Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Field Guide to the Flora and Fauna of BookExpo

The 2011 edition of BookExpo America, or as we call it in the trade “BEA,” has just concluded—the industry’s annual hoedown where booksellers, authors, agents, and publishers gather in the uninspiring setting of New York’s Javits Convention Center to talk shop, promote new books, and of course gossip. I’ve been attending these trade shows for a couple of decades now and I have come to realize that, industry transformations notwithstanding, some things about BEA remain comfortingly the same. Names change, but the cast of characters is familiar. Herewith a field guide to some typical denizens of BookExpo. You might have seen them at BEA2011; I’m sure we will see them at BEA2012.

The Very Important Publisher (or Agent)
This person is easily spotted because he’s one of a small number of people wearing a well tailored suit. He can usually be observed in one of two modes: striding purposefully down an aisle en route to his next meeting (careful to arrive a few minutes late) or standing in the middle of a busy aisle talking on his cellphone. There are of course also Very Importants who are female. Their suits are even better tailored. They speak more softly on their cellphones but you may hear a discreet rattle of their chunky gold jewelry.

The Editor
Editors come in all shapes and sizes, and can usually be seen flitting around from booth to booth chatting with their counterparts at other houses. They chat with agents too, but chewing the fat with their colleague/competitors is actually their favorite thing about BEA, because they get to do it so rarely at other times. The Editor will stand around his house’s booth for 10 or 15 minutes to show that he's pitching in, perhaps halfheartedly waving a couple of catalogues at passersby. Sometimes he will be actively chased off by salespeople or publicists who are actually trying to do business in the booth; otherwise he’ll wave the catalogues until he gets bored (this takes 15 to 20 minutes). Then it’s off for “a meeting in the Rights Center,” which lasts 12 minutes (tells Russian publisher reluctantly, “I don’t think the KGB Cookbook would work for us”). The Editor then takes a meandering course back to the booth, stopping to visit comrades at 5 or 6 houses, pause for coffee, maybe grab a hot ARC from Random or Little, Brown. Finally, he’s back at the booth—whoops, time for that lunch meeting.

The Schnittman
No publishing conference is complete without this person, who looms above the fray peering down on it through his black plastic glasses. He is easy to find, for he will appear on half a dozen panels on The Future of Something, lobbing provocative remarks that will light up Twitter like a pinball machine.  If you see an individual lobbing equally provocative remarks but lacking the distinctive black glasses, back away very quietly. You may be looking at a Charkin.

The Swagaholics
These are frequently middle–aged couples who roam the floor together, towing a bulky roller suitcase that kneecaps, en passant, those attendees who don’t remember to watch out in the crowded thoroughfares. For some reason they often wear khaki shorts, floppy hats or other garments that suggest they're on safari, or a botanical field trip. The Swagaholics may be booksellers or librarians; some, I have concluded, are are just people who have like Free Stuff. Each of them grabs handfuls of the ephemera that BEA generates in such enormous quantities: pens, pins, jump drives, T-shirts, keychains, posters--and most prized, but alas, heaviest, galleys—and stows it a tote bag (periodically emptied into the rolling suitcase). I can never tell whether these folks actually read or use any of the stuff they collect; by the second afternoon of the show they have a look of grim determination, but they’re damned if they’ll leave the Javits until the rolly bag is full…

The Wannabe Author
Important note for younger book business staffers: Watch out for anyone whose badge says AUTHOR but does not feature the name of a publishing house. This might well be a self-published author, or more dangerously, someone who has bought a day pass in the hope of pitching his/her manuscript to editors on the show floor (in itself, a warning sign of poor reality testing). Often he’ll have the title of his book on the badge as well, which can make it easier to tell—something like this:
He will lurk near the booth, the whites of his eyes slightly too visible, waiting for a moment to buttonhole someone on the publisher’s staff. If you see one of these nearby, shifting from foot to foot, it’s the cue for “Can I get anyone a coffee?”  Take off for the remotest Starbucks in the hall and don’t hurry coming back.

The First-Time Author
Distinguished from the Wannabe by the key fact this author has a book coming out from an established publishing house; maybe the F.T.A. is even lucky enough to have a “buzz book” or be on a panel. The First Time Author will typically blink a lot, looking from side to side with a slightly dazed expression like a newly hatched chick. She is excited to be at this much-touted conference but confused about what is going on, where she should go or what she should do. The whole thing seems rather…chaotic. After the excitement of her panel discussion wears off the FTA begins to absorb the chilling fact of just how many other books are being published in the same season, the same month, even the same week as hers.  You may see the F.T.A, after her second afternoon on the floor, hastening toward the exit, her blinking now replaced by wide-eyed alarm. 

The Random Peddler
This person is sort of Yin to the Carrot’s yang (see below). In addition to people peddling books as if they were some other kind of product, there are always a few entrepreneurs who come to BEA to peddle something totally un-booklike—think flashlights, wiper blades, pet supplies. This year my eye was caught by a booth selling, I think, molded foot insoles. It seemed completely off the wall, until I realized, after 16 hours of marching up and down the concrete floors of the Javits, everyone’s feet are killing them! (Have a thought for the poor Swagaholics, whose rolly-bag is full and whose bulging tote bags are now weighing them down like lead.) 

The Carrot
I’m not being figurative here. The first time I attended Book Expo was so long ago it was called ABA, the American Booksellers Association (pause to shout out to my fellow curmudgeons who don’t believe that mashing together a non-word like “Expo” with a perfectly good word like “Book” is an improvement on either one, nor that putting the mashup next to “America” can turn the latter into an adjective. But I digress.)  Newly employed by an incredibly literary small press that published things like poetry in translation, classic reprints, and magic-realist fiction, I went off to the old Washington convention center full of zeal to spread the word about our brilliant list. I was somewhat dismayed to find our booth—it was a table, really—in the most distant reaches of the exhibit hall, where only the most dedicated, desperately bored, or navigationally challenged attendees were ever likely to tread.

As a house with little seniority and less clout at the show, we had been relegated to the backwaters with other unfavored exhibitors. Our neighbor on one side was a guy who sold self-hypnosis tapes—Lose Weight While You Sleep, etc. On the other was the author of a self-published guide to juicing, who had hired someone to walk up and down the aisles dressed as a carrot. Needless to say, we weren’t selling a whole lot of our Turkish poetry and essay collections; few likely customers for our wares made it past the carrot.

The urge to market books or other “product” by dressing shills in outlandish costumes seems to be a constant of human nature, for I have never attended a BEA when there wasn’t at least one person in a foam suit or other cartoonlike getup. This year I spotted someone who I thought at first was a giant banana, but turned out to be embodying Mr. Dummy of the Dummies guides. There were also several aggressively cheerful youngsters who were dressed as fairy tale characters, or citizens of Dogpatch, or something else of a rustic nature, promoting I’m not sure what. 

I realize I am being figurative—not metaphoric, but synecdochic—in saying you can count on meeting a Carrot at BEA2012. Maybe all trade shows are like this. If I went to the Consumer Electronics show, would I bump into people dressed as Intel chips or iPods? I suppose in some dystopian future where “books” have been subsumed by “devices,” I may get to find out.

Friday, May 27, 2011

One Reason Editors Say No

Tim O'Reilly, whose blog and Twitter feed are always worth following, pointed in a tweet today to an interesting post by Bryce Roberts, a venture capitalist who's partnered with O'Reilly in Alphatech Ventures. His post is called "My Least Favorite No." I had never thought much about the parallels between venture capital and publishing, but both editors and VCs do similar things: make bets, whether it's on books or companies, based on an evaluation of what they're creating, a sense of the market and where it's going, and a gut feeling about the people behind the product--be they authors or entrepreneurs. Bryce writes: 
I hate saying no. But, its the most common answer I have to give when an entrepreneur asks me if I’d like to invest in their business. 
For "entrepreneur," insert "author," and it's true for me as well. He continues: 

The product could have an audience. Even worse, I may really like the team. But there’s a problem: I just don’t care.
Yes, a market may be big, but I just don’t care about it. Yes, a product may be getting popular but I would never use it. Yes a team may be well suited to win a category, but I don’t want to work with them. These are my least favorite no’s because there’s no feedback I can give them that changes anything. 
I was in this situation just recently. I received a proposal from a good agent, by a well-qualified experienced author who had written a well-organized outline about a worthy topic. But it was simply not a topic that I'm excited about, so I passed. My rule of thumb is, if I wouldn't go into a bookstore, as a consumer, and buy this book, I shouldn't be the editor. I'm not going to have the right feel for how to connect this book with its audience, because I'm not part of that audience. 
It can be easy to talk yourself into taking on a project when the subject seems hot, or you have an author with great media connections or a successful track record. But when you lack that gut feeling for why someone will want to read the book, you're asking for trouble. As Bryce puts it: 
As someone who is only going to make a handful of investments a year, I prefer to back every check with cash AND conviction.
I make more than a handful of investments each year--call it a couple of handfuls. But I feel the same way: if you don't have that conviction, it's probably not a good bet. It's hard enough to get a new book off the ground when you are passionate about it. When you're not, it's almost impossible.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"The imagination has a conscience all its own": Philip Roth on Fact and Fiction

The Center for Fiction, which in my un-objective opinion is becoming one of the most happening literary hangouts in New York, had one of its best events yet last week--an evening with and about Philip Roth.  The National Book Critics circle put it together, and their printed program for the event included some wonderful excerpts from reviews of Roth's work over the years (Saul Bellow thought the "fault" of Goodbye, Columbus was its sophistication). But the best excerpt was from Roth himself, accepting the NBCC fiction award for The Counterlife in 1988. I have never read a better statement of how novelists treat life experience, or history:
You begin with the raw material, the facts, what appear in the morning light to be potentially exploitable facts. One by one you turn them over in your mind. This can take days, it can take years. The mind conducts the examination at its own pace--are these facts really any good?--and one day turns the facts over to the imagination. The imagination goes to work. It is not a pleasant sight. The imagination is pitiless, brutal, and cruel. It lacks common decency, discretion, manners, loyalty--yes, it lacks even compassion. The imagination has a conscience all its own; you wouldn't want it as a friend. 
The butcher, imagination, wastes no time with niceties: it clubs the fact over the head, quickly it slits the throat, and then with its bare hands, it pulls forth the guts. Soon the guts of facts are everywhere, the imagination is simply wading through them. By the time the imagination is finished with a fact, believe me, it bears no resemblance to a fact. The imagination then turns a dripping mass of eviscerated factuality back to the mind. The mind (if it is a mind) is no less brutal than the imagination and it is not impressed. It finds that that the fact has been badly butchered. It sends down for fresh raw material, new facts. And all this goes on day in and day out, though there are days of course, when the savagery gets to be too much even for them and, overcome with self-loathing, even mind and imagination haven't the heart to continue.
By the way, if you are a fiction lover, the Center for Fiction's website should be a regular stop for you. Recently revamped, it posts fantastic new content all the time, including original stories from leading authors, interviews and videos, book recommendations, and lots more. And if you are a fiction lover in the New York City area, the Center itself, on 47th Street right near Grand Central, should be a regular stop too. It has an unmatched circulating library of 85,000 books, including novels you'll find nowhere else, and literary programming second to nobody in the city. Can you think of anywhere else in town where you might hear Philip Roth read--or see him chatting with Zadie Smith and Nathan Englander?

(photo of Philip Roth © Nancy Crampton)