BEA: The Two Cliched Reactions

The headline for this USA Today BEA wrapup from Carol Memmott is “Glitterati outshine literati at BookExpo.” That’s funny. Because I saw plenty of small press booths crowded big-time on Friday and Saturday. I saw an NPR reporter talking with Dennis Loy Johnson. I saw oodles of folks converge upon the Independent Consortium party. The list goes on.

Granted, the main booths at Random House and Time Warner were crowded shitstorms. But then I didn’t come to BEA to touch John Irving’s hem. I came to find out about upcoming releases, meet people I had corresponded with, and get a better sense of how the publishing industry operated.

So far, in the reports that have been proffered, there seems to be two common reactions to BEA floating around:

1. Big popular names occluded the little guys.
2. This was a despicable showcase about the “business” of books, rather than books themselves.

In response to Point (1), I should point out that nobody is holding a gun to your head to see Billy Crystal. Nobody is forcing you to waste your time standing for about an hour in line to get two minutes with Spike Lee. BEA is really an experience that an individual makes of it. Reading Carol Memmott’s article, you would think that literary people were nowhere to be found. But the fact of the matter that it was Memmott, a reporter who purports to “cover books” for a major newspaper, who decided that Billy Crystal’s schtick, Candace Bushnell, and Tab Hunter were more important (and I’m giving Memmott a generous margin here) than getting a goofball report (as I did) about Anne Rice’s latest novel or (more nobly) finding out about the interesting novels in translation that Farrar Strauss & Giroux were profiling.

There was no shortage of interesting books at BEA to write about. And there were limitless people to talk to.

Memmott’s article then is not really about books at all, but about a journalist “reporting” who was at the autograph table — information readily available at the BEA main site — and an opportunity to hobnob with Tab Hunter about his sexuality. What then distinguishes this nonsense from a People Magazine profile?

As to Point (2), I don’t necessarily believe that thinking about the publishing of books detracts from the appreciation of books as works of art, provided that one keeps the lines of thought separate. In fact, I’d say that it’s pretty damn essential for us to be thinking about the business of publishing a little bit, if only so we can understand why certain books get published and others don’t. It is the business, as unsavory as it may be, that determines who are the midlisters, who are the A-listers, and who are left ignobly in the remainders piles.

Why then should we ignore it? If book lovers cut this area of thought from their ruminations, then in my view they are no different than the book publishers who often fail to recognize the book community. Maybe it’s the idealist in me, but I personally believe that if this chasm is bridged in some way, that if both sides make an effort to understand each other’s needs, the book climate can only be improved. Literary lovers get the books they want published and publishers discover the conduits in which to make their literary fiction sell.

Part of the problem is that publishers view the publishing business with a “winner take all’ approach. They dwell upon the Billy Crystals and the Candace Bushnells of our world who need to add rumpus rooms to their palatial Park Avenue estates. Memmott is culpable here, because her article is echoing this hard line. The duty here is for all sides to think and act more flexible about literature and to consider that sometimes a small press title or a book distributed through the streets might just turn a profit in its own right. And the duty for all journalists is to remain unseduced by celebrity bloat and realize that 30,000 people descend every year because it’s about the books, stupid.

One Comment

  1. What people evidently forget is that BEA is, first and foremost, a trade show. It’s the place that publishers pitch their upcoming lists to the retailers. That’s business, pure and simple, and so it’s reasonable, if not essential, for there to be considerable discussion about the “business of books” in addition to a celebration of the book itself, which BEA certainly is. I love the fact that BEA gives the disparate parts of the industry a forum to exchange ideas and viewpoints.

    You are also correct on your first point. BEA really is what one chooses to make of it. I did spend a frustrating amount of time standing in lines, but it was the price I chose to pay to make good on a promise to my son to get the new Cornelia Funke and Chris Paolini books. I can tell you, he was the envy of middle school this morning. The rest of my time was spent meeting with editors, attending always illuminating seminars, and wandering the aisles in search of hidden treasures, whether gems of books or new potential publishers for my clients (and, of course, running serendipitously into lit bloggers). All in all, quite a good show, and next year it’s in my backyard.

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