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Gloom, Doom and Jittery Booksellers : Publishing: The threat of riots and thunderstorms in Miami mirrors the mood at the ABA. Industry insiders say there's a cloud hanging over the future of the book biz.

June 02, 1993|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — Skies were spitting rain and riot police were on the streets here when the first of about 20,000 bookselling conventioneers arrived late last week.

Then they heard the really bad news.

The only slam-dunk fun event at the 93rd annual American Booksellers Assn., the Rock Bottom Remainders' concert--Dave Barry on lead guitar and vocals, Stephen King on Gothic rhythm and Amy Tan in tights singing backup--was already sold out.

Even boy-whiz Daryl Bernstein, the irrepressible self-made 17-year-old, had to wonder what he was doing here. "Checking into the hotel downtown, it was kind of scary," admitted Bernstein, as he signed stacks of his second big-seller, "Kids Can Succeed."

"We were told the place the shooting happened was just a couple blocks away," he said.

Gray skies, the threat of violence after the verdict in the retrial of a police officer accused of manslaughter, the scatter-shot placement of Miami-area hotels that had visitors making long shuttle-bus commutes across Biscayne Bay causeways to the Miami Beach Convention Center: Could omens for the ABA's festival and trade show get any worse?

Yes.

On Sunday, the second day of the publishing industry's orgy of hype and tote bag handouts, a massive tropical depression rolled in from the Caribbean, and faster than a plane back to Boston, what had been intermittent rain and gloom turned into a wall of water. All the Memorial Day bookworms' beach parties got moved into the lounge.

Now could it get any worse?

No. Not according to the spin being spun by ABA President Chuck Robinson.

"I don't think it's gloom as much as it's anxiety," said Robinson, who runs a book store in Bellingham, Wash. "There is some anxiety over safety, but there is even more concern over the future of bookselling with the growth of mega-stores and now electronic publishing. (Books on disks, for example, which you can read on a computer monitor or have the computer read out loud to you.)

"Selling books is like farming; what's being threatened is not just a job, but a life," said Robinson. "So any time there is a major change in retailing, everyone gets anxious."

So scratch gloom.

Make that anxiety.

*

The ABA meeting is the largest convention to be held in greater Miami this year, worth an estimated $24.4 million to the local economy. Tourism officials know that the weather, usually sunny, is beyond control, as are politics and social upheaval.

The potentially explosive verdict in the retrial of a suspended Miami policeman accused of manslaughter in the shooting deaths of two black men four years ago came down Friday during rush hour. The killings sparked a riot in 1989, and police and National Guard troops were prepared for another after William Lozano was acquitted Friday in an Orlando courtroom.

Although few visitors could have known about the timing in the Lozano case, many were on watch for general mayhem anyway after reading an essay in the May 3 convention special issue of Publishers Weekly by crime reporter-turned-mystery novelist Edna Buchanan.

Buchanan not only described a city in the "Miami Vice"-like grip of drugs, random violence and refugees but also threw in a favorite true-crime incident in which a naked killer tossed the severed head of his victim at a cop attempting to arrest him on murder charges.

"Fun seekers, sun worshipers, booksellers and serial killers--everybody comes to Miami," wrote Buchanan.

Although there was some rock and bottle throwing here in angry reaction to the Lozano jury's decision, there was no riot. Still, conventioneers were wary. "I heard a lot of people didn't rent cars because they didn't want to advertise themselves as tourists and get mugged," said Hermann Lademann of New York's Overlook Press, referring to a well-publicized crime wave here.

*

At a time when publishers, distributors and booksellers alike hope to have a blockbuster or two to kick off the high season--summer through Christmas--the sure things are few.

True, there are new books and likely bestsellers coming soon from William Styron, Margaret Thatcher, Miami's Carl Hiaasen, Maya Angelou, Betty Friedan and Barbara Kingsolver. But it will be at least fall before new mega-hits from Stephen King and Anne Rice appear. And John Grisham needs some time to rest.

Still, there was no shortage of hoopla and hucksterism on the floor of the convention center, where more than 2,700 exhibitors laid down plush, expensive carpet --literally--and invited booksellers to view the wares and haul away the freebies: books, cassette tapes, posters, pens, pins, food and catalogues. There is so much loot given away at the ABA, in fact, that many veterans bring luggage carts.

The ABA convention is not open to the general public, the ultimate targets of all the sales strategizing being done here. But tellingly, the public did turn out for a pre-convention event Friday evening in the sanctuary of a Presbyterian church in Coral Gables.

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