It already seems a long time ago, but the annual book industry melee that is BookExpo America recently came and went. BEA drew its usual crowd of industry insiders, booksellers, librarians, media, and many others, plus about eight thousand members of the paying public. Publishers took booth space in varying degrees of pomposity, striving to outdo each other’s displays so that those few key people at the show (the buyers and the media) took notice of everyone’s latest attempts to reach the top of the best seller charts. In the build up to the show, during its course, and now, a week or so later, I’ve been pondering how BEA and university presses interact–or perhaps, should interact. Having completed my eighth BEA, I should be a part of the jaded, cynical crowd that complains about the hassle of reaching the Javits Center each day (and leaving at the end of the day, which is quite truly a much worse task), the expense of being in New York for a week, the lack of book buyers placing orders any more, the downtrodden, woebegone publishing industry, and so on. But I don’t feel that way. Instead, I am invigorated each year by the sight of people worming their way through overcrowded walkways between publishers of all sizes and ilk. It is a fascinating mix of people and books, and I love it.
UNP has exhibited at BEA for many years, one of the few university presses that might claim diehard status in this regard. Gone are the oft-discussed glory years when university presses hogged whole sections in the Javits Center, when “University Press Row” was actually a row and not just a block. There were seventeen university presses exhibiting this year. UNP and the University Press of New England were the only two UPs who took a double booth, but fifteen others ranged in size from the University of Hawaii Press to Yale and Harvard. All UPs in attendance were waving their university press flags high and proud. But why? What purpose does exhibiting at BEA serve? The popular publishing cynicism that I noted earlier is not simply, truth be told, not only cynical, it is, surely, based on the quite real statistical measures that publishers can apply to exhibiting: book buyers don’t attend in the numbers they used to and they certainly don’t place on-the-floor orders in the quantity they used to. Of course, part of the lack of orders and buyers can be attributed to the decline in independent bookstores, but even those few stores don’t send their staff to BEA in the numbers they used to. So why do we still bother?