Autographs, Galleys, and the Paying Public: Taking a Reading of Book Expo

Today is the third and final day of BEA, or Book Expo America, which is being held at New York's Jacob Javits Center. Gauging the health of an industry by looking at how many industry people are at an industry event is something, but it's not everything.

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Today is the third and final day of BEA, or Book Expo America, which is being held at New York's Jacob Javits Center. Industry events always seem an apt place to gauge the health of an industry. But the book business depends on book buyers and most of the people who show up at the Javits are on the selling side. So you look for other things: the quality of parties (and the amount of shrimp on offer), the number of freebies, the fame of the V.I.P.'s. Because keep in mind that most of the people attending BEA — people who work for publishing houses, at libraries, for bookstores, as agents, or as journalists —  have a vested interest in the health of the industry being, well, healthy, and most of those people are actually attending as part of their jobs. Gauging the health of an industry by looking at how many industry people are at an industry event is something, but it's not everything.

On our visit, things looked pretty good. The booths were indeed packed and there were plenty of people—maybe even more people than books. Still, the sense that better times were in the past is inescapable. Leonard Marcus, a children's book historian, author, and critic, told me that this year seemed "less inclusive" than previous years, and also, that there didn't seem to be quite as many famous folks milling about. It used to be, he said, you'd see Mike Tyson, the Secretary of Defense, and Fabio, all in one fell swoop. Perhaps my timing was bad, but at the conference itself I saw pretty much only book industry folks (tote bags and dark-framed glasses are de rigueur) and a couple people who looked like they might be reality TV stars, though I couldn't say for what.

There's also the setting. The Javits feels, well, like an awful conference center in some godforsaken part of America, not even in New York City. "This is such a depressing place," said Marcus, as we sipped coffee while sitting on cement block benches outside the booth area.

As for the books, there were fewer available for the taking than in years past, I was told. (The secret, apparently, is to schedule meetings so that publicity reps can dub you worthy and then pass you galleys from their secret stash.) As I reached for one freebie from the Macmillan booth at approximately 3:50 in the afternoon, I was told, "Not until 4 p.m." I left for greener pastures and never did return, although Macmillan offered a rarity—along with book signings at their booth on the floor, there was wine, too.

Keith Kelly, for one, pronounced the event a good sign for the publishing industry. He wrote in the New York Post, "Book publishing may be an industry under siege, but you could not tell that from the Javits Convention Center, where the annual Book Expo America extravaganza got underway in earnest yesterday." He went on to quote Penguin's David Rosenthal as saying Tuesday was the most crowded first day in recent memory, perhaps due to celebrity authors like Patti Smith, who signed autographs and was on a panel with Neil Young today. Little, Brown and Co.'s Michael Pietsch told Kelly his booth had been "completely packed." Oh, and the parties: At least, "a few more parties than there were during some of the worst years of the recession."

Elsewhere at the fair, there was a giant autograph signing station (pictured above) where authors are scheduled to appear throughout the conference and fans can wait in a massive customs-esque line for their book signings. (I heard an amusing anecdote from one book industry source who, unable to get a legal document approved by an author through the standard courses, instead waited in the autograph line at a previous BEA to have the author sign it.) At individual publisher's booths, there were more personalized signings and other small events and one-on-one meetings. R.L. Stine was to appeared at Scholastic's booth for a Goosebumps 20th anniversary celebration, with cake, for instance.

Many of the big name houses seemed to be clustered near one another, toward the center of the room: Random House, Scholastic, Macmillan, Harcourt, Houghton Mifflin, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, and so on. Further out, there were smaller houses, e-books stations, university presses, art book publishers, international publishers, and Amazon. Beyond that, there were sales booths set up for book lovers: book accoutrement you could buy, like pillows or book lights. There was also an interesting area dedicated to Russia: "Read Russia 2012," part of a PR effort to promote "Russia beyond the headlines."

The main "controversy" I heard was over the idea to open the conference up to the public on its last day. As BEA event director Steven Rosato wrote in a blog post in March, "The other part of our strategy will be to welcome consumers to BEA. BEA is going to partner with publishers, local booksellers, and libraries as well as other industry players to make a very limited and exclusive amount of tickets available to BEA for Thursday in 2012." From the BEA website:

For the first time ever, BEA is opening its doors to a select group of avid book loving fans on Thursday, June 7! You will have more fun in one day than you can ever imagine AND you will walk away with tons of book SWAG!

Tickets are $45, and "power readers" who register will get a swag bag with advance copies of books and other merch. If all goes well, in 2013, there's talk that the schedule might shift to Thursday-Friday-Saturday, with the event open to the (presumably, ticket-purchasing) public on Saturday. But opening the doors to the public had happened at the book fair in Bologna, I was told by industry insiders, and it was a disaster, turning into a mob scene where everyone was grabbing books. Given the "swag bag" and the fact that there weren't terribly many books up for grabs at BEA in the first place, a Bologna-style frenzy seems unlikely at Javits, but the publishing industry people I spoke to didn't seem to like the idea much anyway. At the same time, one way to really gauge the health of the publishing industry might be to see who in the general public wants to pay to attend this sort of industry event.

After I left BEA, I attended a party thrown by Penguin's Young Readers division at the top of the Standard Hotel, in a room packed with people and sometimes, their unwieldy bags of books. Marcus, who earlier at the conference had mentioned what he dubbed "The Shrimpometer" as a way of gauging the health of a company by its party, gave it a good grade,  if not an A+. (He touted Holiday House Books, a children's publisher known for their baby lamb chops, as the gold standard here.) Small grilled cheeses and pulled pork sandwiches and rare tuna on crostini passed us by on platters, but the food was higher in style than in quantity. The views, of course, were nice.

As for the star-studdedness of that event, Bob Balaban, Jerry Pinkney, Richard Peck (the Richard Peck!), Rosemary Wells, Maureen Johnson, and other greats in kids' literature were there, sipping wine and eating hors d'oeuvres and happily reuniting with one another. Sheldon Fogelman of the Sheldon Fogelman Agency—he was Maurice Sendak's lawyer—spoke to The Atlantic Wire about the grassroots nature of the book publishing world, saying that the strong relationships between publishing folks (authors, librarians, publishers, agents, and so on) were based in a common feeling of doing some good, for each other and for the world. Fogelman also expounded on the idea of opening the last day of the Expo to the public, saying he thought it was a bad idea. People were there to do business, he said, and letting the public in would hinder that.

As we all clapped for the writers as they were announced, sipped our wine, and said our hellos and goodbyes, the industry certainly seemed quite healthy. Robust, even. Particularly when compared to a story we'd heard earlier from Marcus, a tale he described as marking "a turning point" back in the late '90s for the industry. BEA was in Anaheim that year, he said, and there was a Knopf party for which the publisher had hired a man with a dog—the logo of Knopf being the Borzoi breed—as a kind of decor. This idea was adorable and decadent in concept, with the dog in a rhinestone collar and his handler man dapper and besuited...but in reality, the dog itself was "desiccated," skinny and sickly looking, kind of like, well, the publishing industry itself at the time. Comparatively, this year's BEA appears reflective of a publishing industry that's up to date, at the very least, with all of its shots.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.