This was my first time attending Book Expo, and while the bigness of it all can be overwhelming, little moments of connection made it seem like a book-loving small town.
You never know who you might meet at BookExpo.
The trade show, a vast gathering of the book industry, which I attended in New York City last week, is crammed full of attendees, all carrying their own stories. One afternoon, wanting to rest my weary feet before a meeting with a book publicist, I sought out a relatively calm corner of the Javits Center and plopped down at a table. A bookish-looking man (well, everyone at BookExpo looks kind of bookish) was already sitting there, enjoying some lunch. We had a brief hey-how’s-BookExpo-going chat; turns out he was Todd Bol, creator of the Little Free Library program, which now boasts 70,000 adorable wee libraries in 85 countries worldwide. I don’t have a LFL at my house, but now I kind of think I should.
This was my first time attending Book Expo, and while the bigness of it all can be overwhelming, little moments like that made it seem like a book-loving small town. There’s something nicely absurd about being at an enormous event at which you feel fairly certain that everyone in attendance would rather be at home reading. The minute I was handed an advance copy of Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book” (out in October), a love letter to libraries centered on the mystery of the Los Angeles Public Library fire in 1986, all I wanted to do was repair immediately to my hotel room and crack that thing wide open. Which I did, in due time. It’s terrific.
At BookExpo, publishers present their wares from booths in the cavernous Javits Center, with the big names — HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, W.W. Norton and others — clumped in the middle, and the smaller ones spread out around them. (L. Ron Hubbard’s work had its own immaculate, sparsely attended booth, with a not-quite-laudatory quote from The New Yorker — “He wrote prolifically” — displayed prominently, and a film called “I Am A Scientologist” playing on seemingly endless loop.) Booksellers, authors, librarians, educators, media and other book-oriented folk peruse the booths, all united by a common goal: to acquire free tote bags, which are handed out like campaign flyers, and to promptly fill said bags with new books.
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According to its program, BookExpo was “reimagined” this year; its website explains that it is no longer a trade show but “the first end-to-end business solution for the global publishing industry,” a string of words that would likely make many of BookExpo’s guests cringe. (It still looks pretty much like a trade show.) I was told by a number of BookExpo veterans that it’s actually quite a bit smaller than it used to be. (It still seems pretty big.)
And the elephant in the room was rarely mentioned: The keynote speech, by Barnes & Noble chairman Len Riggio, was noteworthy for not including the word “Amazon,” instead making mostly rosy observations about the importance of brick-and-mortar bookstores. (He also didn’t mention B&N’s recent layoffs and closures.) And while Amazon Publishing did have a booth on the convention floor, it was far from the main action and, when I walked by on a bustling afternoon, curtained off on all four sides.
During BookExpo, you can attend panel discussions on topics like “The Crisis In Book Reviewing: Disappearing Space, Disappearing Pay” (in which one panelist commented, after hearing another’s grim overview, “I don’t think I can be that depressing, but I’ll try”) or numerous sessions in which publishers or librarians offer their picks for the upcoming books season. Or you can, as I mostly did, wander the vast showroom floor, listening to the ocean-like murmur of fellow BookExpo attendees and pondering the scene. I spotted Ellie Kemper signing copies of her new book “My Squirrel Days,” and vaguely wondered whether I was somehow caught inside an extremely elaborate episode of “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Sally Field was there, signing her new memoir “In Pieces”; as was the odd pairing of Sean Spicer and John Kerry – booked back-to-back on the same stage.
Among others spotted signing books — sometimes in the Hunger Games-ish gloom of the Author Autographing Area, which looks like a hangar in an extremely depressing book airport, sometimes in the booths — were Barbara Kingsolver (“Unsheltered”), Walter Mosley (“John Woman”), Ruth Ware (“The Death of Mrs. Westaway”), Doris Kearns Goodwin (“Leadership in Turbulent Times”), Jonathan Lethem (“The Feral Detective”) and Mary Higgins Clark, who at 90 was at BookExpo with her latest mystery, “I’ve Got My Eyes on You.” For some authors, long lines pleated around the booths and back again; others waited quietly for readers to come. I walked past a white-haired gentleman sitting alone with stacks of books by his side, who worked hard to catch my eye and thrust his book into my path. “I’ll sign it for you!” he enthusiastically offered.
Waiting in line for a book signing, I watched a photographer cajoling people into showing off a dance move for the camera, in exchange for a book — and realized it was Jordan Matter, the photographer behind the gorgeous 2012 book “Dancers Among Us: A Celebration of Joy in the Everyday,” handing out copies of his new book, “Born to Dance.” Reluctant at first, two young women posed together, striking a jazzy arched-back pose; suddenly the room became intimate and small, and filled with laughter.
I left BookExpo loaded with ideas for books to read right away: Orlean’s book, which I devoured instantly; Stephen Markley’s “Ohio,” set in the American Midwest during the recent recession and beyond; Patrick deWitt’s “French Exit,” an all-too-rare comedy of manners; Nicole Chung’s memoir “All You Can Ever Know,” about her search for her birth parents; Sarah Weinman’s true-life work of literary detection, “The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World,” and so many more.
But some of the biggest books at BookExpo weren’t there at all. An enormous book cover of Michelle Obama’s upcoming memoir “Becoming” dominated the Penguin Random House booth, but neither the book nor Obama were present (it’s coming in November). I was delighted to see a poster for a new Tana French novel, “The Witch Elm,” but couldn’t get a copy; it’s also coming in the fall. Funny how, with new books everywhere, you still fixate on the ones you can’t get. BookExpo is, essentially, a big metaphor for life, plus tote bags.