AMERICAN SCENE;WRITE INTO THE MIDST OF THINGS

By Published on .

The folks staffing the W.W. Norton booth are dismayed. Delivery has been promised on their kayak, coming all the way from Freeport, Maine. But the craft hasn't shown up, and now the doors are open; crowds spill into the exhibition hall.

Ah, a travel and outdoor show, right? No-a book show. Specifically, the American Booksellers Association Convention & Trade Exhibit at Chicago's McCormick Place. And Norton, one of the larger publishing houses represented at the mammoth event, plans to raffle off the kayak to promote its Trailside line of outdoor guides covering everything from bicycling and hiking to backpacking and, well, kayaking.

If a kayak sounds out of place at a show targeted to the book industry, read on. The annual three-day book fair, which earlier this month drew upwards of 45,000 bookstore operators, publishers, editors, authors, distributors, wholesalers, librarians, literary agents and others involved in the industry, is akin to a circus.

But consider this carpeted once-a-year field of combat popularly called the ABA:

Here, scores of publishing companies vie for the attention of those who control their destiny-i.e., booksellers, librarians and the media. Then it's not surprising to see such exotica as Styrofoam moose antlers, Penthouse Pets, pop-up books featuring three-dimensional male and female genitalia, a Marcia Clark lookalike and what must be the world's largest book autographing orgy. More about these later.

"Publishing is still primarily publicity-driven rather than advertising-driven," says Stuart Applebaum, senior VP-director of public relations at Bantam Doubleday Dell and a veteran of more than 20 years of these conventions. "Talk shows, news shows, press coverage all are far more impactful on [book] sales than advertising," he adds as he surveys the crowds eddying around his company's booth, one of the biggest in the hall.

Word-of-mouth is another promotional tool at the convention, according to Lisa Kitei, VP-publicity at Hyperion, a division of Disney Book Publishing.

Word of mouth, aided by not inconsiderable hype, is clearly one of the goals of publishers at the show. A potent weapon in their on-site publicity arsenal is author autographings, done in a cavernous room far removed from the show floor.

As many as 20 authors at a time sign books in half-hour and hour sessions at long tables while convention attendees are herded into lines that string out for 100 feet or more. More than 550 authors did book signings at this year's convention, including such high-profile figures as Mr. Blackwell, Hugh Downs, Janet Leigh, Larry King, Garry Marshall, Steve Allen and Peter Ustinov.

"Even these autographed copies become a marketing tool-for the booksellers," says Maureen O'Brien, news editor and columnist at Publishers Weekly, the primary trade magazine of the book industry.

"They sell these autographed copies at their stores or use them as bonuses for customers who buy other books. I know of cases where bookstore owners bring staff members along for only one reason: To stand in the lines and get more autographed books," Ms. O'Brien adds.

Big names also are drawn, like the moth to the flame, to off-the-floor breakfasts, lunches and receptions. Among this year's superstars: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gen. Colin Powell and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Mr. Gingrich, easily the most controversial figure at this year's convention, was heckled for 30 minutes by local activists during his luncheon speech.

Jeering at public officials aside, the real fun at the ABA is to be had on the show floor itself, as photographer Mike Marcotte and I find.

Down one aisle, Harlequin Books runs a miniature golf game, where winners get golf balls (and losers get tees) .*.*. In another aisle, Bob "Capt. Kangaroo" Keeshan stops to chat about his "Family Fun Activity Book" before dashing off to Marshall Field's for an autographing.

Then we stop one of the many antlered conventioneers long enough to learn that her yellow headgear is a giveaway promoting "Mooses Come Walking," a children's book with illustrations and an Arlo Guthrie poem.

After observing the Intervisual Books booth with its pop-up genitalia, the Penthouse booth with "Pet" Tiffany Burlingame and the photo stall where people line up to get their picture taken with a cut-out of Wibbly Pig (star of a series of children's books), we encounter Ruth Westheimer of sex advice fame.

When Mr. Marcotte tries to take her photo, she notes his press badge and beams. "No, not here-we need my book in the picture!" With that, the 4-foot-something sex guru grabs the equipment-laden photographer by the arm and tows him toward the IDG Books Worldwide booth-a sight akin to a Yugo pulling an 18-wheeler. Once at her home booth, Dr. Ruth, a regular at book shows, flaunts copies of her "Sex for Dummies."

As we soon find, wearing press badges is a mixed blessing. One man, presumably its author, eagerly presses upon each of us a book titled "Hawaiian Games, or Da Clock, Why She Stay Broke."

Then we are accosted by an intense-looking brunette whose badge proclaims her to be Marcia Clark. In truth, this individual does bear a first-glance resemblance to the prosecutor in the Simpson trial. And she thrusts upon the unwary a slender book titled "55 Things You'd Better NOT Say Around O.J." (among the less-grisly entries: "Avis returned your call. They'd rather stay No. 2"; "Just two more lawyers and you'll have a softball team"; and "I really enjoy your show on Court TV.") The publisher is an outfit aptly named Off Color Press.

For all the nonsense and frivolity, business really is transacted during the show. At many of the booths, people huddle in earnest conversation at tables where order forms are being filled out.

"I always find the ABA very useful," says David Hendin, a New York literary agent. "I was handed one contract, and several other people were very interested in talking business. It's a great place to say hi to people you see only two or three times a year and remind them you're in business."

Mr. Hendin and several other attendees identify three major trends at the show: 1) The bigger publishers have cut back both on staffing and exhibit size and don't dominate as they once did; 2) The electronics component of the ABA (CD-ROMs, software, videos, etc.) appears to continue to grow; and 3) There are fewer and less-extravagant freebies.

Meanwhile, over at the W.W. Norton booth, the wayward and much-anticipated item never arrives. The drawing goes on nonetheless, and another watercraft is ordered, ensuring that one lucky bookseller soon will be the proud owner of his or her very own kayak

In this article:
Most Popular