footprint was shrinking, as other convention events took over the lower levels of the Javits. The entire southern end of the exhibition floor, once bustling with major houses’ stands positioned to be in the traffic patterns of BookCon, began to look like an empty airplane hangar.

The leading distributor, Ingram, became the dominant exhibitor as Big Five stands receded from the center and showed off little of their previous heft.

In 2018, BookExpo’s agents center moved over a mile away to the Metropolitan Pavilion in an arrangement reached with a competing and short-lived event called the New York Rights Fair, a joint venture of BolognaFiere and Publishers Weekly. This move made footfall at the Javits shrink even further. The next year, the rights center was back at the Javits, but because it was positioned on the main exhibition floor, empty tables in the enclosure were hard not to notice.

Also in 2018, a specific “reimagined” effort to target attendance by booksellers—returning to something closer to the roots of the event—proved to be a misfire, with fewer booksellers than before in attendance.

In 2019, “speed-dating” meetings for booksellers and publicists were a key selling point and “Unbound,” a merchandise show of non-book items, had been installed on the emptied southern deck of the floor. With the exception of a strong daylong conference presentation by Michele Cobb and the Audio Publishers Association, pre-BookExpo conference activity had glided to a near standstill and international engagement was vastly reduced.

In the end, as the exhibition floor’s paid stands took up less and less space, what had kept growing at BookExpo was the width of the aisles.

At the 2017 BookExpo in New York City. Image: Porter Anderson

More from Publishing Perspectives on BookExpo is here, and more from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here. 

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.