Four Hours in the Totebag Capital of the World

If you have anything to do with the book industry, you are probably nauseated by the mere mention of that industry’s annual tradeshow, which started on Monday and wraps up today. But not everyone is some sort of book fanatic — some people just read books and are innocent about the disgusting process that brings them into being, like little children who don’t know that babies are generated via fucking. I know this because in the comments on every blog post or news story about book publishing ever, there’s that person who asks “But if an author’s book doesn’t earn out its advance, does he have to give the money back?”

To those people, and to all the other people who have never set foot on the Javits Center’s weirdly overplush carpets, this post will be full of intriguing news and information (I hope). To authors and editors and publicists and sales reps and booksellers, it will be full of oversights and inaccuracies and stunning failures to comprehend the true nature of the situation. I’d like to begin by apologizing to those people and by making it clear that I don’t have a thesis about the future of publishing or a narrative arc or anything like that. If you are looking for either of those things — and I’m not just saying this because the author is my boyfriend (I hate the word “boyfriend” but what are you going to do, type “long-term makeout monkey” every time?) — please consult this genuinely definitive account of what goes on at BEA and what the book industry is all about. It has an amazing scene set at BEA’s incredibly consequential “Buzz Panel,” where editors give presentations about the books they hope will be that year’s unexpected breakout success by convincing the assembled booksellers and reps that it’s “just like Harry Potter crossed with Eat Pray Love, but in Afghanistan” or whatever. I didn’t attend the Buzz Panel, or any panels, and I skipped the “tech” area entirely because I couldn’t find it and my blood sugar was getting really low and a guy was grabbing my arm, offering me a free audiobook if I would please get in line for his author’s signing because his author, who I had never heard of, was a very famous blogger. Given that there was no one currently in the line to get a book signed by this author, it was hard to consider it a “line” per se, but BEA is the last place in the world you want to start quibbling about semantics — for one thing, it is covered with posters, as Rachel Fershleiser pointed out to me yesterday, that read “BEA: The Content and the Buzz.” (The Content and The Buzz, a novel by William Faulkner.) “I’ll be your best friend!” said the guy who was trying to recruit me for the line, a guy who I had never met and who definitely had no idea who I was except that my badge said “Reporter” on it. I will reveal that I declined his offer of best-friendship, but I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. First, let’s talk about the Javits Center.

The Javits Center is this very large convention center conveniently located at the intersection of 34th Street and the Hudson River. To get there you have to walk from the worst part of Manhattan to a part of Manhattan that is, improbably, even worse and also continually in the process of being demolished and rebuilt, and once you’re there you have to walk even a little bit further. I once temped at the Daily News, which is technically only three blocks away from the A at 34th Street, and one day I timed the walk to its office, which was then at 32nd and 11th Avenue. It took fifteen minutes, and I’m a fast walker. The walk to the Javits Center is twice as long and you might get hit in the face with a crane or fondled by a sexy construction worker, inspiring your next Harlequin romance, A Well Built Man. Proceed with caution, or not. At some point you see a billboard that celebrates Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s 5 years on the Times bestseller List. Congratulations: you have arrived, and it would be really time-consuming to turn back now.

Inside, the Javits Center is like an airport with no scheduled departures and much more carpeting. It is hot and cold, somehow, at the same time, and it smells like the sad turkey wraps you’ll see hungry souls clutching as they crouch in the corners of the main convention floor eating hurriedly between meetings. There is not quite enough oxygen. It’s actually a lot less like being in an airport, actually, than it is like being on a plane. But like being on a plane that, if you have been in or around the book industry in some professional capacity, is filled with everyone you have ever met in a professional capacity. So it’s sort of like a high school reunion. On a plane. Ugh, fuck it, it’s like a giant trade show, okay? That’s what it’s like.

The main floor is filled with the booths and each publisher has a booth, and the booths vary in size depending on how big and important the publisher is/how big and important they want to seem to their competitors. The walls of the booths are decorated with poster-sized versions of the covers of whichever of this Fall’s upcoming books the publisher thinks it has a shot at selling the most of. There are usually a few chairs and maybe a podium or desk or raised dais for authors to sit on when they’re signing books, and there are usually galleys arranged in piles on the floor. If people are excited about a galley they will snatch it up immediately and there will be none left. I visited on day two and felt sad for the books that were still available, being restacked occasionally by hopeful publicists. If you walk by these areas too slowly sometimes someone will press a galley into your hands and try to tell you about it, so cultivating a horizon-stare and a quick gait is important. The latter is impossible sometimes because there are big herds milling through the aisles between booths at all times, and everyone is carrying at least one bulky totebag, and many of them are, er… visiting here from America. (You know?)

Looking at the relative amounts of real estate devoted to various publishers and the blown-up covers of the books they expect to be their cash cows is depresssing, if you let it be, if you’re a writer. If you’re an Author I don’t imagine that it’s depressing at all. I myself am a writer but even though I’ve written a book I don’t think I’d be considered an Author by the standards of commerical publishing. An Author is someone like Pippa Middleton, who is the Author of a new coffee-table book on “entertaining.” Do you get what I’m saying? An Author is someone people will line up for without being begged to, which typically means he is a celebrity, which means that he may have many talents (or, in the case of Pippa Middleton, a perfect butt) but is not typically a writer per se. Some people are Authors and Writers but this is exceedingly rare, and not really what BEA is all about.

But if you look at it another way it’s not depressing. The cultural forces that loom so large in your mind turn out to be relatively small, boothwise.

Another thing that was un-depressing, to me, was to see the way people were avoiding the relatively large area that Amazon Publishing had rented out to showcase its still relatively small list of relatively lame-seeming book products. There weren’t loudspeakers blaring The Imperial March from Star Wars positioned just outside it, but… there kind of were. Invisibly, sub-audibly there were. “Dun dun dun, dundedun, dundedun.”

Ed Park, who is a very nice and talented writer and editor who used to work at The Believer before Amazon Publishing captured his soul and took him hostage, was sitting at its front table with the author of a mystery novel and no one was really seeming very interested in talking to either of them. The look on Ed Park’s face reminded me of how Sansa Stark looks when she has to profess her love for evil King Joffrey. Ed Park is totally the Sansa Stark of Amazon Publishing.

I might be completely projecting!

The rest of the big publishers’ booths were more hopping. Harlequin was the most hopping, signing-wise — ladies were lined up around and around it to get their books signed. I skated through Little Brown, got the best totebag in the room from Chronicle, skirted Workman, spent a blissful twenty minutes fondling everything NYRB Classics had to offer, and snagged catalogues from Soft Skull, Fantagraphics, Tin House, Seal Press, MP and other small presses that might be convinced to allow me to sell their books to my book club. This was sort of what I’d came to do, and once it was done I thought maybe I’d leave, but then I ran into Hillary Buckholtz, who runs the blog I’m Remembering. She was standing by a Tech Demo station. “Cover me while I take a terrible blurry photo of how sad the Tech Demo station is,” I told her, and she did.

Then the thing with the guy who tried to get us to stand in line in exchange for free audiobooks by a famous blogger happened. “There is a lot of desperation here,” Hillary said he walked away.

“Seriously,” I said, and then we both stood and watched as, to the right of the Tech Demo booth, a semi-well-preserved woman wearing her impressive cleavage like jewelry and holding a copy of her book (I think the title was Dumped) in one hand and a champagne flute in the other aggressively chatted with a potential reader.

“Speaking of, have you been to Blogworld yet?” she asked.

It turned out that Hillary had a special pass to something underneath BEA called Blogworld. We had to go down an escalator and no one checked to see if we had a special pass as we entered. Blogworld was not very populous. The main exhibitor, the company with the most booth real-estate, was WordPress, and then there were some other things that might be a huge deal, it doesn’t mean anything that I haven’t heard of them, probably.

“There is going to be a lot of podcasting going on. Be careful not to get involved in a podcast,” she said. I was so struck by the ridiculousness of this statement that I wrote it down, but almost as soon as we entered Blogworld I understood what she meant, because a guy came over and tried to involve us in his podcast. “That guy over there’s girlfriend just broke up with him,” he said, pointing to someone in a plaid shirt tucked into khakis who was wearing headphones and podcasting, I guess, his little heart out. “Won’t you go over and talk to him and be on our comedy podcast?”

“We still have a lot of ground to cover,” Hillary said. “Maybe we’ll loop back around.”

This is a photo of the Hotmail booth at Blogworld.

I took it as my cue to leave Blogworld and go back into the real world outside the Javits Center. I walked back towards the center of Manhattan feeling jetlagged. It had been like being on a plane, and a little bit like being at a high school reunion. But for people who work on behalf of books it is also a little bit, maybe, like a family reunion, complete with weird horrible relatives everyone quietly avoids and stupid traditions that stay alive because “that’s just the way we do things.” I ran into some of the people who are passionate, brilliant conservators of the proud tradition of actually editing books and making them better. I also saw Cee Lo Green flying completely under the radar in the lobby, even though he was wearing a white pinstriped suit. I hope he enjoys his time as an Author. It seems like a good gig.

Emily Gould is the co-proprietor of Emily Books and the host of the legendary Cooking the Books.