Literary scene; Celebrities, software, and, oh yes, books

A Southern belle, resplendent in wide-brimmed bonnet and crinoline, made heads turn. So did kazoo players tooting Mozart, and a woman dressed as a tomato.

But the biggest attention-getter (not counting the dozen celebrities on hand) had to be the suave robot, clad in velvet cape and gloves, who chatted amiably with startled visitors.

What brought together this odd assortment, as well as more than 15,000 people from around the United States and abroad, was the serious business of selling books.

The annual convention (June 4-7) of the American Booksellers Association (ABA) provided some madcap fun and carnival hurly-burly in the midst of what was billed as the largest English-language book show in the world.

Publishers touted their wares; buyers for bookstores browsed and compared; authors mingled, gave talks, and signed autographs; makers of greeting cards, shelving, and novelties hovered on the periphery; and high rollers from publishers row vied to produce the flashiest booths, most lavish parties, and longest limousines. (That last honor must have gone to the silver Cadillac engaged by McGraw-Hill to transport Erma Bombeck; it consumed three parking spaces in front of the mirror-glass hotel where the journalist-humorist kept a breakfast audience of 1,800 in stitches.)

Of course, the ABA also influences what books we'll be seeing on store shelves from now until Christmas, as well as the fate of one of America's most vital and, in recent years, most hard-pressed enterprises. Mrs. Bombeck was only half joking when she said that, considering the state of publishing, she was willing to go door to door and work Amway parties to sell her new book.

Yet there were signs that the hard times for publishers have bottomed out. A convention edition of the trade paper BP Report recorded a 9.4 percent increase in retail book sales last year, well above the 4 percent inflation rate.

Some observers in Dallas also were predicting that, along with a gradual recovery of the US economy, the boom in small computers will help push up sales of related books and software, potentially high-ticket items in regular bookstores. A recent issue of the trade magazine Publishers Weekly predicted that microcomputer sales, which numbered 3 million last year, will reach 30 million by 1985. Several small specialty publishers are already producing the floppy disks and other forms of software that make for ready-to-run programs, and more than a dozen large publishers also have launched or are about to launch software lines.

Both national retail chains, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, are testing software in some outlets, as are a handful of independent stores. The catalog that was being distributed by a leading wholesaler, Baker & Taylor, lists more than 400 computer books. Another large wholesaler, Ingram Book Company, was offering 1, 200 computer books, plus video games and movies, and software. Ingram was one of 12 ABA exhibitors also giving presentations for booksellers on the part they could play in the computer revolution.

Merle Miller, president of dilithium Press in Beaverton, Ore., which specializes exclusively in computer books and software, had made a 20-city tour this spring to promote the idea that bookstores should get into the act. On the convention floor, Mr. Miller told me, ''The computer software business is expected to amount to about $7 billion by fiscal 1985 - the same size as the book industry right now. Here you have a business that's going to get larger than our business is.

You can't ignore that.

''Software is a piece of information. We convey information; therefore software should be treated the same way books are - the same sales techniques, discounts, returns policy.''

While some booksellers were contemplating the future according to Merle Miller, others were scouting out next season's best reading. Among the ''authors'' on hand to give them guidance and encouragement were a number of celebrities, including Diane Keaton, Shirley MacLaine, Carroll Baker, Lana Turner, Walter Cronkite, Dick Cavett, Bubba Smith, Richard Simmons, and Sammy Cahn.

Superb reading for fall proved elusive among the conventioneers I talked with. A buyer from Grand Junction, Colo., hopefully lugged 20 ''advance reading editions'' to her hotel room one evening but found nothing she could really get interested in. A buyer from New Bedford, Mass., said the only thing she was enthusiastic about was a new novel by James Michener.

In the nonbook area, two items ranked just behind computer software in visibility. Some half-dozen booths featured recorded excerpts from books, produced on cassette for use in a library, at home, or in a car. And nearly twice that many exhibitors showed up to push male pinup calendars - ''beefcake'' - for the ''liberated'' woman.

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