Although the Book Expo is an event normally reserved for industry bigwigs, I found my way into the Javits Center last Monday as an extra set of hands. My boss needed help transporting some panels our department had designed for the Simon & Schuster booth. Our setup featured free-standing walls plastered with images of our upcoming titles and a narrow, carpeted runway to encourage traffic through our section. Once we set down our boxes, we scoped out the other publishers’ real estate, locating their spots by the signs that hung from the rafters. The rest of the Big Six — the nickname for the top trade publishers — had similar-looking booths, with the same carpeted floors and Formica surfaces. I expected that once set up they’d have the same materials, too: catalogs for upcoming titles, advanced reader copies (ARCs) of future books and miscellaneous swag, like totes or posters. There were tweaks to each setup, but everything resembled the stuff you’d see at any other corporate-style convention.
This event felt like it could be different from those boring conferences, though. It involved books! BEA was even a trending topic on Twitter, which gave me hope it could extend to people beyond the industry. Who wouldn’t like author readings, panel discussions and cover unveilings? This promised to be a more edifying engagement than those week-long “at least it’s better than being stuck in the office” affairs I’d had to work at before. However, on Wednesday, when I finally had the opportunity to see it up and running, I found myself surrounded by suited older men and pants-suited women, all of them bumping into me as they rifled through their bags or tried navigating the room with their maps. Everybody wore their badge as a lanyard around their neck; they looked like tourists.
Many of the small booths featured only a table and a bored looking individual, usually a woman in her mid-20s to mid-30s. Others were staffed with equally unenthused men. Once in awhile they’d be engaged in conversation with the suited crowd, and I wondered what they discussed. Business, perhaps, or the history of their company? Maybe a bookseller was placing orders? I made my way to a small-press booth that promised an author signing from nature writer David Gessner. As I approached, Gessner’s editor explained that he couldn’t make it, but told me a bit about the author’s upcoming book and asked me how I encountered his work. When I eventually told him where I worked, he asked me if I had a business card, to which I embarrassingly admitted that I didn’t.
The exchange reminded me about BEA’s underlying purpose of networking. Not that it’s a bad thing, but it sort of deflated some of my fanboy enthusiasm for the event. In another instance, I made my way over to the Hachette booth in an attempt to acquire an ARC from one of their literary fiction imprints. When one of the employees fetched me a copy, a nearby Hachette publicist chimed in about how much she loved the novel (The Art of Fielding, from first time novelist and n+1 co-founder Chad Harbach). I inquired about her publicity campaign for it, and once she finished outlining her strategy I smiled and thanked her with a sheepish wave. A part of me knew we would’ve exchanged cards if I had one, but the transaction would’ve diminished the thrill of my ARC acquisition. As much as publishing follows the ‘business is social, social is business’ model, there’s also part of me that wants to separate the two just a little bit, to not allow one to infect the other. I got into this business for the books, not the connections.
At one point, I joined a couple of girls from Simon & Schuster’s sales team over at the Random House booth, where The Office’s Mindy Kaling was signing an excerpt booklet for her upcoming essay collection. That was probably where I had the most fun, because even though the line was long, the three of us chatted like we were removed from the industry. My sales friends hadn’t worked the event either, and after we relayed what we’d seen, we discussed the outer boroughs, television, food and sports. We arrived at Mindy’s table and snapped photos with her. Somehow I knew that would be my purest, most unfettered experience at BEA, free of “shop talk” and the sort.
During my whirlwind morning, I ran into friends at Penguin, Norton and Random House, as well as Sarah, a Realcity intern. Employees at a publisher of Scientology books dressed as pirates practically begged attendees to visit their booth. I saw herds of poorly dressed youngish people who were probably book bloggers — an insular tribe that’s gained prominence as promoters since traditional methods have become too expensive. If I had to guess, they were probably YA (young adult) book bloggers. Maybe one of them was the rumored, crazed fan who bit someone when she learned her fellow reader snagged the last available, coveted ARC — for which title, who knows?
When I got back to the Simon & Schuster booth, things were going swimmingly for my company. Large crowds had gathered for the cover unveilings and author signings, and most of the catalogs on hand had been distributed. Duff McKagan, former Guns ‘N Roses bassist and current Simon & Schuster author, approached for his signing, which was the signal for me to get out of the way while fellow employees set things up. My co-workers didn’t have time to chat because they were too busy preparing for the next wave of passersby.
My first BEA experience was fun, but mainly because it’s catered to the booksellers, librarians and industry folk. It’s not really an event for the “average reader,” though I’d like to think that’s part of the industry’s self-fulfilling prophecy: We excite ourselves about our upcoming titles so we can eventually share them with the rest of the public.