Like physicians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and fans of anime, those in the literary world have their own conventions—that is, annual conference where those in the field share new ideas. (Here, I do not mean “convention” as in a distinct protocol of behavior, although that argument can, of course, be made….).
AWP is the bad boy of literary conventions, where thousands upon thousands of creative writers descend upon a hip city, ostensibly to attend professional development panels and hawk their books. In reality, carousing, quaffing, cavorting, capering, and kvelling are top priorities on the itinerary.
BEA (BookExpo America) is AWP’s sophisticated, practical cousin. From a creative writer’s perspective, this conference has a 401K and knowledge about fine wines. It’s less about hysterical events in a writer’s life that result in a book, and more about packaging and marketing that book once it’s written—the business and politics of publishing.
As a creative writer entrenched in the former convention, I spoke with Rich Levy, Inprint’s Executive Director, about his recent travels to BEA in New York, to see how the other half (of the book world) lives.
Erika: Why does Inprint visit BEA?
BEA gives us the opportunity to connect personally with publicists at major publishing houses.
Rich: BookExpo America is the publishing industry’s national trade show, which primarily serves independent book sellers, always held in May. Although we are somewhat fish out of water there, BEA gives us the opportunity to connect personally with publicists at major publishing houses. We meet with them (1) to tell them about the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series and Cool Brains! Inprint Readings for Young People; (2) to find out about which writers have new books coming out; and (3) to request that publishers send us writers on tour with their new books, which is how we’re able to present many writers who appear in both series. We run from meeting to meeting in the lovely Javits Convention Center in New York City, on 11th, west side, between 34th and 39th Streets. Last year, I think we hit an all-time high, with 17 meetings in 2½ days. This year we ratcheted back to about a dozen meetings. Much better.
Erika: For how many years have you attended BEA?
Rich: We’ve attended BEA for more than 10 years—Marilyn Jones, Inprint Associate Director, Consuelo Duroc-Danner, longtime Inprint Board member and currently our Board Chair, and yours truly—and have thus gotten to know several of the publicists quite well. We’re a good team, and we have fun. When we first started attending, BEA was moving from city to city—our first BookExpo was in Washington, D.C., then New York City, Los Angeles, and back to New York—where it has stayed since. Next year BEA goes back on the road to Chicago.
Erika: What were some of your favorite special events? What were some of your favorite celebrity sightings? Did you get any autographs?
Our favorite special events at BEA involve seeing the writers we love.
Rich: Our favorite special events at BEA involve seeing the writers we love. Last year we ran into Richard Ford (who was being interviewed about his new story collection Let Me Be Frank with You) and had a chance afterwards to visit with him, which was rare and wonderful. Once we ran into Ann Patchett on the convention floor, and had a nice chat with her. But usually we’re part of a throng, attending either a breakfast or lunch with more than a thousand booksellers, librarians, publishing folk, and others like us. These events typically feature three writers plus a celebrity moderator, all of whom have new books coming out in the fall (including the celebrity) and make 10-minute presentations. Stephen Colbert was a moderator at one breakfast, which was great fun, and once Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon were on a breakfast panel. Colm Toibin was a great surprise at one breakfast—charming and smart. One of our favorites was a children’s book breakfast introduced by Jon Scieszka and emceed by Eoin Colfer, that featured Sherman Alexie, Judy Blume, and Neil Gaiman—an all-star cast.
This year we skipped all the breakfasts and lunches, because they didn’t feature any writers of interest to us. We did see Jonathan Franzen talk about his new novel Purity—his interview (before a big crowd) opened the conference. We also saw Christie Brinkley from a distance (we wouldn’t have known who she was, but she was standing near a poster of her book cover). Generally we don’t wait in line for autographs—the lines can be long, and you have no time with the writer, you simply give your name, accept your signed galley, and move on.
Sometimes we’re lucky. Once we went to get an autograph from Mary Karr, for Lit (her third volume of memoir), mainly to say hi, because we knew Mary from her speaking at our gala—and that brief visit resulted in her coming to us on book tour the following year, which was terrific. But to be honest, most of the writers at BEA are not literary writers.
Erika: What kind of genres are represented?
Rich: Mostly general nonfiction, genre fiction, a great deal of children’s and YA books, and a wee bit of literary fiction.
Erika: Did you visit any conference sessions?
Rich: A few, outside of our meetings (author and editor “buzz” panels), but most are not relevant to us. The meetings with the publicists are most productive.
Erika: Did you hit up any other bookstores or literary locales while you were in New York?
Rich: No, not this time. But we did see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Wolf Hall, Parts I and II, which was absolutely terrific. And I always sneak off to hear some jazz late at night.
Erika: This is less a question and more of an imperative: Tell me that you had a bagel while you were there.
Whole-wheat “everything” bagel, with tofu veggie spread and jalapeño slices, to go from Pick-a-Bagel on 53rd and 8th.
Rich: Whole-wheat “everything” bagel, with tofu veggie spread and jalapeño slices, to go from Pick-a-Bagel on 53rd and 8th. It was my lunch on the plane going home, which made me very happy.
Erika: Did you reconnect with any other attendees that frequently attend?
Rich: We usually see our pals, other Houston literary presenters—Jeremy Ellis and Ben Rybeck from Brazos Bookstore, Valerie Koehler and Cathy Berner from Blue Willow Bookshop, Marilyn Hassid from the Houston Jewish Book Festival, Jennifer Schwartz and Carmen Abrego from Houston Public Library—and Texas publishers—Marina Tristan from Arte Público Press, Barbara Ras from Trinity University Press, Charles Roberts from Publishers Group West. (Actually we missed Barbara this year.)
Erika: What are some of the buzzwords and trends in book publishing forecasted for 2015? (Are translation and e-books still up there?)
We were told that traditional book sales are increasing, while e-book sales are plateauing, or declining slightly. Also indie book stores are stronger than ever, according to the American Booksellers Association.
Rich: We were told that traditional book sales are increasing, while e-book sales are plateauing, or declining slightly. Also indie book stores are stronger than ever, according to the American Booksellers Association. Although BEA seemed smaller than ever, and fixated on trivia (this year, it’s coloring books), publishers we met with seemed fairly optimistic.
One odd thing. China was the “official” BEA sponsor this year and had nearly 25,000 feet on the conference floor and a delegation of 500. This area was eerily empty, although Western publishers clearly see China as a major untapped market. This is not, however, an uncomplicated matter. Across town, several writers, including Franzen, Ha Jin, Francine Prose, Paul Auster, and Andrew Solomon, participated in a protest against China’s imprisonment of writers, organized by the PEN American Center, on the steps of the New York Public Library. Sorry we missed the protest.