By the book? That's no way to get lots of attention at this convention

May 31, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

MIAMI BEACH, FLA. — Every Memorial Day weekend, the American Booksellers Association holds its convention. And every year, somehow, the participants manage to get around to the supposed business at hand -- books.

Yes, publishers still show off their fall offerings to book stores (the booksellers), who use this information to help decide which books to order. But, in truth, this 47th annual ABA convention, which began Friday and will run through tomorrow night, is serving as a useful object lesson on the publishing business in the 1990s.

It's big -- more than 20,000 registrants -- splashy and acutely designed to favor celebrity and the big books. There are complaints from independent booksellers that they are endangered by the emergence of "superstores" such as Border's. Booksellers also generally complain that publishers are concentrating less on them at this convention and more on selling book rights to foreign publishers and to Hollywood. The ABA convention is less and less a trade show and more and more a grand show.

"I remember about 10 or 11 years ago, if a publisher brought in a high-profile author to the ABA, it was a big deal," said Otto Tenzler, editor of a new mystery line bearing his name and a long-time observer of the publishing business. "Now the place is crawling with them."

"Writers used to grumble about having to do the ABA," agreed Jane Friedman, a vice president of the Alfred A. Knopf Group, a publisher that in recent years has been rewriting the standard in aggressive book promotion and marketing. "Now we have to talk them out of it, because they all feel it's important but they all can't attend."

This ABA gathering is filled with author-celebrities and celebrity-authors. The first -- familiar names who have written books -- include former Iranian hostages Terry Waite and Terry Anderson, who will have competing books out; former presidential candidate Gary Hart, and talk-show hosts Larry King and Oprah Winfrey. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher is to arrive by tomorrow. And actress Ann-Margret, whose autobiography will be out this fall, remains discreetly off-site but a party was given in her honor by her publisher Friday night.

Well-known authors who have been mingling on the floor at the Miami Beach Convention Center include John Jakes, Ken Follett, Robert Fulghum and Elmore Leonard. But nowhere has this shift toward celebrity been more pronounced than in the proliferation of autographing booths that were but a minor sideline at the ABA a few years ago.

Autograph seekers

Yesterday, you could find long lines of folks waiting for the privilege of getting the signed book or reader's copy from Scott Turow, Ms. Winfrey or Robert James Waller.

Of course, there are no bigger stars than those who write best sellers. Mr. Waller is much beloved here for writing the hugely successful first novel, "The Bridges of Madison County." Yesterday the booksellers awarded him their third annual ABBY Award for writing the book they most enjoyed selling. Mr. Waller told the breakfast crowd he had just finished recording an album, "The Songs of Madison County," and in a few days would begin participating in the photographing of a Madison County calendar.

"When the horse is running, you ride it until it falls down," Mr. Waller said to general laughter. Few seemed to mind this, and anyway, there was the comforting thought that he would have a new book -- "Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend" -- out this fall.

Baltimore-born thriller writer Tom Clancy also will be gladdening the hearts of bookstore owners with the August publication of "Without Remorse." His publisher, G.P. Putnam, is distributing 3,000 reader's copies here and long lines formed at the Putnam booth as soon as the dispensing began.

"I love John Updike," one bookstore proprietor said to another as they waited in line, "but Tom Clancy pays the rent."

Oprah causes a stir

Then there is the fall publication of the autobiography of Ms. Winfrey. At a convention in which literary presence is manifested by William Styron, Margaret Atwood and Maya Angelou and precious few others, Ms. Winfrey's book is creating one of the biggest buzzes. Certainly, Knopf is gearing up for a best seller by throwing an elaborate party for her Saturday night at a downtown Miami hotel.

Glitzy shindigs are one way to call attention to a book, author or publisher. But there are many others, and they range from quite clever to utilitarian to simply ridiculous.

Cloth tote bags, which are both spiffy and useful to carry around all the various promotional material here, are much cherished. Thus theygo quickly, and ABA veterans learn to hit the booths handing out these bags early in the convention.

T-shirts and buttons are also staples, as are posters. Dutton is creating a bit of a stir with a poster of the handsome John F. Kennedy Jr. in connection with its unauthorized biography coming out this fall.

And then, the how-to books

On the convention floor, authors tried to lure the practically minded book buyer by offering golf lessons, braiding hair, baking cookies or giving advice on throwing a party -- all of this illustrating that there indeed is a book about practically everything.

The time-honored goofiness aspect of the ABA convention is achieved by various costumed personages -- Batman and Little Bo Peep to name two. People are so used to seeing someone in a bizarre outfit that if Fidel Castro himself were to walk in here with an invading army, most would figure it to be just another promotional stunt.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough ("Truman") acknowledged that, despite its quirks, the ABA remains fascinating.

"I love it," he said. "It's a little daunting for an author to see just how much competition there is out there. But I'm obsessed by books. I can't imagine being at a better place."

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