The AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) is having its annual conference in Seattle next week. Earlier this morning, the official Twitter feed for AWP sent out this tweet:
To clear up some misinformation, the AWP Bookfair is not open to the public this year because of Seattle tax reasons #AWP14
— AWP (@awpwriter) February 17, 2014
This is hugely disappointing news. AWP brings hundreds of publishers to town, and most of those publishers have tables or booths at AWP where they sell their titles, often at a discount. On the last day of the conference, the book fair is traditionally open to the public so the host city can enjoy an opportunity to sample what AWP has to offer.
A few minutes ago, I spoke on the phone with David Fenza, the executive director of AWP. Fenza said AWP first learned about these tax issues "months ago." Fenza couldn't point to a single rule that forbade the book fair, saying only that "the tax codes of the city and state are both very confusing, compared to other" AWP host cities. I told Fenza that other national book conferences have opened their sales floors to the Seattle book-buying public, and he replied: "A lot of organizations tend to be scofflaws, and we don’t want to do that."
Several vendors responded to AWP's announcement on Twitter by asking for refunds, claiming that AWP didn't tell them the book fair would not be open to the public. Fenza disputes those claims: "They were told the story months ago," he said, adding, "you can’t believe everything you read on social media."
I'll have more on this story as it develops. (I'll reach out to the city, but I don't expect to get a response today, due to the national holiday.) If you're an exhibitor and you'd like to give your side of the story, please send me an e-mail.
UPDATE 11:55 AM: Christian Teresi, director of conferences for AWP, called me to clarify some of Fenza's comments. He explained that "we have been investigating [local tax laws] over several months to the late summer and early fall and I can say, from having hosted very large conferences all over the country, Seattle and Washington has some of the most complicated and punitive tax laws that I have ever seen for conferences." He says local tax codes mean that AWP was "potentially putting our exhibitors into a tax-liable situation if we opened to the public."
Teresi also corrected Fenza's assertion that vendors were told the book fair wouldn't be open to the public. Instead, "we never said the book fair was going to be open to the public. We’re not backtracking. We’ve always taken that on a case-by-case basis based on the municipalities we’re visiting. We’ve always announced publicly when we were able to make the book fair public." (When I asked, Teresi couldn't recall a year when the book fair wasn't open to the public.) He added, "we do understand that some of our exhibitors came to understand that [a public fair day on Saturday] was always the case, even though this was not considered to be part of the package. We’re very sorry about that confusion."
Teresi argued that the public day for the book fair has become a smaller and smaller part of AWP, in any case. "We started opening the book fair to the public several years ago," he said. In the days when the conference was open to 5,000 people, the open book fair day "brought about a thousand more people, which was helpful to the exhibitors." But "the number of people who have been coming when the book fair was open on Saturday has been steadily declining. In Boston, we had almost 12,000 attendees and we had our lowest [public fair day] attendance ever, only a couple hundred. We were less concerned with having to close the conference this year because the loss of customers was negligible."
There's already a small-but-vocal group of Seattleites on social media who are planning on crashing the book fair on Saturday. What does Teresi have to say to those gate-crashers? "Washington State Convention Center requires us to maintain security through them. I would advise against people trying to do that. I’m interested in bringing as many people to the conference as possible, but I have to abide by the laws of the local municipalities, so ultimately, people crashing or going through their security or not is their decision and I would hope that people would think otherwise against that." When I suggested that these people want to support independent publishers, Teresi said "I admire that thinking. I really do. I spend a lot of time in my own job thinking about how to support the publishers, but again I have to abide by the policies and the regulations and the laws that I have to work with so ultimately, if people try to crash, that is not my call as to whether they can get in. it’s really not." He points out that AWP registration is still open, if Seattleites would like to register for the conference and visit the book fair legitimately.
UPDATE 4:31 PM: After the jump, you'll find a copy of the e-mail that AWP sent exhibitors today. It mostly repeats information that Teresi stated in the above interview. For what it's worth, I disagree with the assumption that Seattle book fair attendance would be as low as Boston's book fair was; Seattle is a city with a stronger, more vibrant book culture than Boston—I've lived in both cities—and I believe the public's interest in the AWP book fair would have been quite significant. I think small publishers are losing customers because of the AWP's decision.
Dear Bookfair Exhibitor,
We wanted to reach out to confirm that unfortunately the bookfair on Saturday will not be free and open to the public in Seattle, and to give a clear explanation as to why that decision was made.
Because AWP is a nonprofit with limited resources, and the vast majority of the bookfair exhibitors are nonprofits with limited budgets, the determination was made to not open the bookfair to the public to help exhibitors avoid paying taxes to the City of Seattle. The City of Seattle has some of the most complex and punitive tax laws for conventions that we have ever seen.
AWP understands that for many exhibitors the bookfair represents a significant investment, which is why we work hard to keep our costs as low as possible. Compared to bookfairs with similar numbers of exhibitors and attendees, the costs involved with exhibiting at the AWP bookfair are greatly discounted. Our only interest in making the decision to not make the bookfair open to the public on Saturday was to prevent a more difficult financial situation for the bookfair exhibitors than was already the case. AWP has been told that if the bookfair was open to the public the city would require that each exhibitor purchase a temporary license, pay a daily fee, and pay sales tax on all sales.
In the past, we have been able to open the bookfair to the public on a case by case basis, and have always announced publicly when we were able to do so. We obviously never made this announcement this year, but understand how having opened it in the past has created some confusion among exhibitors that this was something that could be done every year. We sincerely apologize for that confusion.
AWP decided to make the bookfair free and open to the public on Saturday several years ago when the conference was around 5,000 attendees as a way to increase the number of potential customers for the exhibitors. In those early years, we found this policy raised attendance by as much as 1,000 people on Saturday. However, as the conference has grown significantly, this number has been steadily decreasing, and last year in Boston––when there was nearly 12,000 attendees––the number of public attendees that came on Saturday dropped to an all time low of a few hundred people. The great efforts AWP has made to increase the size of the conference attendance has made the bookfair being open to the public much less necessary to the success of the exhibitors at the bookfair, and we fully expect attendance in Seattle to be on par or possibly exceed what we saw in Boston.
If you have authors that were planning on coming to the bookfair on Saturday to conduct a book signing, but they have not yet registered for the conference, please email us at email@example.com with their name by this Friday, February 21 at noon EST, and we will help you make accommodations to allow them to attend.
We're very sorry all of this was not made more clear earlier. We deeply value your efforts and the investment you made to to attend the conference. Your work is broadening the landscape of contemporary literature. Please feel free to contact us if you have any additional questions or concerns.
Best, Christian & Cynthia