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BEA Behind the Scenes

As I (and perhaps you, dear reader), wade into a deeply established, complicated, and transforming industry, it can be hard to remember that the structures we encounter didn’t rise out of the sea along with Manhattan. All of this was once as innovative and unsure as enhanced ebooks or cloud-based lending systems are now. This is just as true of that book business shibboleth toward which we race around this time every year: BEA.

Ever since my first internship in 2009, I knew that BEA was The Most Important Book Event in the USA, but wasn’t entirely sure why. I also learned it wasn’t as important as Frankfurt, but the reasons why were…vague. Then, as a working adult, I got assigned an article about “What’s New at BEA.” How exciting! …until I realized the difficulty of answering this question if I don’t know what’s old at BEA.

I could ask my seniors for the strict statistics of “what’s new,” but if I didn’t understand why these things were “new,” I could hardly analyze the material. A bit of digging through Publishing Trends archives, an interview with Steve Rosato, Event Coordinator of BEA, and heavy-duty Googling later, the following are some contextual facts that I’ll have in mind as I attend my first BEA, and that you might want as well:

  • After some complicated corporate rearrangements, what had been called the American Booksellers Association (ABA) Convention since 1900 came under Reed Expos’ jurisdiction and became “BookExpo America” in 1997, The key thing here is that, in one form another, what we call BEA is entering its 111th year. With this comes the realization of how little I know about book business as it was 100 years ago. That, though, will have to wait for another time…
  • Location, location, location: If you start digging around in book-biz archives, you’ll discover that BEA hasn’t always been in New York or Los Angeles. In fact, it used to be downright nomadic. But by the mid-1990’s ABA had settled down to usually being in Chicago—a reasonable half-way point for travel. By 2000, however, some key attendees (read: publishers) were pulling for BEA to settle in their backyard (read: Manhattan), and others from film rights were stumping for LA. When I talked to Steve Rosato last month, he shared the numbers that argue for settling in NYC for good. Basically, a greater percentage of all attendees have to travel a smaller distance to NYC than to anywhere else.
  • But for those who do travel from further afield? As in, from a field that isn’t on US soil? International presence at BEA has been a constant point of discussion for as far back as I found coverage. (A great example can be found here if you’re a subscriber or haven’t used up your 20 free articles for this month). With its heritage of bookselling, BEA remains devoted above all to booksellers and authors—folks who aren’t coming from abroad to buy rights. And with BEA falling so soon after London[LN7] , why do people bother? Even though London and Frankfurt remain the leaders in rights, the international foothold at BEA is growing. Rosato reported that since 2001, the percentage of floor space given over to international publishers has risen from around 5% to 15-20% of total square footage; in terms of personnel, international folk now make up close to 30% of professional attendees. BEA also significantly expanded their “featured country” programming in 2009 to be the “Global Market Focus.”  This year the Focus will be on Italy, with a variety of programming on various aspects of Italian book business on .

What I’d love to hear is your own personal history of BEA, no matter how many you’ve been to.

What do you love the most? What baffles you every time? What took you by surprise last time?If you haven’t ever been, what do you most hope for out of your first BEA?

Share your experiences by posting a comment.

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