The U.S. Book Show 2022 took place virtually May 23–26, 2022. This event, created by Publishers Weekly, debuted in 2021 as a replacement for BookExpo.
Prolog: Day of Dialog
In the years before the pandemic, Library Journal’s Day of Dialog occurred at the start of BookExpo. Librarians spent their time hearing from editors about new books. At the end of the event, they packed suitcases full of galleys and then met again at a venue such as the Yale Club, where they were wined and dined and finished the night listening to authors and getting more galleys. The overarching theme was books and more books. In 2022, Day of Dialog, which is still sponsored by Library Journal, was a free online event happening a few weeks ahead of the U.S. Book Show.
Once again this year, book content ruled the day. About two-thirds of the panels were covering fiction in ways that went beyond standard genre labels—i.e., discussing new ones such as “Community” or “Dystopian Views.” The nonfiction books included memoirs, Black history titles, and stories of people who found refuge in America. The exhibit hall featured most of the publishers that you would consider “A-list,” such as Penguin Random House and Scribners. These days, galleys are mainly digital, so this did not contribute to the problem of librarians getting sore backs from lugging around their loot.
U.S. Book Show General Observations
The overall design of the U.S. Book Show’s opening page seemed very similar to that of other virtual events: Links to the auditorium, exhibits room, and chat lounges were there. I did notice that when virtual conferences were brand new, some publishers went out of their way to create really imaginative and eye-catching “rooms.” At this conference, it appears that publishers were given a few templates, and most of them just adapted these. Typically, there were one-page offerings with links to options such as author chats, important titles, and sales representatives. A Help Desk was available on the main screen, and it seemed to be doing a healthy business.
Libraries Are Essential
On May 23, author and humorist David Sedaris kicked off the conference. In an interview, he pondered the difficulty he has with categorization in bookstores. Since he is gay, a few terms in his books, such as “boyfriend,” have resulted in his work being placed in the LGBTQ+ section. He laughs a lot, so you might think he belongs on the humor shelf, but he doesn’t like that either. He then moved on to comparing the experience of presentations in a theater setting with book tours that take place in bookstores. The former offer a set selection of readings followed by question-and-answer sessions. The latter involve more interactions with the audience.
The first official day of the event, May 24, featured an opening keynote by Andrey Kurkov, a distinguished Ukrainian novelist who was speaking from somewhere in Ukraine. As expected, this was a solemn event, but he spoke with a very calm demeanor. He urged his audience to read about the long history of Ukrainian independence, going back more than a century. He said that the publishing industry in his country is taking a huge hit. His own publisher has a warehouse in the far eastern area of the country, and he has little hope that any of its stock has made it through the Russian invasion.
As the conference split into subsections, I followed the Libraries Are Essential track, which began with an interview with Patty Wong and Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada, the outgoing and incoming presidents of ALA, respectively. They were pleased to give a preview of the in-person ALA Annual Conference coming up in late June 2022.
Next, there were panels of experts talking about the issues that have become important in the past few years—and leading that list is a huge rise in censorship cases. They have more than doubled recently and are now very focused on any children’s or young adult titles. There is a well-established code of conduct for libraries to deal with these matters, but we were told that there were serious shortfalls in how things were actually handled. At the extreme, in some locations, books were immediately taken away after a complaint was given—bypassing any input from teachers, principals, librarians, or parents.
A second topic concerned laws that were recently passed in New York and Maryland legislatures with enormous bipartisan support. These directed ebook providers to sell their products to libraries without a barrage of penalties and surcharges. Then the Empire struck back: In December 2021, Governor Kathy Hochul vetoed New York’s law. And in February 2022, following a lawsuit by the Association of American Publishers, working with the Authors Guild, a federal court issued a preliminary injunction on the Maryland law, blocking the state from enforcing it. (Disclaimer: I am a member of the Authors Guild.)
Lunchtime Program, by the Numbers
In my 25-year career as a systems librarian, I developed a passion for usage statistics in our servers. I was very pleased with the lunchtime program—particularly the presentation by Steve Potash, CEO of OverDrive. As a giant in the field of ebook delivery, that company has a better view than any of what has happened during the pandemic. As of this time, OverDrive serves more than 76,000 institutions worldwide. About 22,000 of these are public libraries, including a number of national libraries. OverDrive offers 2,700,000 ebooks and nearly 300,000 audiobooks. As Potash pointed out, any one title could be represented by 100 editions in all possible languages.
In 2020, the abrupt uptick in ebook usage led to long waitlists in public libraries. OverDrive helped to solve this by adding new options involving simultaneous users, which resulted in reduced waitlists going into 2021. The pandemic caused a greater surge in ebooks than it did in audiobooks. In addition, in 2021, popular magazine checkouts passed 20 million. Potash projects overall circulations in 2022 to pass 500,000. Meanwhile, the cost per circulation is dipping below a dollar.
A session on memoirs was followed by a second one that focused on memoirs by Black women who had overcome obstacles to enjoy success in the fields of fashion, finance, medicine, and academia. The standout speaker for me was Aomawa Shields, who was an astronomer who left the field to pursue a successful career in acting. Eventually, she decided to go back to astronomy. She said that when she was with astronomers, she felt like an actress, and when she was with actors, she felt like an astronomer. Her memoir was so personal that publication had to be delayed until she was awarded tenure. She said the book had more information about her life than colleagues would hear in the faculty lunchroom.
An interview with novelist Celeste Ng explored her new book about a mother raising her son in turbulent times. She said that she had starting writing it in 2016, and that issues in the world were intruding and then being integrated into her work. Other major authors speaking at the conference included John Grisham and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.).
I’ve been attending BookExpo since the mid-1970s, when it was known as the American Booksellers Association’s annual conference. In 1990, I moved to New York and had the occasion to visit BookExpo many times. Can the industry emulate ALA and bring back full-scale in-person events? I suspect not. Sadly, the days of close contact with movie stars, major authors, and Elvis impersonators seem to be a thing of the past. I do believe that Day of Dialog, being a highly focused event, stands a chance of going live again. However, as Yogi Berra warned us, “Predictions are hard. Especially about the future.”