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U.S. Book Industry Edits Out Hoopla and Hype as Marketplace Changes : Writing's on the Wall for Booksellers Who Don't See Publishing as Serious Business

May 31, 1985|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — There were no performing elephants, no brass bands and only a handful of jugglers or French clowns. Videos flashed from a minimum of display areas, and costumed theme characters paraded in smaller-than-ever numbers. Gourmet recipe books were more likely to be announced with posters than with pots of savory samples, and the decided dearth of freebies left gimme-grabbers toting more paper than products. Celebrities were scarce, but authors abounded.

It was, in short, more of a trade show than a side show, and for many of the 17,200 participants at the four-day annual meeting of the American Booksellers Assn. here this week that fact was at once a beacon, a blessing and a marked change from earlier meetings of one of the leading organizations in America's book industry.

'Temper of the Times'

"I think it's the temper of the times," incoming ABA president Gail See said of the shift from the kind of Roman circus atmosphere that marked the convention floors of many past ABA assemblages. In contrast to other recent ABA meetings, See called the mood this year "serious and sober, thoughtful and responsible."

In large part the change could be traced to certain unpleasant realities of the marketplace. While small presses seemed to proliferate and often prosper, many major publishing houses were in accord that 1984 was hardly a banner year, and some medium-sized houses crumbled entirely. Just one week before the ABA meeting, for example, the 147-year-old Bobbs-Merrill, publisher of classics that ranged from James Whitcomb Riley to "The Joy of Cooking," became the latest casualty.

"My impression," Esther Margolis, publisher of Newmarket Books, said, "is that people are much more serious about publishing. They recognize that it's a business you could lose your shirt on."

And industry changes had set off alarms among both publishers and booksellers. As Doubleday editorial director Patrick Filley said: "People are very concerned."

Flurry of Buying

Publishers, in fact, were substantially outnumbered by booksellers (small, large, independent, chain, wholesale, retail and discount) at this year's ABA, a reversal of the proportions at last year's meeting in Washington. And from the very outset Saturday, both sides were overtaken by a flurry of buying, selling and general business-conducting that may have left little time for the usual hype and hoopla.

"There is much more serious work getting done here than in the past," Susan Richman, a vice president at Scribner's, said. "It's much busier, and I mean from minute one."

"Our booth has been packed," Bantam vice president Stuart Applebaum agreed.

"We couldn't believe it," Mindy Bingham of the small, Santa Barbara-based Advocacy Press said. "We started writing orders the first hour we got here."

Economic necessities meant also that publishers and, in particular, small or independent booksellers were reassessing their relationships. "I think what has happened," Margolis said, "is that booksellers are looking for publishers for service now to combat the chains, the discounters, and for how to be competitive in today's market."

"The fact is," she went on, "that a book by virtue of its very nature is not a mass-market product. It will never sell as much as toothpaste."

To Run or to Read?

Nonetheless, Margolis said, "The market although small in numbers is still huge, and the big problem is competing for the public's time: How do you get the public's attention for a book instead of television, the movies, magazines or even running?"

But there was another factor at work, and that was the growing realization that for an alarming and growing number of Americans, reading is not an option at all. "Toward a Reading Society," the theme of this year's meeting, had been carefully chosen, ABA president See said, in recognition of an illiteracy rate that ranges, depending on which figures and standards are accepted, from one-in-five to one-in-three adult Americans.

"It's an industrywide issue," See said, a problem that finally, for publishers and booksellers alike, reduces as much to "enlightened self-interest" as it does to altruism. With the soaring illiteracy rate, See asked, "where are our customers of tomorrow? Where are the readers of tomorrow?"

Faced with such questions, See said, "I think booksellers are coming to understand their role as responsible citizens as much as merchants."

Indeed, ABA executive director Bernard E. Rath said in his opening message, "The facts are that America has a genuine literacy problem, and that nearly everyone believes the responsibility lies somewhere else. Citizens blame it on educators. Educators contend that the paltry sums appropriated by citizens for education are responsible. Columnists and essayists blame it on television; liberal intellectuals blame conservative economists."

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