There were no performing elephants, no brass bands and only a handful of jugglers or French clowns. Videos flashed from a minimum of display areas, and costumed theme characters paraded in smaller-than-ever numbers. Gourmet recipe books were more likely to be announced with posters than with pots of savory samples, and the decided dearth of freebies left gimme-grabbers toting more paper than products. Celebrities were scarce, but authors abounded.
It was, in short, more of a trade show than a side show, and for many of the 17,200 participants at the four-day annual meeting of the American Booksellers Assn. here this week that fact was at once a beacon, a blessing and a marked change from earlier meetings of one of the leading organizations in America’s book industry.
‘Temper of the Times’
“I think it’s the temper of the times,” incoming ABA president Gail See said of the shift from the kind of Roman circus atmosphere that marked the convention floors of many past ABA assemblages. In contrast to other recent ABA meetings, See called the mood this year “serious and sober, thoughtful and responsible.”
In large part the change could be traced to certain unpleasant realities of the marketplace. While small presses seemed to proliferate and often prosper, many major publishing houses were in accord that 1984 was hardly a banner year, and some medium-sized houses crumbled entirely. Just one week before the ABA meeting, for example, the 147-year-old Bobbs-Merrill, publisher of classics that ranged from James Whitcomb Riley to “The Joy of Cooking,” became the latest casualty.
“My impression,” Esther Margolis, publisher of Newmarket Books, said, “is that people are much more serious about publishing. They recognize that it’s a business you could lose your shirt on.”
And industry changes had set off alarms among both publishers and booksellers. As Doubleday editorial director Patrick Filley said: “People are very concerned.”
Flurry of Buying
Publishers, in fact, were substantially outnumbered by booksellers (small, large, independent, chain, wholesale, retail and discount) at this year’s ABA, a reversal of the proportions at last year’s meeting in Washington. And from the very outset Saturday, both sides were overtaken by a flurry of buying, selling and general business-conducting that may have left little time for the usual hype and hoopla.
“There is much more serious work getting done here than in the past,” Susan Richman, a vice president at Scribner’s, said. “It’s much busier, and I mean from minute one.”
“Our booth has been packed,” Bantam vice president Stuart Applebaum agreed.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Mindy Bingham of the small, Santa Barbara-based Advocacy Press said. “We started writing orders the first hour we got here.”
Economic necessities meant also that publishers and, in particular, small or independent booksellers were reassessing their relationships. “I think what has happened,” Margolis said, “is that booksellers are looking for publishers for service now to combat the chains, the discounters, and for how to be competitive in today’s market.”
“The fact is,” she went on, “that a book by virtue of its very nature is not a mass-market product. It will never sell as much as toothpaste.”
To Run or to Read?
Nonetheless, Margolis said, “The market although small in numbers is still huge, and the big problem is competing for the public’s time: How do you get the public’s attention for a book instead of television, the movies, magazines or even running?”
But there was another factor at work, and that was the growing realization that for an alarming and growing number of Americans, reading is not an option at all. “Toward a Reading Society,” the theme of this year’s meeting, had been carefully chosen, ABA president See said, in recognition of an illiteracy rate that ranges, depending on which figures and standards are accepted, from one-in-five to one-in-three adult Americans.
“It’s an industrywide issue,” See said, a problem that finally, for publishers and booksellers alike, reduces as much to “enlightened self-interest” as it does to altruism. With the soaring illiteracy rate, See asked, “where are our customers of tomorrow? Where are the readers of tomorrow?”
Faced with such questions, See said, “I think booksellers are coming to understand their role as responsible citizens as much as merchants.”
Indeed, ABA executive director Bernard E. Rath said in his opening message, “The facts are that America has a genuine literacy problem, and that nearly everyone believes the responsibility lies somewhere else. Citizens blame it on educators. Educators contend that the paltry sums appropriated by citizens for education are responsible. Columnists and essayists blame it on television; liberal intellectuals blame conservative economists.”
And “until now,” Rath said, “the book industry’s involvement with the literacy effort has been somewhat sporadic and not clearly focused.” Once, he remembered, “I heard a member of the book industry complain in reference to a Reading Is Fundamental book distribution, ‘I sell books, I don’t give them away.’ ”
Well, Rath asked, “we all sell books, but to whom will we turn when we can’t even give them away?”
The question was enough to bring tears to the eyes of many in a breakfast audience of nearly 2,000. “How do people read our books unless they can read?” author/sociologist/novelist/priest Father Andrew Greeley asked in introducing Jonathan Kozol to what one guest termed “the world’s biggest book-and-author breakfast.”
Kozol, author of this season’s attention-grabbing “Illiterate America” (Doubleday), stunned his listeners with a litany of formidable facts and figures: “Sixty million American adults,” he began, “one-third of our adult population, cannot read a daily paper, a book, a welfare form, the Bill of Rights, a housing lease, the antidote advice on a can of household cleaner.”
Among 138 United Nations members, Kozol said, “the United States ranks 49th in literacy levels.” Further, “we are also 24th in the number of books produced.”
With 40% of recent military recruits reading between fourth- and eighth-grade levels, said Kozol, “a five-page comic book is needed to provide instructions on how to release the hood of a Jeep.”
Factoring in unemployability figures and a lowered gross national product of as much as $100 billion, Kozol estimated the annual cost of the current illiteracy rate at around $120 billion.
And, he added, “The other factor is the insult to democracy, the compromise of all that is suggested by our wistful reference to a Jeffersonian ideal.” Illiterate citizens, Kozol said, “seldom vote. They cannot make informed political decisions.”
But at least at the federal level, Kozol charged, politicians seem callous about the exigencies of the illiteracy problem. In a recent television debate with Education Secretary William Bennett, Kozol said Bennett described illiteracy as “not a federal obligation. He said it was the fault of parents who did not read to their kids.”
Still, Kozol said later, “To be quite honest, I have been around the country for this book now about five times. It seems that everybody is aroused about it--except those in our current Administration.
But for all the serious attention focused on the problem of illiteracy this year’s ABA was not without its moments of light and levity.
Parties blasted into the night, rocking on boats in the Bay or shaking the floors of mansions that certainly had seen more sedate moments. Champagne flowed while masked faculty wives read selections from “Ladies Own Erotica,” tiny 10-Speed Press’ runaway hit that Ladies Home Journal forced to change its name from “Ladies Home Erotica.” Caterers earned ratings much like the best-sellers’ list, and local restaurants were mobbed with customers who proved that cookbooks were not all they knew about food.
Or there were the memories of one veteran bookseller, recalling the young customer “who came into the store to get a book for her daughter, ‘Madame Ovary.’ ” Another customer, he remembered, “asked for the Cliff Notes for the latest Danielle Steele novel.” And recently, he said, he had had a few calls for “that new Southern classic, ‘How to Kill a Mockingbird.’ ”