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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

Book Expo America 2012: Exhausting, Exhilirating, Indispensable

No matter how savvy we San Franciscans think we are, some person, place or event comes along to slap us across the face with a stinging reminder of our oh-so-human folly.

Book Expo America 2012, which took place in New York City in June, let me have it, right in the kisser. About 20,000 book people--publishers, authors, agents, publicists, sales reps, reporters and editors--met in the Jacob Javits Convention Center, a cavernous sprawling complex along the Hudson that bears the name of the U.S. Senator who represented the Empire State for 25 years. I had been to a BEA meeting in 2007 in Los Angeles, where I barely had the energy to circulate among the hundreds of exhibit booths. The size and diversity of the industry was eye-opening.

The show in New York seemed even bigger, and I was much more discriminating in visiting exhibitors’ booths—publishers in many genres with a large swath reserved for children’s and young adult books; digital services (including Google); author stages for talks and round-the-clock autographing. Another entire area housed a week-long special event called Read Russia! with authors and other representatives from that part of the world. I was pleased to see All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos) displayed in the University of Nebraska’s impressive collection of new books. Such good company!

From the hundreds of panels, I managed to attend a handful that I thought would give me a broad view of the book industry today as well as some practical advice.

I arrived on the first afternoon to pick up my badge and attend the final workshop of the day—the annual editors’ buzz session on their favorite 2012 books. Publishers had submitted about 200 titles; only six made it to the discussion. While “quirkiness” is a particularly modern aesthetic value, these editors looked for old-fashioned qualities in books: strong storytelling, unforgettable characters, and distinctive authors’ voices. This quest for the book with all those values was the sought-for prize. I rarely heard the term “platform” to describe readership, even in discussions of marketing, sales and cutting-edge technologies.

In the editors’ buzz panel, the editors told why they had chosen their books and how they shepherded the writers and their books through the editing and production process. They were fierce advocates for their books. Trish Todd, a vice-president and executive editor at Simon and Schuster said that In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Vaddey Ratner—a novel of pain and survival, of a girl coming of age in the Cambodian genocide—“was the most important book I’d ever publish”

Alexis Washam of Hogarth similarly praised The People of Forever Are Not Afraid. In Shani Boianjiu’s debut novel, three young Israeli girls conscripted into the army share their dreams and mundane lives in a world in which violence could be found at every street corner. The story resonates with the sense that history is almost over, and the author’s voice rings with fierce passion.

Also in the context of traditional values, a range of people who produce a book gathered in another panel titled Journey of a Book from Writer to Reader. The writer was Robert Goolrick with his new book, Heading Out to Wonderful, his agent Lyn Nesbit, and from his publisher Algonquin, editor Chuck Adams and Kelly Bowen publicist. Obviously the author wrote; the others were not merely supports but champions for the books. The author was involved in every step, even Skyping in digital book events for readers in isolated communities.

A book’s “team” comes into play for author events, and listening to booksellers and librarians discuss how to plan successful events was particularly instructive. The “author event” is not dead but it has to be more than a reading; it has to connect readers and authors and their books. The panelists −Vivian Jennings of Rainy Day Books of Kansas City, Stephanie Anderson of Brooklyn’s Word Books, and Andrew Kahn from the Free Library of Phildelphia− assume significant responsibility for getting people to an event, although they expect help from the author. They develop an audience base through their own newsletters, social networks and media, book clubs, outreaches to community and ethnic organizations, affinity groups, Meet-ups, continuous rapport with local media, flyers, posters and some advertising.

The role of technology was a central concern at BEA but not as a threat. In a panel titled Discovery, Recommendation and Serendipity: Helping Readers Read, web developers discussed how to strengthen the reader-book connection by expanding the book experience. With his site Small Demons, Valla Vakilli aggregates every person, place, event, song or other item in any book on a single web site. The reader merely clicks on the site to achieve access to more information about the text--discovery. Another result is that the book continues even after “the end.” David Gutowski’s site largeheartedboy.com is primarily a music blog but with extensive book reviews, notes, word lists and more.

Even panels covering marketing and sales issues were useful. Fauzia Burke offered an informative talk on using social networking sites more effectively. Despite the speed of digital communication, don’t expect overnight miracles when you use digital media for marketing. Networking equals using all the top sites (including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn) plus expertise plus time plus generosity plus 12 months.

One of the most intriguing panels—What the Next Generation Thinks: New Voices in Publishing Speak Out--brought together four masters’ candidates in New York University’s Center for Publishing. The future of books and publishing is in their hands.

All the students believe that hard copy books will not disappear, and Kristin Vorce offered an intriguing suggestion. Because people will choose printed books to read but also to value as objects, they will become more beautiful, maybe bound in embossed leather. As in the Middle Ages, books will become works of high art.

Digital marketing is ubiquitous, and users turn it off mentally. So publishers will work sales by building reading communities through their own web sites. As Andrea Chambers, the director of the NYU Center put is, publishers will also come together in their own sandbox to market their books against Amazon. For instance, bookish.com is a joint venture of Hachette, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster to provide an alternative to Amazon (its launch has been postponed, however).

The format—print or electronic--for reader access will depend on a book’s content and structure. Publishers will make buying, not just reading, as easy as possible with great diversification in pricing. Subscriptions to genres are already growing steadily, although they do not necessarily cannibalize other sales.

An audience member asked the panelists about the bricks-and-mortar places: book stores and libraries. They generally agreed that a bookstore is the best place to find out about any book, not only because it provides a sense of community but also because the internet is so busy that books get lost on it. Stores and libraries act as filters.

BEA is an exhilarating and exhausting experience. It is pricey, but thanks to my Authors Guild membership, my author’s badge cost just $80 instead of $279. Of course, you have to add the cost of airfare and a hotel. For an extra $25, I had breakfast with Stephen Colbert and a few hundred other attendees. He moderated a panel with authors Barbara Kingsolver, Junot Diaz and Jo Nesbo. The authors were almost as funny as Colbert. You can stream some 2012 panels at www.bookexpoamerica.com. Next year’s BEA is June 4-6, at Javits. Read More 
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