The annual Book Expo America has been many things over the years in addition to being an industry-wide celebration. Politicians including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have used the convention to garner some press for their projects and stroke their authorial ambitions. Celebrities from Prince to Hugh Hefner have thrown lavish parties ostensibly for forgettable books, and it's been a place to air out every half-baked idea in publishing.
The consistent theme throughout the years, whether the convention was in glitzy Las Vegas, pre-Katrina New Orleans, workman-like Chicago, or the center of the publishing universe, New York, has been that BEA is about books. The big houses displayed their fall lists in force, passing out galleys, bringing in authors, hanging giant banners and thrusting endless catalogs on unsuspecting booksellers. If you didn't return home with a dozen buzz books (titles that everyone was talking about), it seemed like you somehow missed the show.
This year's fete was held in New York's remarkably dull Jacob Javits Center. Yes, dull. Lacking luster. Brutish. New York couldn't do any better for a convention center than an ugly squarish black glass building that makes the Port Authority look like a monument to sensible architecture? Worse yet it is set in the most hidden and forsaken part of the city where restaurants and retail establishments won't even venture. Is there any other part of Manhattan that more resembles downtown Flint, Michigan?
Still, despite the sordid location, the transitioning print to digital world that publishers and booksellers occupy, and the horrendous economy (we are two steps ahead of the automakers and one step ahead of the newspapers), I couldn't wait for the show to begin. It was a chance to escape the depressing spreadsheets of the store, an opportunity to convene with creative booksellers and publishers, and perhaps rub shoulders with some authors that I revere.
Here are some thoughts and impressions of the just-completed show:
Where Are The Books?
Most publishers drastically cut back the number of advance reader's copies that they gave out. The booths were sparse, the freebies (despite Wired Magazine's Chris Anderson's assertion that free is the next big price point) were almost non-existent. Where was the swag? All I wanted was a deck of cards advertising a book or a publisher. Used to be, I'd see five of those a show. Nowadays, all I got were brochures to go to netgalley and pick up my reader's copy. No thanks, I'll stay with my 30-year-old hardback John Updike novel that I carried to the show.
Perhaps most surprising about the publishers' reticence to give things away and show off their new titles is that this Fall list just may be the best array of new titles that I have ever seen. New novels from John Irving, E.L. Doctorow, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Richard Russo, and Philip Roth, not to mention Dan Brown and Audrey Niffenegger are on the docket. You would never have guessed that this Fall was an embarrassment of riches based on what we saw on the show floor. Are the publishers trying to hide these books?
You Call That A Booth?
Instead of getting booksellers excited about titles, many publishers seemed to be trying to win an award for best Scandinavian interior design. The booths were small and austere with clean lines, sleek chairs and plush carpet. HarperCollins didn't even have posters of the titles. Only their pesky light boards that flashed a new book jacket every ten seconds stood in the way of the booth winning an award for most monochromatic space in New York City.
A few booths (Hay House, Workman and Andrews McMeel) went all out and stocked their displays with . . . gasp . . . books. The big guys almost uniformly avoided the heavy, messy objects as best that they could. At least Random House, Harper and Penguin were in the hall. Macmillan, home to Henry Holt, St. Martins and Farrar Strauss & Giroux was nowhere to be seen.
Hey, Richard Russo, Pass the Potatoes
Two of three dinners I attended (Random House on Saturday night and FSG on Thursday night) didn't feature any authors. The Random House dinner, usually one of the swankiest affairs at BEA, never features authors. In fact, a few years ago when Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier was there I think most booksellers felt that he was crashing the party.
However, the FSG dinner, which I've only attended for two years, was also devoid of authors. Apparently, the authors are an every-other-year phenomenon at FSG. When the convention is held in New York, the editorial staff comes out in full force. I didn't really mind, because I love the folks at FSG and I am notorious for sticking my foot in my mouth when speaking with writers. The dinner at the Indian restaurant Devi was wonderful, and from my stand point I wouldn't change a thing.
Still, I wonder about the decision to keep the authors and booksellers separate coming from a literary publisher that had no presence on the BEA floor. Wasn't this the golden opportunity to get excited about their titles? At least it was FSG; I'm going to show the love for their books no matter what anyway. Perhaps they knew that all along.
Oh yeah, the dinner that actually did include authors was Friday night's party hosted by Grove/Atlantic and Granta. Sherman Alexie and Paul Auster led an all-star lineup that kept the conversation flowing as smoothly as the free wine in the beautiful loft of Granta's editor John Freeman.
E-readers are Really Sexy
Ebooks were everywhere. You couldn't go more than a few steps without someone talking about the impact of ebooks on the industry. I'm a naysayer. Not about the fact that ebooks will become a major force, but about their impact on the written word. I think they will not lead to an improvement of literary life, rather a diminishment of it.
Enough preaching, because I must admit that my favorite booth in the entire exhibit was for a new e-reader, oddly called C*ol-er. I was darting through one of the aisles, hoping to avoid the L. Ron Hubbard fanatics, when I was stopped dead by a 6-foot-1 blond woman in a small pink bikini. Wow!!
Before I knew what happened I was reeled into this strange tropical booth featuring attractive women in bathing suits and unattractive men in Hawaiian shirts. One of the men took my elbow and tried to lead me away from the barely clad blond to blab about an e-reader that comes in half a dozen different iPod-like colors.
I tried to focus on his spiel, but then I felt that if I didn't ogle the blond, who so obviously wanted to be looked at, that I'd be insulting her. What was she doing in that tiny bikini in the frigid hall?Was she some model hired just to lure people in? I asked a few perfunctory questions to the man about the e-reader, and much to my surprise when he got stumped, she answered.
Now, I was really intrigued. Was this woman someone who worked at the office and just decided to dress for BEA in a provocative manner? Was this a sales rep? If that's an ebook sales rep, the printed book as we know it is dead for sure. The conversation ended when I asked if she would provide private e-reader lessons, if I bought the device.
How Does Lorrie Moore Do It?
Lorrie Moore has the potential for comic genius somewhere in the realm of Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin, Gilda Radner and Grover. I saw her speak at Saturday's author luncheon and all I can say is this woman should be out on the circuit. She read questions that "readers" had written to her and then answered them.
The first one was, "What the hell took you so long to write your new novel? Are you lazy?" Moore refused to answer that one. The second was more to her liking, "How do you do it? How do you raise a son as a single mom, teach at a university and still have time to write a novel? How do you do it?" The question also mentioned her ex-husband's obnoxious emails and other details of her personal life making it clear that she wrote the question. The answer was simple, "I don't answer personal questions."Her deadpan delivery, self deprecation and timing were stellar. She told several jokes until she had the audience reeled in, and then she socked us with a touching, emotional story about her grandfather's failure to write a novel. She's picking up where he left off, perhaps. It's the family's curse. If your family can't put a curse on you, who can? She's ready for the Borscht belt. I can't wait to read her novel, A Gate at the Stairs.
Is This Really the End?
Walking around this subdued, fairly moribund show I really wondered if BEA has reached its logical end. The economy perhaps sped up the Expo's deterioration by a few years, but it sure seems like an antiquated but beautiful idea to bring all the publishers under one tent and let the booksellers look around. Maybe it's quaint to think that buzz could start on a show floor. Heck, the major publisher that most needs buzz, Macmillan, didn't even show up. Who will follow suit next year?
We have the Internet nowadays. Twitter creates the buzz. Go to Good Reads if you want a recommendation. The publisher tent is open 24/7. The most vibrant discussions at the show involved the new social media that is all around us. Twitter got the most praise, which if past experience at the show is an indicator, probably means it will be dead in a year. Once the book geeks adopt a technology, you know it's passe. Facebook, which already feels like it has peaked, also earned high praise from booksellers and publishers. YouTube was hardly mentioned, so I'm guessing that it will continue to grow in popularity.
I hope that BEA can morph into something meaningful for publishers, authors and booksellers. There must be a way to communicate with each other, to wow each other that doesn't involve cheap Ikea-looking furniture. I think the dinners are valuable, the chance to meet authors is valuable, the empty booths are not. Something is going to change, because those vacant booths cost a lot of money.