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Gloom, Doom and Jittery Booksellers : Publishing: The threat of riots and thunderstorms in Miami mirrors the mood at the ABA. Industry insiders say there’s a cloud hanging over the future of the book biz.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Skies were spitting rain and riot police were on the streets here when the first of about 20,000 bookselling conventioneers arrived late last week.

Then they heard the really bad news.

The only slam-dunk fun event at the 93rd annual American Booksellers Assn., the Rock Bottom Remainders’ concert--Dave Barry on lead guitar and vocals, Stephen King on Gothic rhythm and Amy Tan in tights singing backup--was already sold out.

Even boy-whiz Daryl Bernstein, the irrepressible self-made 17-year-old, had to wonder what he was doing here. “Checking into the hotel downtown, it was kind of scary,” admitted Bernstein, as he signed stacks of his second big-seller, “Kids Can Succeed.”

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“We were told the place the shooting happened was just a couple blocks away,” he said.

Gray skies, the threat of violence after the verdict in the retrial of a police officer accused of manslaughter, the scatter-shot placement of Miami-area hotels that had visitors making long shuttle-bus commutes across Biscayne Bay causeways to the Miami Beach Convention Center: Could omens for the ABA’s festival and trade show get any worse?

Yes.

On Sunday, the second day of the publishing industry’s orgy of hype and tote bag handouts, a massive tropical depression rolled in from the Caribbean, and faster than a plane back to Boston, what had been intermittent rain and gloom turned into a wall of water. All the Memorial Day bookworms’ beach parties got moved into the lounge.

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Now could it get any worse?

No. Not according to the spin being spun by ABA President Chuck Robinson.

“I don’t think it’s gloom as much as it’s anxiety,” said Robinson, who runs a book store in Bellingham, Wash. “There is some anxiety over safety, but there is even more concern over the future of bookselling with the growth of mega-stores and now electronic publishing. (Books on disks, for example, which you can read on a computer monitor or have the computer read out loud to you.)

“Selling books is like farming; what’s being threatened is not just a job, but a life,” said Robinson. “So any time there is a major change in retailing, everyone gets anxious.”

So scratch gloom.

Make that anxiety.

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The ABA meeting is the largest convention to be held in greater Miami this year, worth an estimated $24.4 million to the local economy. Tourism officials know that the weather, usually sunny, is beyond control, as are politics and social upheaval.

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The potentially explosive verdict in the retrial of a suspended Miami policeman accused of manslaughter in the shooting deaths of two black men four years ago came down Friday during rush hour. The killings sparked a riot in 1989, and police and National Guard troops were prepared for another after William Lozano was acquitted Friday in an Orlando courtroom.

Although few visitors could have known about the timing in the Lozano case, many were on watch for general mayhem anyway after reading an essay in the May 3 convention special issue of Publishers Weekly by crime reporter-turned-mystery novelist Edna Buchanan.

Buchanan not only described a city in the “Miami Vice"-like grip of drugs, random violence and refugees but also threw in a favorite true-crime incident in which a naked killer tossed the severed head of his victim at a cop attempting to arrest him on murder charges.

“Fun seekers, sun worshipers, booksellers and serial killers--everybody comes to Miami,” wrote Buchanan.

Although there was some rock and bottle throwing here in angry reaction to the Lozano jury’s decision, there was no riot. Still, conventioneers were wary. “I heard a lot of people didn’t rent cars because they didn’t want to advertise themselves as tourists and get mugged,” said Hermann Lademann of New York’s Overlook Press, referring to a well-publicized crime wave here.

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At a time when publishers, distributors and booksellers alike hope to have a blockbuster or two to kick off the high season--summer through Christmas--the sure things are few.

True, there are new books and likely bestsellers coming soon from William Styron, Margaret Thatcher, Miami’s Carl Hiaasen, Maya Angelou, Betty Friedan and Barbara Kingsolver. But it will be at least fall before new mega-hits from Stephen King and Anne Rice appear. And John Grisham needs some time to rest.

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Still, there was no shortage of hoopla and hucksterism on the floor of the convention center, where more than 2,700 exhibitors laid down plush, expensive carpet --literally--and invited booksellers to view the wares and haul away the freebies: books, cassette tapes, posters, pens, pins, food and catalogues. There is so much loot given away at the ABA, in fact, that many veterans bring luggage carts.

The ABA convention is not open to the general public, the ultimate targets of all the sales strategizing being done here. But tellingly, the public did turn out for a pre-convention event Friday evening in the sanctuary of a Presbyterian church in Coral Gables.

There, novelist Isabel Allende held a crowd of 400 spellbound with a witty, engaging talk about her new home in Marin County and a reading of a sexy passage from her new novel, “The Infinite Plan.”

The appreciative crowd of English- and Spanish-speakers was testament to her popularity and to the marketing skills of the bookshop owner who sponsored her appearance here, Mitchell Kaplan.

Kaplan, who operates bookstores in Coral Gables and on Miami Beach, is a co-founder of the now-prestigious Miami Book Fair and, to his colleagues in the ABA, an exemplar of how to succeed in a business increasingly dominated by Waldenbooks and Barnes & Noble super-stores.

An average of two authors a week stop by for readings and book signings at Books & Books, where the atmosphere is browser-friendly, and other independents are constantly beseeching Kaplan for advice.

“There is no simple answer,” says Kaplan. “But stores have to find their identity and integrate themselves into the community. Fortunately for us, it was never the joy of retailing or positioning. We love books.”

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The American public bought $8.8 billion worth of books last year, and all but a tiny fraction of that total were written in English. Nonetheless, the booming Latino population in the United States--estimated at about 24 million--has publishers and distributors thinking in Spanish.

“Hispanics in the the U.S. will number 39 million by the year 2010, and the Spanish-language publishing has increased by 53% over the past 10 years,” said Enrique Alonso, vice president and managing director of HarperCollins Latin America, who took part in a symposium on the subject during the ABA convention.

“What is primary,” Alonso said, “is that Hispanics have the power to live their lives the way they want, and that means access to the resources of the culture.”

With purchasing power estimated at $144 billion, Latinos are getting more attention from publishers, chiefly through translations of English-language best-sellers.

Teresa Mlawer, president of New York’s Lectorum Publications, noted a growing demand for Spanish-language editions of children’s classics, which she called the fastest-growing segment of the Spanish market. “We’re laboring day and night to get Spanish translations of Dr. Seuss out,” she said.

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Before the ABA convention ended Tuesday, the sun did briefly break out, Erma Bombeck and Loni Anderson showed up on the convention floor at the same time and tickets, at $25 apiece, did become available at the last minute for the Remainders’ concert.

Appropriately, the band opened with “Money,” and even without professional help could have lived up to the group’s motto, as printed on souvenir T-shirts: “This band plays music as well as Metallica writes novels.”

But with professional help, chiefly from veteran rocker Al Kooper on guitar and keyboards, the Remainders wailed through some classics, including “Gloria,” “Wooly Bully,” “Louie Louie” and “Nadine” and had even the most bookish of the booksellers wiggling on the dance floor of the Art Deco Paragon ballroom.

The warm-up act was CNN talk show host Larry King, who did 15 minutes of stand-up on a Mafia benefit and his days in Miami, but the highlight of the evening may have been Stephen King singing lead on “Teen Angel,” with lyrical revisions that stressed dismemberment and body parts. In cut-off jeans that showed off his white-on-white legs, King proved to be more macabre than soulful.

But he knew that. “Don’t worry,” he told the crowd, “we’re not giving up our day jobs.”


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