The Truth about the A.B.A
Sifton, Elisabeth, The Nation
Every year at the height of spring a strange tribal rite takes place at the heart of American culture, and most of us know nothing about it. A trade fair pulls together tens of thousands of booksellers and publishers--this year in Miami over the Memorial Day weekend--with their buyers, sales directors, rights managers, publicists, sales reps and big-time executives in attendance. Like every ritual that displays bizarre deformations of once meaningful human behavior, this meeting was once quite reasonable and effective, but now it has become almost unimaginably incoherent. Books are what draw the merrymakers together, but books all too often are precisely what is least on their minds.
The initial purpose was to enable buyers from bookshops all over the country to place orders for the next season's books with the publishers' salespeople. Faxes, computers and other important changes in the business have made this serious and lively commercial activity virtually obsolete, and it's been pushed to the sidelines. When the American Booksellers Association now convenes its disputatious members, and the rites center on displays and events organized and paid for by violently competitive publishers, especially poignant confusions lurk in every encounter--and this is beyond the intense, erotically charged hysteria that characterizes all big conventions. The participants affectionately acknowledge the mysteries, but they don't like to talk about them to the uninitiated; still, in 1993 they are no longer endearing, and in fact haven't been for seasons. The whole business is in a deep mess, and American readers and writers are suffering as a result.
Like other unexamined premises of the book business, the basic physical setup of the A.B.A. hasn't changed in years. Publishers still pay huge sums of money--a hefty percentage of their annual budgets, sometimes--to install a "booth" along one of the aisles of the convention floor to do their business in. University presses and smaller regional or specialty firms actually display real books, still believing in them as they do. (At the outer edges, some of the tiniest outfits are beguilingly loony, yet there are always impressive companies that you're embarrassed not to have known about before, doing fine work with very good books.) Salespeople stay "on the stand" and chat with visitors who come along by appointment or merely pass by--not only booksellers who want to go over forthcoming titles and place orders but book-review editors from newspapers and magazines, TV and radio people, agents, other publishers scoping out the competition, real writers.
At the mainstream houses, this model has been grotesquely inflated and transformed in the past ten or fifteen years. The booth will be an elaborately designed area as big as or bigger than a spacious New York City apartment, with huge illuminated signs (revolving, sometimes) showing the jackets of next autumn's Big Books, maybe a TV screen or two with promotional videos. Dozens of sales reps and managers, publicists and executives will be on hand for the hundreds of people who throng the place--doing what? No books are on display, and it's all but impossible to have a purposeful conversation or do real business in the midst of the hullabaloo; there are never enough tables and chairs. Occasionally piles of glossily jacketed advance proofs of some hyped best-seller-to-be will appear; during weird binges of acquisitive fervor, these, along with tote bags, T-shirts, posters and other freebies, are eagerly gobbled up. I've spent plenty of time myself rushing about the floor of an A.B.A. convention looking for goodies before the supply is exhausted, which happens in minutes, and I've done this in the company of some of America's most prominent publishers; they snicker about what they consider the infantile behavior of the booksellers, suckers, they think, for this kind of commercial nonsense, but they are indulging in it themselves. …