This is a two part post: the first is an essay on why I feel BEA is essential to the publishing industry. The second is a collection of author photos I took at the conference (apologies for the quality on some, Annie Leibovitz I am not).
Wednesday morning I was standing in line at the Jacob Javits Center, the NYC home of Book Expo America, the year's largest book and publishing convention, when a woman in line began to chat me up. For the uninitiated, BEA is where hundreds of publishing organizations take out booths to promote their upcoming summer and fall titles and every arm of the industry converges to discuss and plan for the future. During the two primary days--May 26th and 27th--the Javits Center was absolutely packed. The line for coffee was about as long as the line for most amusement park rides. I was debating giving up and paying $42 for a bottle of water when the stranger initiated a conversation.
She was an aspiring author, having completed a historical romance novel that she'd been working on for several years. She described it as "The Help, only better," and had come to BEA in hopes of enticing one of the hundreds of publishers in attendance to take a chance on her manuscript. "Everyone who's read it loves it," she said, adding that she refused to leave the conference without finding a home for her book. She was the kind of person, she told me, who wouldn't take no for an answer. For a brief moment, my unfortunate cynicism kicked into gear. As a former editor, I've been pitched by aspiring authors so many times at BEA and in other locations that I, for an instant, forgot what it felt like to be an author desperately hoping that my manuscript would find a home. I immediately felt wretched for this knee-jerk reaction, but one thing that reaction did is illuminate my feelings about BEA, and allow me to understand why it is so vital to the publishing industry.
It can be summed up in one word: Hope.
This woman's dreams, in a way, represented the dreams of every publishing professional packed into the steamy, Internet-unfriendly Javits Center. Every one of the 30,000 attendees entered BEA with dreams--and at BEA they all seem so tantalizingly possible. Amidst all the doom and gloom recently penned about the publishing industry, whether the opinions are actually informed or merely Chicken Little crowing at the sky (hello, Garrison Keillor and the New York Observer!), BEA exemplifies the passion and enthusiasm that is the backbone of the publishing industry. And that passion, in the face of all the changes, upheaval and negativity, is still wonderfully alive and kicking.
At BEA, authors feel like rock stars. Publishers host packed booths full of eager readers dying to scoop up hot galleys. Booksellers and librarians feel each book they scoop up could open up a brand new world to share with their customers and patrons. BEA covers all the blemishes and replaces them with, yes, hope. People fill each booth, curling around the hallways as they wait in line for authors to sign galleys. The autographing section is constantly packed, eager readers waiting to meet their favorite authors. Press roam the hallways trying to get a closer shot of star authors. In an industry where expensive book parties are now considered gauche and expense reports shrink faster than George Costanza, BEA week is host to numerous gala events. It is a week for book lovers to get high on their drug of choice: the written word.
The digital revolution is upon us. The way publishing will operate over the next decade has yet to be fully determined. Most, myself included, are cautiously optimistic about the future. Some, however, are building bunkers and stockpiling food and Kindles. Some seem to pray for publishing Armageddon because it will increase blog traffic. Yet when you spend 2+ days wandering the hallways of a massive conference center, thousands and thousands of books spilling out from the hallways, you cannot help but feel the excitement and passion beating in the heart of the publishing industry. The way books will be bought and read may change, but the joy a reader feels when they get a copy of their favorite author's new book, the joy an editor feels when a book they helped birth becomes a surprise bestseller, the way an agent feels after selling an author's first book, none of that will ever become obsolete.
Hope is the reason editors sit at home on a Saturday night gripping a red pen. It's the reason booksellers and librarians live to hand customers and patrons books that they read and vouch for. It's why publicists endure hang ups and unreturned emails in the hopes that somebody out there will give a book coverage it deserves. It's reason authors are willing to sit in solitude typing one word at a time, day after day, month after month, not knowing if their work will get publishing and, if it does, whether anyone will pay hard-earned money to read it. Yet it is that wild, passionate, sometimes reckless hope that keeps the industry alive.
Over the last few years many have wondered, in his age of e-catalogues and e-galleys and trimmed budgets and cut-back travel expenses, whether BEA is necessary. In my opinion, Book Expo America is not only necessary, but sheaths the very nerves that allow the publishing body to work.
Long live BEA.
JASON PINTER is the bestselling author of five thriller novels (the most recent of which are The Fury and The Darkness), which have been nominated for numerous awards and optioned to be a major motion picture. His first novel for young readers, Zeke Bartholomew: Superspy!, will be released in the summer of 2011. Visit him at http//:www.jasonpinter.com.