A Small Press Pass Results in a Big View
by NewPages Correspondent Sima Rabinowitz
The What’s What and the Who’s Who of BEA
The "B" in BEA could just as easily stand for "Big" as for "book." The "E" could easily stand for "Entertainment." Perhaps the "A" stands for "All too predictable," though I admit I was unprepared for the magnitude of the event (the sheer number of people in attendance) and for the emphasis on Hollywood. Book Expo America, which takes place annually on the first weekend in June, was held this year at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York, a massive facility that spans four city blocks. Possibly because the host city, for better or worse, remains the center of publishing in the United States, the crowds of bookstore owners and booksellers, publishers, agents, editors, publicity and marketing managers, press representatives, entertainment and media celebrities, and yes, even writers, were simply overwhelming.
While the overall trends may seem discouraging to some serious readers and lovers of literature, there were several bright spots and positive surprises at BEA, none the least of which was the number of small presses represented at the convention, many with prominent placement in the exhibition halls, not hidden in out-of-the-way booths.
The books, on the other hand, seemed dwarfed by comparison, which is not to say that there weren't a lot of them—advance copies of the Fall 2005 line-up crisscrossed to form circular displays, stacked in rows against fabric room dividers, piled high on and under and between tables, strewn under chairs and even underfoot. Small press publishers, naturally, had fewer books to give away, and often their advance copies were not displayed, appearing magically (I don't have too many of these to share, but I can let you have one) for the right reader/reviewer or a potential reader/reviewer (read our publicity materials and if you're still interested, come back later). The "take-aways," candy and coffeecake, pencils and pens, posters and bookmarks, and most important and most necessary, book bags, were as prominent and as popular as the books. And there were almost as many people circling the enormous exhibition halls urging convention goers to sign up for contests and prize drawings as there were people making serious deals for discounts on large advance orders (this book is going to be bigger than The DaVinci Code, believe me).
Rubbing Literary Elbows
As for "big entertainment," special events, sessions, and autographing opportunities included such celebrity authors and hosts as Kim Cattrall, Mike Wallace, Gloria Estefan, Charlie Rose, Carl Reiner, Michael Eisner, Mario Batali, Henry Winkler, Billy Crystal, whose show "700 Sundays" was the special event on the first night of the convention and Bill Maher, whose "Saturday Night in Real Time," was the feature weekend evening entertainment (last year, for comparison's sake, Bill Clinton was the opening night guest speaker). Both Crystal and Maher have books about to be released. This fall, Warner Books will publish the text of "700 Sundays" and Rodale Press will publish Maher's New Rules, based on his "Real Time" television show on HBO.
"Big names" in the book world were in abundance, too—the lines at the autographing sessions were even longer than the ones for overpriced turkey wraps and tuna salad from the food court—though, admittedly, they represented a broad spectrum of interests, from children's book illustrator Maurice Sendak to self-help star Jaia Lee, from state senator Barbara Boxer to that maven of mystery writers, Mary Higgins Clark. In addition to the enormous "traditional autographing" arena, authors also appeared at special breakfast sessions, award events, and "salutes" (for first-time authors, children's book producers, women's fiction and romance writers, African-American authors, cookbook editors, etc.). There was much "in-booth signing" throughout the convention, as well, with opportunities to meet the authors of new books both from large commercial presses and from small press exhibitors (lots of variety here, too, from Melissa Banks of "chick lit fame," to the talented poet Alicia Gaspar de Alba whose new mystery was just published by Arte Público Press).
Trends for 2005-2006: Same as it ever was, and then some
New books, of course, are the point of BEA. A "New Title Showcase" (what event sponsors called a "featured exhibit," located in a separate space from the central exhibition halls) made its debut this year. Some presses with displays in this "New Title Showcase" did not actually have booths at the convention (the cost is probably prohibitive), most notably a few literary journals and poetry publishers. The new showcase did help provide a presence at the event for presses in some of the non-blockbuster "product categories."
In terms of what book consumers (and BEA is, clearly, about consumption) can expect in the coming year, several trends were evident: books touted as similar to recent commercial successes will dominate the fiction and general nonfiction categories (as sassy as Bridget Jones, as uplifting as the Chicken Soup series, as popular as any Oprah pick); many university presses will focus on politics and social commentary, with an emphasis, understandably, on international relations; the "inspirational" and "Christian" book industry will continue to grow with more and more offerings in a variety of genres; the producers of "graphic novels" will offer an increasing number of titles and they will "penetrate" more mainstream markets; children's "interactive" book-related products will be popular; memoirs and "true life" tales continue to proliferate, but the shift seems to be decidedly away from stories by women, toward stories by men; "self help" books also continue with an increasing emphasis on strategies for "aging well;" mysteries and crime novels by new and seasoned authors abound; "family stories" continue to rule the day when it comes to fiction; and in every category, sequels, or the equivalent thereof, to bestsellers will vie for national media attention, shelf space, and consumers' attention. (Barbara Ehrenreich's, Bait and Switch, for example, due out in September from Henry Holt, promises to "do for America's ailing middle class what she did for the working poor" in her million-copy bestseller Nickel and Dimed. For the record, I've already read my Advance Reader's Edition, and while there is a decent and worthwhile long essay here, there's hardly a full-length book, let alone one that rivals that originality and power of Nickel and Dimed.)
Small Press Presence Packs a Big Impact
While the overall trends may seem discouraging to some serious readers and lovers of literature, there were several bright spots and positive surprises at BEA, none the least of which was the number of small presses represented at the convention, many with prominent placement in the exhibition halls, not hidden in out-of-the-way booths. (Small press stations were often empty, of course, while the aisles around the large commercial publishers were choked with crowds of people grabbing free books and shoving each other out of the way to gawk at celebrities.) Another encouraging sign: exciting small press offerings, from the fine translations of current international fiction by New Directions, to cutting-edge GLBT titles from Cleis Press, to a beautifully produced book of poetry by Rio Nuevo Publishers in Arizona. Poetry has almost no presence at BEA, even publishers that offer poetry don't feature it, but thanks to Rio Nuevo, New Directions, City Lights, and several presses featured in the "New Titles Showcase," the fact that poetry is, however small, a part of the American book scene, was not entirely lost.
In the end, what may be most satisfying of all is the realization that despite dire predictions and general dismay, if BEA is any indication, print is not dead, not even gasping for breath. And if the volume both of books and of people is exhausting, there's no need to worry, we have twelve months to rest up for the 2006 BEA. Event organizers promise we'll find more than 1,500 publishers and 500 authors next year in Washington D.C., eager to tell us, once again, what we must read…or should I say, what we must buy.
Sima Rabinowitz is freelance writer in New York. Her poetry and prose have appeared in numerous publications including the journals Witness, Briarcliff Review, and Elixir, among others, and in anthologies from Houghton Mifflin, Story Line Press and others. She has received a number of awards, including a Minnesota State Arts Board fellowship for poetry. Sima's business writing includes award-winning marketing and advertising publications, as well as a variety of other communications materials. She can be reached at srabinowitz-at-earthlink.net.