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.