At the annual meeting of the American Booksellers Association, which was held last week in the stupefying heat of this sprawling Texas metropolis, caste and class were registered on the name tags displayed by each conventioneer. In descending order of numbers and importance, the castes and classes were: exhibitors, wearing red tags; booksellers, wearing blue; miscellaneous visitors and guests, wearing brown; and press, wearing green.
Of the 15,000 bookfolk in attendance, at least 10,000 must have been wearing red tags; this, more than any of the "trends" that we reporters dutifully attempted to identify or invent, may well have been the central point of the 1983 ABA. The stars of this show weren't the booksellers but the exhibitors: publishers, distributors, promoters. As an independent bookseller from New York put it: "The ABA isn't a booksellers' convention; it's a publishers' convention." The event is staged by the booksellers' organization and it allegedly exists in order to serve the needs of the middlemen of the book industry; but most people here seemed to feel that in actuality the bookseller was the Forgotten Man of Dallas.
In the mythology of the book industry, the annual ABA meeting is where the big guys from New York gather under one roof to do business with the little guys from Out There. That same mythology conjures up images of publishers sitting down at the tables in their exhibits to write orders for the mom-and-pop booksellers who, having admired their displays and examined their catalogues, have determined which books in the coming fall season will most appeal to their customers. The ABA, book people sometimes will tell you, is where the publishers' fall lists sink or swim.
But there was little evidence of such momentous decision- making here. You could, to be sure, from time to time spot a bookseller and a publisher's representative huddled over a catalogue and filling out order sheets; a small publisher from the Deep South did more than $10,000 worth of business on Sunday morning, for example, which he thought was pretty good. But of the dozens of exhibitors with whom I spoke, not one mentioned writing orders as his or her principal reason for being here; not one, that is, said that the prospect of contacts with booksellers--the ostensible raison d'etre for the ABA--had brought him to Dallas.
Instead, these exhibitors talked about "being seen" and "making contacts." The small publishers who had been exiled to the lower of the convention center's two exhibition halls spoke with startling unanimity of their desire to capture the attention of the big distributors (Baker & Taylor, Ingram) and chains (Walden, Dalton, Crown) who have come to dominate the marketplace for books. For these publishers, some of whom had only one title to offer, the ABA offers the only chance they have to show their wares to these giants, and a friendly word from Baker & Taylor is infinitely more heartwarming to them than a $153 order from a mom-and-pop shop in Lubbock.
In the words of a bookseller from the West Coast, the ABA is a "confidence-building game" for the exhibitors. They want their products to be seen and they want to be told that those products are marketable. Coming to the ABA, a Mississippian said, is "a way to prove that you exist," and this is necessary even if you don't write a single order; if you don't have a booth and show your wares, the industry either asks, "Where are they?" or assumes, with fatal consequences for your future, that you have found something else to do.
Certainly "products" is the word for what was on display here. Judging from the 1,500 exhibits, the bookstore is well on its away to becoming a supermarket. In the order in which they caught my eye, these are some of the goodies for which exhibitors hoped to find shelf space in the stores where Americans buy books: calendars, postcards, globes and maps, book plates, board games, tarot and playing cards, literary and general circulation magazines, posters, comic books, T-shirts, audio cassettes, coloring books, incense, publications for homosexuals, reading lights, stuffed and ceramic animals, gift wrapping, phonograph recordings, jewelry, toys and dolls, stationery, museum reproductions, "collectibles," pottery and computer software.
Ah yes: software. To the extent that anything could be said to have been "the talk of the ABA," it was software. More than two dozen exhibitors offered software (a few also offered hardware, for use in store management) and all of them attracted interested crowds. Among the doom-and gloom-sayers, of whom the book industry has traditionally had an unusually large number, there was much moaning that the interest in computers heralded "the death of the book" and other dire consequences for literature in general and bookstores in particular. My own hunch, and it is no more than a hunch, is that when the dust has settled the book industry will find software a profitable sideline in the same way that greeting cards are a profitable sideline, but that the chief business of publishers and booksellers alike will continue to be books.
How good that business will be this fall was a matter of debate here. Though the mood of the convention was described with monotonous regularity as "flat," most of the people with whom I talked seemed reasonably chipper and there was none of the deep gloom that permeated last year's ABA in Southern California. The owners of a small chain of stores in the Upper South said that business had quietly crept up 12 percent over the same period in 1982 and that in a difficult economy they saw their prospects as bright. Similarly the publishers, though not one offers a fall list that can be described as outstanding, spoke with near unanimity about improved sales in a rebounding, if not spectacular, market.
It is impossible to predict which of the books offering counsel on diet, exercise and personal finance will emerge from the crowded field to become the leaders of the nonfiction best-seller lists this fall, but there can be no doubt that James Michener's Poland will march right to the top of the fiction lists and stay there through the end of the year. Among the works of fiction that will be given serious critical attention are new books by Philip Roth, Gail Godwin and Larry McMurtry. Two books will examine the strange career of John DeLorean, and seven will be devoted to the life and legacy of John F. Kennedy, whose assassination a few blocks from the ABA convention site occurred 20 years ago this November. Believe it or not, there is yet another biography of Scott Fitzgerald--the third in two years.
Next year the ABA comes to Washington. CAPTION: Picture 1, James Michener. By Ruth Kennedy; Picture 2, Gail Godwin. Copyright (c) by Nancy Crampton; Picture 3, Phillip Roth. Copyright (c) By Thomas Victor.