LOS ANGELES - For Philadelphians who attend Book Expo America (BEA), the yearly meeting of the nation's publishing business that ended here Sunday, you judge a bookfest by the amount of preplanned agenda you cover.
"It's all hawking," says Paul Dry, whose Paul Dry Books has been putting out quality literary fiction and nonfiction for seven years from its offices at 1616 Walnut St. "It's a circus environment, the midway," Dry explains, breaking into a mock carny-barker riff: "Yo, yo, I've got peanuts, Cracker Jacks!"
As more than one stroller stops by his Booth 2104 to look at the eye-catching cover on Gabriel Zaid's
So Many Books . . .
, which features a tower-of-books art installation, Dry comes back to earth, to the more accustomed tone of a literary man.
"Nine out of 10 times you pitch a book," he says, "and it's the wrong person. And every now and then, somebody comes by who actually is a buyer at an independent bookstore, or is an interesting reviewer. It's quite hit-or-miss."
For Amy Salit, senior producer of NPR's
, BEA has become a pleasant ritual: a major player in book media (Salit) greets and meets all the other book people she knows (everyone), while checking out which big tomes and authors are headed our way for the boss back home (Terry Gross).
Is that bookbag Salit carries, promoting
Che: A Graphic Biography
, a clue to the buzz of BEA? An NPR political statement? A personal favorite?
"This book?" Salit replies, incredulous, as if unsure which book was on her bag. "No! I needed a bag. I needed a bag! Look, I have things, I'm carrying my reading glasses, I need things close at hand . . . ." Later she'd be headed to BEA's hottest Friday night party - at the home off Mulholland Drive of the artist known as Prince, whose collection of poetry and lyrics,
, arrives in September from Atria.
For former Inquirer pop music critic Tom Moon, BEA amounted to a classic experience: first-time author on his rookie visit, first-class U.S. Airways ticket paid for by his publisher (Workman) so he could go over the book's galleys in comfort.
"I've been in my little corner office in my house for three years doing nothing but listening to records," says Moon, whose
1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die
- a 992-page guide to music across the known universe from rock to gospel, samba to Celtic - is getting a huge push from Workman: 21-city author tour and $200,000 marketing campaign. "I haven't seen anybody. This is additional culture shock."
Buttonholed on Saturday as he rushed through a BEA aisle in L.A.'s convention center, Moon explains that, the night before, he'd appeared with 11 other authors at a Library Journal dinner where each gave a 10-minute spiel for his or her publication. That seemed absorbable, but BEA itself - almost 30,000 people passionately pushing books in one way or another - stunned him.
"It's quite overwhelming," Moon says. "Music does not have a convention like this, where everything comes together." The record labels, he says, "can't afford it," and lack the committed "audience of buyers" that still attend BEA: "To be in a place where so many people care about books and ideas in one shot, it's unbelievable. Really, it's inspiring."
And that, of course, is what BEA remains for everyone who comes, from Philadelphia or Beijing: a whirligig of idea-sharing amid the evening parties (two took place at the Warner Bros. and 20th-Century-Fox lots even as Universal Studios went up in flames) and the endless gimmicks and bric-a-brac (a life-size cardboard cutout of Barack Obama for BEAers who wanted a photo with him, the usual number of people in panda costumes).
What economic, technological and taste trends, everyone wants to know, are reshaping the industry, and which books promise to dominate public attention? How does one deal with it all?
If BEAers know anything, it's that things can change quickly in the book business, even if literature is forever. Not so long ago, for instance, if you wanted to meet Salman Rushdie, you needed to put on a blindfold and take a ride in a dark-colored car with tinted windows. On Saturday, all you had to do was read the sign at Autographing Table 21: "Salman Rushdie, 11 a.m.-12 noon."
In retailing, as BEA 2008 demonstrated, the domination of the bookstore chains continues, even as the industry wonders whether, as rumored, Barnes & Noble will buy out Borders and consolidate the two giants of book retailing. Independent booksellers, according to two recent studies, now account for less than 10 percent of all book sales, and only about 3 percent of commercial titles.
On the technology side of the business, Amazon chief executive officer Jeff Bezos made booksellers pay attention and think hard as he extolled the virtues of the e-book reading device his company launched half a year ago, the Kindle, to a standing-room only crowd. Kindle's library now offers 125,000 downloadable volumes.
At the same time, Microsoft showed the unpredictability of technology's relation to the book business by announcing, only a week before BEA, that it was shutting down its highly publicized program to scan millions of books onto the Net, essentially ceding the business to Google and Yahoo. Microsoft canceled all its scheduled sessions related to the project.
As for that now-old-fashioned, $923 million audio-book industry, cassette sales are down, CD sales are up, and most listeners still get their audiobooks from their libraries.
What were the hot galleys and books? In high literary fiction, the first novel in years from Nobel-Prize winner Toni Morrison,
, arrives in November from Knopf. Other well-known fiction writers with books coming this fall include Philip Roth, Christopher Buckley, Dennis Lehane, Julia Glass and Amitav Ghosh. The Roberto Bolano boom will continue with Farrar, Straus & Giroux's publication of the highly praised South American writer's supposed masterpiece,
Asked about the pros and cons of BEA, Paul Dry says he finds the whole model "too expensive," still necessary, and occasionally puzzling as he makes that spirited effort to draw passersby to his wares.
"I'm always shocked when people walk by as if you're disturbing them," Dry remarks. "I feel like saying, 'Why did you come? This is the point.' "