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Tuesday, June 2, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bookexpo: Amid The Challenges, Binding Unity

Seattle Times Book Editor

CHICAGO - The American book industry may be more fractured than ever, but a feisty and determined kind of unity prevailed when store owners and publishers gathered here for BookExpo America, the annual three-day extravaganza that ended yesterday.

People who live by the book, it seems, are not willing to die by the book - at least without putting up a good fight.

The challenges are daunting: Book sales have been flat for a number of years and continue to be sluggish; First Amendment privacy rights are under attack, and censorship is a perennial threat; independent bookstores are challenging national-chain "superstores" in court, just months after settling a 3-year-old dispute with a half-dozen major publishers; and Internet technology is propelling retail bookselling ever deeper into cyberspace - without a star chart.

Yet Pat Schroeder, the former Colorado congresswoman who became president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers just a year ago, seemed to capture the spirit of collegial determination when she paid tribute to a Washington, D.C., bookstore fighting Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's demand for all records of Monica Lewinsky's purchases over a 30-month period.

Speaking Sunday before a luncheon of booksellers and publishers, Schroeder made a special plea to remember "all those young people at Kramerbooks, working today in black T-shirts that say `Subpoenaed for Selling Books.'

"I think, basically, all of us lose if our privacy is invaded."

Schroeder's was not the only voice. The American Booksellers Association, the co-sponsor of BookExpo, paid tribute to second-generation bookseller Bill Kramer the evening before, following Kramer's announcement that he will appeal District Court Judge Norma Holloway's denial of his store's request to quash Starr's subpoena for the sales records.

"Make this fight your fight," Kramer told his bookselling colleagues. "It's really just an accident that I'm up here - it could just as easily have been one of you. And if we don't fight this fight today, it will surely happen to many of us in days to come."

The same gathering also honored National Book Award-winning novelist Charles Frazier, author of the megaselling "Cold Mountain," with its ABBY Award, an annual prize to the author of the book that booksellers most enjoyed selling and recommending to their customers during the previous year.

This was the second edition of BookExpo America in Chicago's cavernous but still sparkling new McCormick Place South convention center. After taking over the show two years ago from the American Booksellers Association, the 98-year-old trade organization that represents some 3,500 independent bookstores, the new owners, the Association of Expositions & Services, watched in horror as dozens of publishing houses - already smarting from the ABA suit against six publishers - continued abandoning the show last year.

Expo organizers labored intensely to attract defectors back into the fold, and this year's roster of exhibitors once again included most of the familiar names. But Courtney Muller, the exposition company vice president who manages BookExpo, said the number of exhibitors is not the most significant issue.

". . . Getting young people to read and grow up being readers (is the issue facing the book industry)," said Muller. "There's so much now to compete with for their attention."

She said BookExpo and Publishers Weekly, the trade magazine, will conduct a survey this summer to gauge teenagers' reading habits. In addition, she said, the publishers' group is planning a major initiative next year to reach readers in the 18-to-34 age group.

Despite the seeming newfound harmony between independent booksellers and the publishing industry, the specter of size continued to haunt the proceedings. On Friday night, word came that the Federal Trade Commission had approved the merger of Bantam Doubleday Dell with Random House - a move announced in March when Bantam's owner, the German conglomerate Bertelsmann A.G., said it would purchase Random House and its many divisions from Advance Publications, the media firm owned by the Newhouse family.

The merger had been opposed by the Authors Guild, which saw it as potentially shrinking markets for its members. Yet Bertelsmann's reputation as a hands-off owner has allayed many fears, and on the convention floor, a Bertelsmann spokesman sought to reinforce that view.

"Our plans are that all the current houses will continue under their various jurisdictions," said Stuart Applebaum, who has long been associated with Bantam Books. "There's no single individual who is going to decide which Random House imprint is going to publish which book.

"Bertelsmann is interested in investing in the future of the consumer book throughout the world," Applebaum added. "They believe in the long-term prospects for books culturally and for books commercially."

Bertelsmann is going to have to do more than express optimistic belief in its new American mega-publisher. The 1997 Consumer Research Study on Book Purchasing, which was released during the convention by the Book Industry Study Group, showed an industry lagging behind the robust American economy.

Though the number of adult books purchased in 1997 increased by almost 1 percent over 1996, book-buying per household actually declined, when population growth is factored in, the study showed. While national chain bookstores slightly increased their market share to 25 percent, the share of independent bookstores - the bread-and-butter group of BookExpo - dropped to 17 percent.

That simply continues the depressing trend for hard-pressed independent booksellers - five years ago their market share was 24 percent - and largely explains the suit against the Barnes & Noble and Borders chains filed in March by the booksellers association and 20 bookstore members, including Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. The suit charges the two chains - which together have more than 2,000 outlets nationwide - with a pattern of illegal practices that are driving independent booksellers out of the business.

The dispute heated up during BookExpo with release of an "open letter" to reporters from Len Riggio, chairman and CEO of Barnes & Noble. He denied that his firm used its clout to obtain preferential treatment from publishers and maintained Barnes & Noble "follows the law in all its business dealings" and "follows accepted industry practices" in regard to pricing, discounts and other terms.

A different view was offered by Chuck Robinson, a past president of the American Booksellers Association and co-owner, with his wife Dee, of Village Books in Bellingham.

"As nearly unlimited capital continues to attack the book market, it makes it difficult for independent operations to continue doing business," said Robinson. "Look, I can't believe that Seattle was a severely under-served book market, and consequently I have a hard time believing that what Seattle needs is another `big box' downtown" - referring to a planned new Barnes & Noble superstore, joining a large Borders Books & Music outlet downtown.

"That kind of thing, I believe, is specifically meant to take market share from independent bookstores - principally Elliott Bay Book Co., but also smaller independents like Bailey/Coy and M Coy."

News continued to be good, however, for one Seattle bookseller at BookExpo, Amazon.com, the pioneering online bookstore: The Book Industry Study Group's consumer survey found mail-order sales increased nearly a percentage point in 1997, to a 6 percent market share, an increase largely attributed to online sales. Like last year, the Amazon booth was busy.

But BookExpo America wasn't all sales figures and legal disputes. Among other highlights:

-- Tom Wolfe, addressing the opening-night reception, declared that "one of the problems with fiction today is that it has to be plausible - and almost nothing else has to be." Wolfe also offered a few tantalizing tidbits from his new novel, "A Man in Full" - due in November from Farrar Straus & Giroux - a delicious-sounding concoction involving, of all things, real-estate development in Atlanta.

-- Seattle writer Nancy Rawles was one of 11 writers honored Sunday with a 1998 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Rawles was recognized for her first novel, "Love Like Gumbu," published by Seattle's Fjord Press. She was in good company: her fellow winners included Don DeLillo ("Underworld"), Angela Davis ("Blues Legacies and Black Feminism"), Nora Okja Keller ("Comfort Woman") and Thomas Lynch ("The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade").

-- Margaret Nevinski of Eagle Harbor Books on Bainbridge Island was honored with the Lucille Pannell Award for best children's event programming at a general bookstore.

-- In one of the liveliest soirees of BookExpo, Grove/Atlantic - flush with the overwhelming success of Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain" - feted a group of its writers, including Frazier, and Seattle novelist Matthew Stadler, whose new novel, "Allen Stein," will be released next winter.

-- Former presidential adviser George Stephanopoulos, whose memoir "All Too Human: A Political Education," will be released this fall by Little, Brown, delighted a breakfast gathering with caustic memories of his first day on the job as White House spokesman and offered a bit of practical wisdom: "To work in the White House, you have to be a realist who believes in miracles."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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