Inside the Wonderfully Weird Ways of the Book Industry at BEA 2013

The Atlantic
Inside the Wonderfully Weird Ways of the Book Industry at BEA 2013

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Inside the Wonderfully Weird Ways of the Book Industry at BEA 2013

One of the book industry's big annual events is happening now. That's BEA, or Book Expo America, which brings together a range of book industry folks — from publishers to book bloggers to authors, librarians, bookstore employees, and others — to talk about, admire, and promote their beloved products for several days at the Javits Center in New York City. 

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During the day to the Javits come hordes of rabid book fans, eager to get as much swag (book totes, galleys and ARCS, published fare, autographs, and more) as they can. People have meetings, people hi and goodbye and mingle, authors sign autographs, new covers are unveiled, and people stand in line — sometimes with rolling suitcases in which to better stuff their take — across the convention center. It is chaotic, exciting, exhausting, terrifying, and fun, even if the trademark "BEA Walk" (people slowing milling about, looking for whatever it is they hope to see, then turning and accidentally hitting you in the face with their book-stuffed tote) goes against the nature of this particular writer. If you're not too tired by the end of it all, you then attend the parties and the after-parties (so much pinot grigio!) after the day is done. It's the book industry's version of Fashion Week, and as I was told by a veteran, "You just have to tell yourself 'It's BEA' and do it." 

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This year the event kicked off on Wednesday with a range of panels and conferences, including a Y.A. blogger panel that I moderated with three editors — Cheryl Klein of Scholastic, Deborah Noyes of Candlewick, and Emily Meehan of Disney/Hyperion. We talked about the rise in the "mashup" genre, the informal coupling and tripling of genres like sci-fi and romance, fantasy and romance (romantasy), thriller and contemporary, and so on. A few books to look for: Marie Antoinette, Serial Killer (a mashup of historical fiction, thriller, and contemporary), Quintana of Charyn (the finale in the Lumatere Chronicles series by Melina Marchetta), Cherry Money Baby (representing the "new realism" with snark and substance), and All Our Yesterdays (time travel, romance, and existentialism!).  

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The BEA exhibitor floor opened in full on Thursday, and will remain open through Saturday, the day in which the event is opened to consumers at a discounted rate. Thousands of exhibitors, ranging from an L. Ron Hubbard Dianetics booth to the expected presence of big and little publishers (Penguin, Random House, Macmillan, Harlequin; City Lights, Haymarket, Counterpoint and more) were there, as were booths for countries including Mexico and Spain. As usual, a huge autograph area allowed people to stand in line for their favorite authors to sign books (a $1 donation is suggested), and various panels and conferences happen throughout the show. I was there on Thursday, roaming the hallways and taking it all in. Here's what I learned.

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The Javits Center Will Never Be Convenient. Trekking to the Javits Center on Wednesday morning I felt eager to embark on this year's BEA, full of anticipation and excitement for what was to come. But by the time I actually got to the Javits, after exiting the subway at Penn Station, I was a sweaty mess, and kind of needed a nap. Give yourself time to get to the Javits, BEA-goers, and remember that if you're walking to the West Side, there's no scenic route. Thursday was hotter, and that means I was sweatier. We forget this every year, because the human body and mind is resilient, but Javits is far, far away. Once you get there it's rather like being in an airport, with $4 water and $15 sandwiches. Go anyway for the books, the company, and if you're lucky, maybe a taxi home. 

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The Meeting Rooms Are Scary. To the far side of the exhibitor hall there are curtained-off meeting areas for various big publishers that are not very well signed or labeled, and because the curtains are black and flowing to the floor, entering them feels vaguely dangerous. Yesterday morning I was lost in this Bermuda Triangle for approximately 20 minutes, feeling like a kid who's ended up in the wrong class on her first day. Eventually, I was found.

Santa Was There. The strangest costume (that I saw) was the man in the Santa Claus suit at right promoting a Christmas book called Gift of a Servant. This was strange not only because it was 90-some degrees outside (not so in the Javits; bring layers) but also because most people were in fact dressed in normal clothing. When I told someone about it, she said, "Soon it will be like Comic Con here."

A Positive Reflection of Industry Health. Last year at BEA there was talk of how the event seemed to symbolize an upswing in the industry, still in recovery mode from recession days. At the same time, there were (probably expected) grumblings about how, still, there weren't enough books on hand to be given away, and the crowd wasn't of the same celebrity caliber as in year's past. But this year, I saw no dearth of books. They were everywhere, and people were, in consequence, standing in line patiently to wait for giveaways, or eagerly collecting books from booths and stuffing them in their tote bags and rolling suitcases. The mood seemed chipper. As for the famous in attendance, well, the autograph lines were long, and, as mentioned, even Santa was there. So were Grumpy CatAlice McDermott, Jonathan Lethem, Chuck Klosterman, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and plenty more. As the publishing trades are speculating, it does feel like we're moving past belt-tightening and e-book backlash and onto something new and better (fingers crossed). 

The Penguin Truck Is Really Cute. At left is the truck that will, after BEA, head out on a book-based cross-country road trip: "the Book Truck will travel west on Route 66, eventually traveling on the route taken by the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath, stopping at museums, universities, and historical sites along the way." Currently it's parked at BEA, and it's stocked with Penguin books offered at a 10 percent discount.

The Battle of the Totes. (And the Rise of the Rolling Suitcase.) Totes are like coin at BEA. Publishers are giving them out and people are grabbing for them, and then there's talk of whose tote is the best tote. I overheard two women discussing McGraw Hill's large red satchel (similar to last year's), emblazoned with the company logo. "I think this will be a useful bag," said one. The large numbers of people carrying the tote seem to have agreed. Another popular bag is Scholastic's simple, adorable "I Read Y.A. tote," which people were stopping each other to ask about. "Where did you get that?!" asked one woman of my companion, who carried one. Yes, I took one, too. As for the suitcases, I did not see these last year, but they were there in high numbers in 2013: People seem to have realized that, as with air travel, a rolling suitcase will allow you to carry a bit more loot than something flung over your shoulder. I saw one woman waiting outside for a cab with two rolling suitcases and two tote bags, presumably all full of book swag, plus a floaty dog balloon that one of the exhibitors was handing out.

Y.A. Was a Huge Draw. At Scholastic, people formed a long line to receive the ARC of Maggie Steifvater's new book, which was being given out at noon. Earlier in the day, they'd waited patiently for the unveiling of the new Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets cover designed by Kazu Kibuishi. At HarperCollins, people wearing Allegiant T-shirts were thronging the booth to get photos taken next to a poster of Veronica Roth's Allegiant. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid van was attracting a line of people who may or may not have all been kids. Simon & Schuster and Penguin were perpetually mobbed. As I stood and chatted with a fellow BEA-attendee, a man turned to us and asked, frenetically, "Kami? Kami?" He'd thought we were in line for Beautiful Creatures' author Kami Garcia, who was signing copies of her new book, UnbreakableWhen we explained we were not, he uttered a large sigh and pushed past us. Later, I sat outside for a few minutes to get some fresh non-BEA air, and there was Garcia, buying a pretzel from a hot dog vendor. They walk among us at BEA!

There Is Such a Thing as BEA Time. "BEA Time" means two things. One, the fact that almost no conversation (aside from one with your lunch companion, or a conversation that has been previously agreed upon by both parties) should take longer than 10 minutes, because everyone else has someone else to see, and once you hit minute 10 you see your counterpart's eyes begin to glaze over and sense an eagerness to look at your own watch. Be aware of time. Two, a day spent at BEA will feel both like a millisecond and 100,000 years. It's like subway time, or airplane time, or beach time — both real and unreal for as long as you are there. These are the four days of our book lives. Enjoy them, in person, online, or by vine. After Saturday, it's a year-long wait until the next BEA. 

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