Contemplating Book Expo 2010

New York City’s Book Expo America conference, where thousands of publishing industry professionals gather each year, takes place on Manhattan’s West Side riverfront. The smoked glass walls of the Jacob Javits Center seem to contain an entire bustling city, but those who step outside and walk behind the building to make a phone call or enjoy some fresh air see a different vista: the mighty Hudson River, the modest cliffs of Hoboken and Weehawken across the way in Jersey, and a series of picteresque rotted piers, the only reminder of a shipping industry that once dominated Manhattan’s riverside. The Titanic would have anchored near here in 1912, if if it had completed its first voyage.

Pessimistic pundits like Garrison Keillor might see a metaphor for the future of book publishing in these fallen piers, but, thankfully, many other industry observers are rejecting this type of gloomy nonsense for the craven self-flattery it really is (all people like Garrison Keillor and Philip Roth are really saying, when they claim that literature has no future, is that their generation was more sensitive and refined than any future generation can possibly be). Myself, I relish Book Expo every year as a chance to see book publishing’s living past and exciting future as a single vast swarm. The conference brings out the veterans and the journeymen along with the eager upstarts and interns. Staring at the river, I see a slender elderly man who, I fantasize, might have once bolted drinks with John O’Hara, negotiated contracts with Jacqueline Susann, sipped cocktails with Kurt Vonnegut. He looks maybe 70 or 75 years old, his craggy face ravaged by plastic surgery, his thin hair an improbable red against a pale sun-scorched scalp. He’s wearing a robins-egg blue seersucker summer suit with a folded handkerchief in his pocket and a yellow tie.

The level of energy at this year’s conference proves that book publishing will survive for future generations. Whether we’ll see robins-egg blue seersucker summer suits in the future is a different question. But book publishing will undoubtedly survive.

One thing Book Expo is good for is picking up galleys, though I become more selective about what to grab each year. The conference now completed, here’s the stack I’m taking home:

Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky
God Is Not One by Stephen Prothero
Up From The Blue by Susan Henderson
To Teach: The Journey in Comics by Bill Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner (I shook Bill Ayers hand, and I don’t care if Glenn Beck knows it. Hah!)
Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikotter
A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse
The Colony by Jillian Weise
Vanishing Point by Ander Monson
Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou
Dante’s Divine Comedy by Seymour Chawst

I originally wanted to write much more about the three-day blur of booths, parties and panel discussions, but I’ve decided to be lazy and link you elsewhere instead. Really, the main value of this gathering for me is to connect with the lit scene, see old friends and meet new friends who will be old friends someday. With that said, here are a few memorable moments and flashes of insight:

• Ed Nowatka of Publishing Perspectives got a lot of positive attention for floating a new idea: instead of teaching classic literature in schools, we should teach current writers, thus helping to promote living authors instead of dead ones. I like this idea because I like any bold idea, though I won’t go as far as Guy LeCharles Gonzales, who says the proposal is good enough to unite everyone in the industry. Well … I do think it’d be cool if authors would make personal appearances in classes that taught their works, but I’m not going to get behind a program of affirmative action for twenty-something MFAs. Above all else, the works have to be great.

• I got to hear a substantial introduction to Google’s latest forays into book sales and publishing. I’m not completely sure yet what I think of Google Editions and its cloud-based publishing model. But I’m glad the tech giant is showing up at Book Expo and reaching out to the industry in a constructive way.

• If I talked to you on the show floor on Wednesday, you probably met my daughter Abby, who joined me and had a nice time, though we were both disappointed that there were fewer foam farm animals, gimmicky pens and pencils and other swag giveaways than last year. But we enjoyed getting a glimpse of the bald head of Lemony Snicket as he autographed books for fans who, unlike us, were willing to wait on a long line.

• I spent some time running around with Ed Champion making videos. The best encounter was with a manic Gary Shtynegart, though Ed had a hard drive crash and may have lost my masterful camerawork forever.

• Amused by the language of gentle psychobabble that Justin Taylor and Eva Talmadge employed to describe their upcoming book of literary tattoos at the 7x20x21 panel, I took a few moments to finally read the first short story in Justin Taylor’s new collection Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever. I then ran into Justin at a party where I was able to ask the young author if he is heavily inspired by Richard Brautigan. I was happy to hear that, indeed, he is. And Garrison Keillor says literature is dead.

• At the same party I met a person named Tara, who runs a good literary fiction blog I’ve never heard of called

• Also at the same party, I found myself chatting with a guy with a familiar name who’s been running an online/literary operation for nearly as long as I have, though we never met before. But he stopped me short by staring at my name tag and saying “Literary Kicks … so, tell me what that is?” I ended the conversation right there. The guy’s been on the literary web scene for over ten years — if he hasn’t heard of Litkicks yet, he can stay in the goddamn dark.

We’ll skip the Book Review today. Back on regular schedule next week …

7 Responses

  1. I love the way you pull the
    I love the way you pull the lens in and out on this one. Was there myself on Wednesday. Saw it much the way you did. Wish I’d seen the piers, though.

  2. Teaching current writers in
    Teaching current writers in class sounds like a fascinating idea. It should be fairly easy to refine it to avoid making those classes free advertising for the Iowa MFA.

    It will be great to instill a reading culture in students that continues once they graduate. It makes me cringe when the average reader is afraid to crack open Ulysses.

    Glad you enjoyed the expo.

  3. wasn’t that what Poets In the
    wasn’t that what Poets In the Schools was supposed to do? Mostly teachers were afraid of writers because they didn’t “know” their work. That is they hadn’t been told it was “good literature”. The MFAs would take over the program as a means of promoting their work. I still tend to agree it’s a good idea. Kids would like it. So probably teachers would hate it.

  4. I was disappointed BEA was so
    I was disappointed BEA was so short this year and that it didn’t fall over the weekend.

    Our summer reading in high school was oftentimes by (then-)living authors: Chaim Potok, David Guterson, Gabriel García Márquez, etc. In college, we were assigned texts written by the professors, some not so great but others interesting to learn the process behind. And I’m about to start an MFA program taught by authors I admire.

    Speaking of literary tattoos, Penguin is using tattoo art to sell modern classics:

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