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The Invasion of the Booksellers : BEHIND THE BEST SELLERS

May 01, 1988|Sonja Bolle | Bolle is a free-lance writer and a former editor at Publishers Weekly.

Over Memorial Day weekend, roughly two out of five booksellers in America will converge on Anaheim, along with a staggering number of authors, literary agents and everyone who's anyone in publishing. The occasion for this gathering is the 88th annual American Booksellers Assn. convention.

The ABA, as the show is called, is one of the largest trade shows in the country, with roughly 20,000 people attending annually. Often, ABA attendees are greeted by incredulous cab drivers with: "Don't tell me--you're with the book crowd." In Los Angeles, of course, the inundated group will be the desk clerks at rental car agencies.

A bookseller's job at ABA is to look over the tens of thousands of books on display and decide which ones to order. This is the one place where one can actually leaf through a large number of the 50,000 new titles the publishing industry produces every year. Some forthcoming books are ordered on the basis of dummy copies, or simply on the strength of a gleam in the publisher's eye. The buyer will also try to prepare for the holiday season--when a store may do 30% of the year's sales.

Publishers take the opportunity to promote books with parties, author appearances and lavish displays. ABA is where an author can really marshal support from booksellers. Two years ago, Pat Conroy galvanized a bookseller audience with stories from his then forthcoming "Prince of Tides." On the strength of that appearance and the retailers' excitement, "Prince of Tides" became Conroy's "breakout title"--trade lingo for a book by a moderately established author that reaches past his usual fans to become a best seller.

Although the convention is open only to the trade, there is always ample evidence of the show's presence in town. Many of the attending authors make appearances on local media and schedule signings at bookstores. Among the celebrity authors who will be on hand to promote books are former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson ("Wildflowers Across America") and cartoon voice-over artist Mel Blanc ("That's Not All Folks"). Pulitzer Prize-winners William Kennedy ("Quinn's Book") and Toni Morrison ("Beloved") are on the program. Veteran TV journalist David Brinkley will speak about his "Washington Goes to War" while Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson has "Generation of Swine." The list is endless; watch this section's Book Calendar at the end of May for convention-related events.

And a good way to begin a conversation with a local book dealer after Memorial Day will be to ask: "What did you see at the ABA?"

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