MANY GREEN RIBBONS were worn along with admittance badges at the 1981 American Booksellers Association Convention held in Atlanta recently. Even as the sellers and buyers were crowding on to the convention floor at the Georgia World Congress Center, body No. 28 was being pulled out of the Chattahoochee River.
Attendance at this year's convention, the most important meeting of the publishing year, was down by about 4,000 under last year's 16,000 figure, probably due as much to the economy as to Atlanta's not being as popular as other convention cities like New York, Washington, Chicago, or L.A. Dissatisfaction was in the air. Yet decisions were in the making there that might well affect the future of the industry.
In this year of tighter belts, publishers sent fewer people to man their booths, fewer booksellers turned up to go over the offerings, and even Publishers Weekly, "bible" of the industry, brought five editors down to cover the activities instead of their customary seven.Exhibitors' booths were less glitzy and hyperventilated than they usually have been, and they were confined to the convention floor -- the two-level booths that soared into air space in recent years were notably absent as were glamorous live attractions.
Among the most live of the attractions which were at the convention were a Capuchin monkey and fey little Richard Simmons, a former fattie-turned-evangelically skinny whose Never-Say-Diet-Book has been hogging the number one position on the best-seller lists. When Simmons was in the Warner Books booth, you couldn't get within 15 feet of the place, so mobbed was it. Kit Williams, author of Masquerade, the best-selling treasure somewhere in Britain, drew long lines at his autographing table and Garry B. Trudeau, creator of Doonesbury, drew a standing room only crowd at the Book and Author breakfast he shared with Fannie Flagg, actress author of the novel, Coming Attractions.
Although there were fewer show biz celebrities than in recent years, a substantial number of authors did turn up to smile and speak and autograph and shake hands and look very much like the dust jackets of their new books which were displayed 20 times bigger than life in the publishers' booths. Among authors' faces one could make out the features of Eudora Welty, John Irving, Rona Jaffe, Judy Blume, Harry Reasoner, Herbert Mitgang, Bill Diehl, Gay Talese, tennis champion Arthur Ashe, M. M. Kaye, Mary Higgins Clark, Morris West, Art Buchwald, Peter Straub, anti-coloring book creator Susan Striker, Julius Fast, Peter Spier, Pat Conroy, Nathan Pritikin, Jean Auel, Mortimer Adler and others. We watched Quentin Crisp float across the Omni Hotel lobby flamboyant and famous in fuchsia and banker's grey; others who attracted attention were Tom Wilson, whose "Ziggy" character is celebrating its 19th anniversary, and mild-mannered Jim Davis, whose "Garfield" all but dominated the convention. That fat feline must have at least nine merchandising lives -- we saw books at one booth, posters and notecards at another, bookmarks here and jigsaw puzzles there, balloons carrying his image bobbed overhead, and a 5-foot-6-inch obese orange replica of him was having its picture taken by TV people. Big fat hairy deal.
Rosemarys were abundant: Rosemary Rogers, one of Avon's queens of romantic fiction was there as was Rosemary Wells, noted children's book author, as was Rosemary Kent, dressed in Stetson, boots, denims and red neckerchief to promote The Texas Handbook which Workman Publishing hopes will be 1981's successful successor to 1980's runaway, The Official Preppy Handbook.
One trend much in evidence in ABA was teenage romance -- Bantam introduced its Sweet Dreams line, Fawcett has Juniper and Columbine and Ace has Caprice; you can be sure these are but the tip of the mushberg.
The single most-asked question on the floor was not "Where are the big books?" but "Are you going to the wedding?" To promote its new lines of romance novels, Berkley/Jove had arranged an actual wedding for a pair of booksellers and the invitation was a hot ticket.
But getting back to the dissatisfactions which plague the convention: Last year, at the ABA in Chicago, feminists threatened to boycott the '81 convention if it were held in Georgia, a state which has failed to ratify the ERA amendment. Although the proposed boycott didn't take place, grumblings were still mightly audible. But more audible still was the anger of the conventioneers at the passing by the Georgia State Asembly of a bill making it a misdeameanor "of a high and aggravated nature" to display published materials "which arouse lust in minors." This blow struck by the Moral Majority falls heavily upon booksellers and it even falls heavily upon the convention to which many booksellers bring their children. The new law makes it illegal to sell, show, distribute or advertise for sale to any minor or to display in a public place that includes minors, any still picture, drawing, sculpture, photography, any book or paperback, pamphlet or magazine, the cover or contents of which contains descriptions or depictions of illicit sex or sexual immorality which is lewd, lascivious or indecent or which contains pictures of nude or partially nude figures shown in a manner to provoke lust. This seems to me to be a crack at Picasso, Rembrandt, Judy Blume and even Shakespeare. Well, the ABA and its legal counsel, Maxwell Lillienstein, plan to fight the law. Meanwhile, the ABA's board of directors voted overwhelmingly to keep the convention out of Georgia for as long as the new law is in effect.
But there were other points of conflict that didn't involve Georgia. For years, ever since the rise of a handful of bookstore chains which now dominate the field with their mighty buying power, the independent booksellers have been smarting under what they believe to be discrimination against them by the publishers in favor of the chains which earn larger discounts and get the lion's share of cooperative advertising dollars as well as more favorable returns policies on unsold merchandise. Accordingly, the ABA membership voted to increase its dues by 50 percent to raise $100,000 for a litigating fund to bring a class action suit against the publishers "for the purpose of correcting alleged violations of the Robinson-Patman Act." This sounds like open warfare but actually publishers are even now in the process of reviewing, revising and revamping their discount returns policies, and a number of publishers unveiled them at the convention.
We spoke to one of them, Noel Young, of Capra Press, an independent publisher based in Santa Barbara, California. Noel received more orders at this fair than at any other ABA he'd attended. Although the crowd seemed thin, it was a business-like group of serious-minded book buyers. "It was back to business and back to policy reappraisal," he told me. "We stiffened our minimum order and offered an option of 50 percent nonreturnable and we pay freight little thinking that Dalton would be interested.But after an hour's talk, they determined that it would be find to do business that way. They had the choice of doing it on their terms -- the old way, which is returnable -- and our new terms, nonreturnable but at a higher discount, or not doing business with us at all. And small as we are, they were willing to do business on a nonreturnable basis. It will be more cautious buying. There won't be as much speculative buying. But what books are bought will be kept until sold. About 50 percent of our accounts have been taken that option, 50 percent nonreturnable we pay freight. We have stiffened our returns policy a little bit. We're giving them back only 50 percent credit on the returns back. It means that on a $10 book, they are buying it a $6, and if they return it they get only $5 credit.
"Also, we're not large enough to forge ahead with the net pricing policy, but I'd be very interested in that approach and I've talked about it with a number of small booksellers in out-of-the-way places with small populations and no chain nearby and they love the idea because they have a lock on their community. So, if I 'suggest' $10 for the book and they want to sell it for $12, they will." This could mean that as the French publishers do now, American book publishers will not print prices on dust jackets but offer the bookseller a "manufacturer's suggested retail," and not care if he sells a $10 for $12 or $8. "Then," continued Young, "it's up to the individual bookstore knowing its own clientele to drop the price or push it up or do anything they want and our authors would get their loyalties based on the net, not on the list price of the book. But of course, we're not doing that yet. I'm waiting to see if the industry goes in that direction; the big publishers would have to do it first before I could do it."
Ponder that, gentle reader: No returns and net pricing policy might very well be what determines in the future what will be published and how much you'll have to pay to get your hands on it.