Ailing Book Expo adds H’wood flair

It promises to be the biggest book launch in the history of publishing.

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” an 896-page doorstop, blasts into bookstores June 21 in a first printing of 8.5 million copies.

It arrives a month after America’s biggest publishing trade show, Book Expo America, and for booksellers looking for a lifeline out of an economic downturn, it’s none too soon.

Book Expo, which on May 28 returns to Los Angeles for the first time since 1999, will be an occasion for anxious chatter about the state of the consumer book market.

By most accounts, the market is ailing. Upon the onset of the war in Iraq, book chains Barnes & Noble and Borders warned investors of falling profits. Avin Mark Domnitz, CEO of the indie bookstore org, the American Booksellers Assn., was more forthright: “The continued softness of the national economy and international events have hit many of our members hard,” Domnitz wrote in an email posted earlier this month on the ABA Web site.

That could put a damper on the dozens of publishing panels, author breakfasts and press conferences at BEA next month.

“I would think it will flavor a lot of the sessions,” said show manager Greg Topalian. “Our hope is we can get the industry jazzed up about some big titles to get us out of the doldrums.”

Once the main avenue for publishers to promote their wares to the nation’s bookstores, BEA has evolved, in the age of chain bookstores and price clubs, into a publicity event.

On the show floor, which occupies the cavernous L.A. Convention Center May 28–June 1, publishers will hawk catalogues, galleys and posters. Then there are the publisher beer blasts and gala events, jammed with hard-partying booksellers and sales execs.

Though publishers have for years questioned the value of Book Expo, they are nevertheless planning to attend in droves. In the 1990s, when the ABA filed a price discrimination lawsuit against several publishers, a number of the majors dropped out. They’ve all returned. The Penguin Group, the last of the holdouts, is back this year after a six-year absence. (Full disclosure: the BEA is owned by Reed Exhibitions, a division of Daily Variety‘s parent company, Reed Elsevier.)

“We come out of it with a huge list of promotional opportunities for our authors,” says one marketing chief. “I used to go into it thinking it was moribund. I finally faced the music that it isn’t.”

Rowling’s latest Harry Potter adventure, which doesn’t really need promoting, will be advertised at the Scholastic booth. And the Bantam booth will advertise an author who’s sold nearly as many books as Rowling – though he still isn’t a household name: Tim Lahaye, author of the evangelical fiction “Left Behind” series. In September, Bantam will publish “Babylon Rising,” the first in his new suspense series about an Indiana Jones-like archaeologist-adventurer. The publisher paid nearly $45 million for world rights to the series.

These writers will try to buck a consumer trend bedeviling publishers: diminishing sales for brand-name authors like John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Stephen King and Tom Clancy.

And they may attract new Hollywood interest in the fair. Topalian is relying on the L.A. setting to reel in a huge crowd of actors, producers and studio execs. The Hollywood contingent at last year’s convention in New York numbered 150. This year, he expects it to reach 800 or more.

It can’t hurt that, compared to retail trends, the Hollywood book market is highly resilient. UTA book agents Richard Green and Howard Sanders call it “healthy but conservative.”

Like most of the media, book sales in Hollywood have suffered in the face of saturation news coverage of the war in Iraq. But according to Sanders, the market is turning around.

“We just went over to a couple of studios,” he said. “All the high-profile writing assignments are book related.”

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