KR Blog

BEA Hullabaloo

Book Expo America occurred this past weekend in New York. BEA is one of the calendar’s three major publishing conferences, along with the Frankfurt and London book fairs. Since I spent this weekend reading, I didn’t get to go. [Rim shot.] But I’ve gone twice before, and it’s a curious experience. Those weekends were two of the most exhausting weekends of my life. Who knew that standing on sectional carpeting for ten hours per day and glad-handing strangers could be so draining? Stretches of “manning the booth” made me pine for a career in manual labor.

OK, that’s a bit harsh. In truth, the conference is mostly enjoyable, provided you can break out of your assigned booth and wander the conference floor. Free copies of forthcoming books are always an excellent, albeit weighty perk. You also never know what will captivate your attention, deservedly or undeservedly so. I remember strolling past one booth and stopping to witness Tom Cruise speaking on a flatscreen plasma TV, and stupidly wondering, “What’s this about?” Suddenly a woman with a Cruise-esque grin sidled up next to me, put her hand on my upper arm and asked, “Would you like to learn more about L. Ron Hubbard?” Cue mental screeching violins. I didn’t have a choice, of course. So I entered the enormous Scientology booth and politely listened to the spiel for twenty minutes before escaping. My relatively short period of time held captive being quite the achievement, I can assure you, given the booth’s size, which rivaled those of Random House and Houghton Mifflin, and which exhibited the structural complexity of Fallingwater. BEA booth square footage is a harsh and honest calculus, I discovered, of actual market share in the publishing industry, the true contours and shape of which many of us don’t accurately comprehend. Much like assuming we know the contours of the movie business without considering, you know, those back-of-the-video-store movies that depict whoopee.

There’s a significant element of hubris to the whole publishing conference endeavor. Since much of the autumn’s and holiday season’s marketing pushes are announced at BEA, and since much of the talk-show, radio, book-review, and feature coverage that appears in the media during the second half of the year originates from books — count how many times you will hear, on a weekly basis, “…who has a new book out,” and you’ll recognize this phenomenon in action — then BEA puts a lot on its shoulders. The conference floor radiates with the arrogance implicit in the following statement: “THESE BOOKS, THESE IDEAS RIGHT HERE, THESE COMPRISE THE INTELLECTUAL AGENDA FOR THE NEXT SIX TO TWELVE MONTHS.” That’s absurd, of course. But it’s also kinda sorta true.

So what is that agenda? Far be it from me to capture & replicate it here. But this post at the NY Times’s Paper Cuts blog is a start. And the inimitable Bookninja points to two more BEA articles, which focus on tough times (surprise) and just giving the words away.