Booksellers' parties, fall lines become real page-turners

June 04, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

Next year, the American Booksellers Association convention will set up in Chicago, which is supposed to become the permanent home of the annual Memorial Day gathering after years of bouncing from Washington to New York to Las Vegas to Miami. The Second City will have to do some work, though, to be as flamboyant a host as Los Angeles was this year.

The surreal setting of Los Angeles proved the perfect backdrop for the latest ABA gathering, which ended Tuesday. In recent years, the convention has become more circus than business get-together, more hype than fostering good books; less about reading and more about show business. The 1994 convention epitomized all these trends.

The tone was set May 27, opening day, when the ABA -- which represents bookstores around the country -- sued five major publishers for "unlawful discrimination in prices and promotional allowances." These practices, the ABA alleged, favored chain bookstores and warehouse clubs at the expense of independent bookstores, which have been bemoaning their difficult state for several years.

The publishers responded with angry denials, and protests that the suit was the equivalent of inviting people to a party and then hitting them with a warrant. Simon & Schuster took a shot at the convention itself: "Unfortunately, the convention may simply be obsolete."

Then there was the markedly more prominent presence of electronic publishing at the convention -- particularly CD-ROM technology. Many booksellers grumbled that they didn't have the technology to offer CD-ROMs in their stores, or the trained personnel to sell them. But they queued up for a chance to peruse Art Spiegelman's Holocaust graphic novel "Maus" on a computer screen.

No one was saying electronic publishing would replace books, but it was clear from the number of publishers that have recently opened "interactive" divisions, and were showing off their CD-ROMS in Los Angeles, that the marketplace has changed.

A major reason for the convention, of course, is for publishers to ++ push their fall titles. While this year's list doesn't appear *T outstanding, it includes new fiction by Pat Conroy (his first since "The Prince of Tides"), Joseph Heller (his long-awaited sequel to "Catch-22"), Joyce Carol Oates, Nadine Gordimer, John Irving and Anne Rice. Nonfiction of note will come from John McPhee, Desmond Tutu and the team of Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward, who have turned from the Civil War to baseball. Their "Baseball: An Illustrated History" is sure to be a big seller when published in September, and PBS will televise a series based on the book.

No one wants to talk just about publishing and books for four days, however, so the convention has a history of throwing memorable parties. The most noteworthy in Miami Beach last year was Alfred A. Knopf's lavish shindig for Oprah Winfrey, whose autobiography it was to publish in the fall. Ms. Winfrey made a smashing guest at the party, but got cold feet soon after the convention and announced she wouldn't do the book after all. Its status is still in question.

This year, with the entertainment capital of the world as the site, the parties were particularly memorable. Hugh Hefner held one at his Playboy Mansion to boost a new history of Playboy. Actor Dennis Hopper was host of a party at his Venice home to honor Grand Street, the literary magazine. To publicize its upcoming "Saturday Night Live: The First Twenty Years," Houghton Mifflin threw an enormous party at Paramount Studios. And Bruce Springsteen jammed with the literary rock group the Rock Bottom Remainders (Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan, et al.) at a concert Sunday night at the Hollywood Palladium.

There were several lesser events, such as Scribner's tea in Beverly Hills for Barbara Bush, whose memoir it is publishing. In all, it was a great time to be a social butterfly.

There was also a lot of hard work, particularly for the small presses. Larger publishers frequent the ABA convention because they want to maintain their presence, though some have questioned the convention's usefulness (St. Martin's, for example, has not attended for several years). But for smaller publishers, attendance can be an important way to do business and make themselves known.

Paul Coates never had a chance to catch one of the many parties in Los Angeles. As publisher of the Baltimore-based Black Classic Press, he and two colleagues worked from early morning to late evening, meeting with bookstore representatives and other publishers -- even agents interested in film rights for one of his books.

That book was "A Time of Terror: A Survivor's Story," an autobiographical account of a failed lynching that Black Classic Press published early this year. It is now Black Classic's best-selling book (about 15,000 copies so far, Mr. Coates estimates), and the publisher brought in the 80-year-old author, James Cameron, from Milwaukee to sign autographs and meet booksellers.

So, with a hot book, and the chance to meet West Coast publishers, Black Classic geared up for serious work.

"We are not going to any parties, that's for sure," Mr. Coates said wearily on Sunday. "We meet in the morning to discuss our strategy for the day. Then we meet people all day. Then, at night, we discuss what happened and what we want to do the next day."

Attending the ABA, he said, "is awfully important for a small press such as ours. We're competing with Random House, with Simon & Schuster, and all the university and small presses."

In addition to books sold at the convention, he said, there were other benefits. One publisher stopped by the Black Classic booth and said that while he couldn't handle a particular book, he thought Mr. Coates' press could.

I= "We may end up doing business," Mr. Coates said, beaming.

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