The Annual Convention and Trade Exhibit of the American Booksellers Association (ABA)

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At the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, merchants in a thousand little stalls sell oriental rugs, jewelry, handicrafts, and odd-smelling confections. To the foot-weary tourist trudging down the aisles all the offerings look alike. A first-time visitor to the ABA's national convention may experience the same reaction.

The ABA convention is a four-day annual event, held at the beginning of June, and sponsored by the American Booksellers Association. It is staged each year in Chicago at the mega-sized McCormick Place convention center. About eighteen hundred book publisher exhibitors show their new lines of books (and some older ones as well) to a gathering of about forty-five thousand attendees, primarily booksellers, but also trade visitors and press visitors.

The booksellers attend to place orders with publishers for new books, iron out gripes they may have with publishers, meet celebrity authors, renew old acquaintances and make new ones, and, in general, be away from the store for a few days and get psyched on the book business.

Many of the booths, especially those of the larger publishers, are elaborately festooned with posters and decorations. Some of the booths have audiovisual displays. Authors abound-for signings, interviews, or just to shake hands with book buyers. At the 1995 ABA convention, about five hundred and fifty of today's leading authors signed their books. Celebrity authors present included Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gen. Colin Powell, Newt Gingrich, Hugh Downs, Larry King, Steve Allen, and Dr. Ruth peddling her new book, "Sex for Dummies."

Variety is the keynote at an ABA convention. In 1995, for example, there were more than 500 publishers of children's books, 230 publishers of reference books, 180 of religious books, 170 of gay/lesbian books, and 85 that published CD-ROM versions of books.

Highlights of any ABA convention are the conferences and events organized by the group for booksellers and publishers. In 1995, participants could attend sessions on such subjects as:
  • The Technical Bookstore and the Internet

  • Adding a Cafe to Your Bookstore?

  • African-American Booksellers Conference

  • Washington and the Bookstore

  • Booksellers and Publishers: Friends of Libraries

  • Used Books in the General Bookstore

  • Science Fiction & Fantasy: The Future of the Internet

  • Telling Lies or Telling Stories: Three Gay/Lesbian Mystery Writers Tell All

  • Poetry Sales & Promotions
Evenings at the ABA can be boisterous cocktail parties in hospitality suites or quiet dinners. Sales are talked about, but many are not consummated. Yet at the 1992 ABA in Anaheim, Turner Publishing came to the fair hoping to fill orders for a hundred thousand first printing of its illustrated fantasy Dinotopia. When the Turner people left the ABA, they had enough orders for a first printing of three hundred thousand.

Special sections at the ABA are reserved for small presses, audiovisual exhibitors, and international exhibitors. At one recent ABA convention, there were exhibits from twenty countries, including the Publishers Association of China. Large publishers are at an ABA convention as a presence; smaller ones are there for survival.

For many booksellers, the ABA is an opportunity to look at the wares of smaller publishers that do not call upon them directly and to browse at backlist titles. It's all one big literary carnival, and, for many, it's great fun.
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