Monday, June 01, 2009

BookExpo: Tony Buchsbaum’s Notes from the Floor

For the past three days, I have been on the exhibit floor at BookExpo America 2009 in New York City. Open only to people in the book trade, BEA is the place to be if you love books.

Usually, there are something like 25,000 people. Many are manning booths; many more are ducking in and out of them. The point? For publishers to show independent booksellers, the press and competing publishers what they’re cooking up for the next six months or so. There are usually mountains of advance copies, free for the grabbing. And, of course, there are authors everywhere, autographing sessions and the usual assortment of trade-show gimmes, from candy and pens to notepads, T-shirts and posters.

This year, two things altered the BEA experience. The dodgy economy resulted in far fewer books. Gone were the mountains of galleys, replaced by, well, modest hills of them. Some of the big publishers, notably Random House, didn’t offer books unless an author was there to sign them (long lines, anyone?). This meant less shoulder pain -- but it also meant much less excitement on the trade show floor.

Some years, a really big book makes its mark on the show; becomes the one everyone is talking about: The Prince of Tides, Presumed Innocent and The Horse Whisperer are good examples from the past. One big book was the other thing that changed BEA 2009 -- and the closest anyone got to it was the big banners in the entrance hall. That’s right: Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, coming from Doubleday in September. More than one publisher told me they’d moved planned books to other times of the year, to avoid being crushed by it.

What else were attendees talking about? Electronic books. The general consensus was that content was king, and how we read is beside the point. (Personally, I like the feel of paper. Plus, the batteries in a book never run out no matter how long your flight is delayed.)

In terms of author sightings, it seemed there was at least one at every booth, every moment of every day. Without looking too hard you could see James Patterson, Dr. Ruth, Diana Gabaldon, Michael Lewis, Robert Goolrick and James Ellroy, to name just six of hundreds. They were all happily signing books. Who did I stand in line for? Jeff Kinney, author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. My son was over the moon later that afternoon, when I presented him with an autographed copy.

Next year, BEA’s organizers say the trade show will change again. Traditionally held over a weekend, in 2010 it will move to mid-week. Whether the mountains of books will return is anyone’s guess. My own suspicion is that it’ll be up to the economy. And Dan Brown.

Finally, the oddest thing: Usually there’s a constant crowd of people registering. This year, every day, the crowd was reduced dramatically after the morning rush -- and by Saturday afternoon there was no one in line to get in. The people behind the counter were just sitting there with nothing to do. And I kept thinking: Why didn’t someone get them something to read?

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