Book Expo America 2012 - and kind of a newbie guide, too

One of my favorite events every year is BEA-- Book Expo America-- held at the Javits Center in NYC. I started going somewhere around 2005, when one of my publishers invited me to join them in the booth. I knew it was a big event, but WOW, it was amazing! It was crowded as a rock concert, sprawled all over the place. Overwhelming, but in such an exciting way.

All these people care about books! I thought. I wanted to cry.

I remember meeting up with my editor at Writer's Digest, and running over to get a big hug from Fantasia Barrino just before she left-- I was second in line to write her book, which ended up on the Times list... sigh...-- and seeing some of my pals from Absolute Write.

There are the crazy attention-stealers every year, like the guy walking around with a toilet seat around his neck, or the people in space costumes, or this year, the person dressed up as the devil making and making weird noises across from a Christian publisher's booth. For the most part, it's all in good fun, though the over-the-top costumes can come across as desperate, depending on who's doing it. Scholastic bringing a big Clifford costume? Totally fine!

Yeah, that's me on the left.

Most years, I've gone as a member of the media. I've searched for children's books to review for parenting publications, and publishers to write about for writers' publications. There's no shortage of either. But what makes it so special for me is that it makes all the invisible people real.

All year long, I write by myself at my computer for these invisible agents, editors, and publishers who I've never met. In some cases, I haven't even talked to them on the phone. We just e-mail back and forth, back and forth, all the way from start to finish of a project. And fellow writers, too, who've shared jokes with me on Twitter and followed my life with my daughter on Facebook... they became real corporeal beings instead of screen names and profile photos. I could touch them. I could hug them. My people were no longer my imaginary friends.

There is a sense of belonging that I don't even realize I'm missing until I find it. We are the people who think books matter. We are here. We are funny and opinionated and smart and interesting and weird. Some of us don't even wear glasses or have 12 cats. Some of us do, and that's okay, too. Once a year, I remember that I have a tribe. I can talk freely without dumbing down my language with them. We can gush about wonderful typefaces and brilliant chapter endings.

Steven Colbert did a super job kicking off the breakfast this year. "This, right here, is the Lollapalooza of quietly reading to yourself. So let us all jump into the mosh pit of imagination and get elbowed in the face with words."

Junot Diaz spoke next. "I saw you guys lining up at, like, 7 a.m. and earlier. You guys are amazing. You're like my heroes. I was always such a nerdy kid. I always dreamed of lining up at 6:30 a.m. to do something with books."

Then came adorable Barbara Kingsolver, who talked about how she thought it was amazing that she was in the orbit of someone as cool as Stephen Colbert. "Our real guilty pleasure when we're in work avoidance mode is we read the dictionary. In a moment of true degeneracy, we'll play solitaire.We're not that cool. These are not the elements of celebrity. And you know, celebrity is everything. We have celebrity chefs and celebrity housewives and celebrity criminals and celebrity celebrities. That's a real category. It has occurred to me that the profession in which you're least likely to get a book contract is 'writer.'"

Barbara Kingsolver

For me, BEA 2012 started with a hug from my very pregnant editor from Berkley, Shannon Jamieson Vazquez, and moved on to a great chat with my publisher friend from Simon & Schuster, Jonathan Merkh. He told me about one of his favorite recent successes, An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski. I was immediately smitten, and the author was standing right in front of me, telling me that she felt like all the success-- the NY Times List, a movie offer, wonderful reviews-- was happening to a good friend of hers, but that it was still too unbelievable that it was happening to her.

Then I ran around trying to get quotes about how children's publishing is-- or isn't-- moving with the times. (Mixed results: some, like Disney Books, are emphasizing their digital offerings, while many smaller publishers are steadfastly remaining print only. Scholastic is giving away ebook versions with sales of many of its print books.)

One of the great perks of BEA is the plentiful free books. You can pick up all the free ARCs and books you can carry, and they ask for a $1 donation per book in the autographing area. I was so giddy about this my first year that I wound up with two giant tote bags plus about three shopping bags full, and I needed a crane to get me onto the subway. It was like in movies where a boat is sinking because it's too heavy, and people have to throw stuff overboard so they won't drown. I had to give away half my books just so I'd be able to take the train home unassisted.

There are also in-booth autographing sessions. I wanted to cover as much ground as possible in my limited time, so I didn't stand on any long lines this year, but I saw some impressive ones-- lines that snaked all over the floor for William Joyce and Gretchen Rubin and Michael Bolton. Oh, I so wanted to tell the latter I loved his concert in '89. I was 14, and can still remember the tears streaming down my face... how am I supposed to live without you?

William Joyce

Gretchen Rubin

Michael Bolton with someone who is not me

The only really sad part of BEA each year is the number of self-published authors who sit at their booths or in the autographing area completely unable to attract anyone over, even for a free book. There are always a couple of supportive spouses or parents standing by the autographing area trying to get someone-- ANYONE-- to go over and take a free autographed book by their loved ones.

"Look! There's no line! And it's an awesome book!" they'll say, and my heart will break, and sometimes I'll do it out of pity. But then you get the kooks who go further than that-- like this year's winner who spoke broken English and actually followed me around begging me to take a book about Brazil that I had no interest in whatsoever, then suggested that I come back tomorrow for another free book of his that I had no interest in whatsoever.

Another self-pubber had spotted someone with a coveted "Book Seller" badge and launched into sales mode. "You can order my book from Ingram!" he said. "But it's weird... because it's self-published, you have to back-order it."

When one self-published author saw that my badge said "Writer/Reviewer," she asked me how much I charged for reviews. My heart broke again. Folks, you don't pay reviewers. The reviewers who try to charge you have a name: Scam Artists. 

I was unable to summon any pity for these folks, though. Can you see why?

Whoever did the expo layout this year had a twisted sense of humor, putting the raucous Ellora's Cave (erotica) booth filled with beefcakes next to a Christian publisher and across from a children's publisher. The Christian publisher could be heard grumbling about being placed next to these guys, who were wearing muscle shirts that read, "Got Sex?"

Amazon showed up this year to exhibit, but so did this character from Usborne, who I managed to meet right as the show closed down:

Randall White

Wednesday's breakfast was again filled with big authors, including John Green, who Chris Colfer described as the literary world's Justin Bieber. John said, "I do believe someday soon someone will create some multimedia text-based narrative that lights the app world on fire, but I don't think it will be successful because it has a lot of bells and whistles or social media integration or whatever-- I think it will will succeed because of its story. I believe that story trumps everything." He got a big round of applause and said, "To be fair, it's like being in a room full of elephants as an elephant talking about how great elephants are."

Lois Lowry came next-- her second time speaking at BEA. The first time was 25 years ago. "They always tell you to write what you know. I think it makes more sense to write what you don't know... to write what makes you uneasy, what you wonder about, what keeps you awake at night."

One of the bigger changes since I started going to BEA is that there are fewer editorial people attending. It was once a given that editors would be at BEA, but in the last three years, with budgets being slashed, that's not always the case.

Along with that comes an important point I want to make for writers considering attending BEA: This is a sales and marketing event for the publishers. It's not like a writers' conference-- and it's not a good time for you to show up with your query or book proposal and try pitching to publishers. It's just the wrong event. They'll probably smile at you politely and tell you to e-mail them, but they don't like it-- I've asked. They're there to tell you about their books, not to have you pitch them yours.

Workman Publishing

My biggest disappointment stemmed from my limited time at BEA-- I'm on a book deadline and couldn't stay today. So I missed the "Future of Children's Publishing" panel that I really wanted to attend, and I missed meeting with some of the authors and editors I wanted to not be invisible. I did hear that Andrew Shaffer's autograph line was ridiculous, though, which filled me with a sense of joy... despite that this makes two years in a row that I've managed not to meet him.

I don't know the numbers, but I can tell you that it feels like attendance was up this year compared to last year, and I did see more editors this year than last. It felt like there was a lot to be excited about. With all the hubris about how publishers should be scared about their future, I didn't see a lot of fear. I saw enthusiasm about books. I saw authors thanking their publicists (for real!), and publishers excited about their lists, and people lining up to shake their favorite authors' hands because good books still matter. Bring on the champagne and party hats.

We're here. We're book nerds. Get used to it!


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