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Adventures of a First Time BEA Attendee: A Mildly Helpful Guide to BookExpo America

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For those of you who are not familiar with BookExpo America, it's the largest book trade show in the United States. Every year, thousands of booksellers, librarians, authors, and bloggers attend this literary smorgasbord where publishers give away advance copies of books and organize hundreds of author signings. It's like a combination of Christmas and Woodstock for book lovers. Located in the Javits Center in New York City, BEA is a magical place where you can shake hands with award-winning authors, discover your next favorite book, or just enjoy the free tote bags given away at every other exhibitor booth. I've been a bookseller for five years, and this past weekend I attended my very first BEA. It was simultaneously the best three days of my professional life, and the most exhausting--physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Despite not getting all the books on my BEA wish list and the fact that I still can't feel my feet, I would consider my first BookExpo America a success. Here is a list of what I learned, which is not very much, but nonetheless I felt compelled to share it with you...mostly so I can gloat about getting to meet Octavia Spencer.

Don't be afraid to ask stupid questions. For instance: "What is this line for?" "Do I have to have a ticket?" or, "Why do you have a clipboard?" I did actually ask someone this, to which she responded, somewhat perplexed, "because I work here..." What I really meant was, "How is your clipboard relevant to me? Do you need to cross my name off a list? Put my name on a list? KINDLY REVEAL THE SECRETS OF YOUR CLIPBOARD." Don't worry about embarrassing yourself by asking ridiculous questions. I found out I could attend an author lunch without having reserved a seat after I asked a very helpful gentleman from the American Booksellers Association. It just goes to show that you never know until you ask.

Don't say "yes" to every free piece of swag. I learned this lesson early on. When I first walked into the exhibit area, drunk on the prospect of free books and as yet unburdened by the weight of two full shopping bags on my shoulders, I was eager to accept any free merchandise offered to me. As I walked by a set of black tables, a woman asked if I wanted a free calendar. "Sure!" I answered excitedly. When she asked if I would like to have it signed, I of course said yes. A stocky, muscular man in a black tank top that was probably too small for me--let alone him and his bulky torso--came over to us. Somehow there was room on his tiny shirt to fit the words "got sexy?" across his well-defined chest. Then I saw the calendar. It featured a number of barely-clothed men in provocative poses, including what appeared to be a fireman (sans shirt, of course) and a cowboy holding a precariously placed towel. The man introduced himself and told me about his new book about the exciting life of a male exotic dancer. Suddenly the pieces started coming together: the black tablecloth, the banner with the shirtless man on it, the fact that the booth was labeled "Ellora's Cave"... I had unsuspectingly stumbled into an erotica publisher. (Of course the first thing I visited at BEA would be a line of erotic romance.) So I guess the real lesson here is, the erotica booth is the first one on your left when you enter the exhibit floor. Just so you know.

When the program says, "Author Breakfast," what it really means is, "Author Basket-of-Muffins-to-Share-Among-Eight-People." Like most attendees, I showed up at the early morning "Author Breakfast" (for which the tickets were not cheap) thinking that we would be fed a nice meal of eggs and bacon, or something substantial to go along with the four fabulous authors that were scheduled to speak. I was surprised to find just a small basket of carbohydrates for the table to share. Granted, I'd rather starve and get to hear Chelsea Handler trade innuendos with Wally Lamb than enjoy a morning feast, but it would have been nice to know that going in so I could have come prepared, like the girl I saw take a yogurt out of her bag in the middle of Doris Kearns Goodwin's speech. Something to keep in mind: BYO breakfast. Also, don't drink the orange juice. It's like Tang, but bad.

Be nice to people--you never know who you're in line with. When I was standing in line for an author signing that I wasn't very invested in, I heard the person behind me say she didn't have a ticket for the signing. I offered to give her mine, since I wasn't even sure I was going to stay for it. (The tickets were free, after all.) She was very grateful, but said she would just go get her own. Later that day, I was at a signing for another book by a debut author who had been getting a lot of good buzz. I was surprised to discover that it was the woman to whom I had offered my ticket! She remembered me, and we chatted as she signed my book. This is one of the many moments during BEA that I was struck by the obvious--but nevertheless remarkable--concept that authors really are just normal people. They stand in line to meet other authors just like we do! Despite the frenzy and the excitement in the air, don't forget to be courteous to everyone you meet, and you might make a few surprising new friends. That being said...

Be prepared to throw some 'bows. Of course I'm not encouraging you to be aggressive toward other attendees, but I learned the hard way that when 100 people are going after 30 advance copies of an in-demand book, you've got to be willing to push your way to the front. I was less than two feet away from the table when they unveiled the precious stacks of books for the BEA Young Adult Editors' Buzz Panel, and I still wasn't able to snag one of the books I really wanted before they were all snatched up in a mosh-pit-like frenzy of grunts and limbs. It was like being the slowest piranha at dinnertime: caught helplessly in the fray as the other fish devoured a piece of raw meat in ten seconds flat. Luckily, I got another chance to get that book the next day, so it all worked out.

When possible, use the buddy system. I was flying solo for my first trip to BEA, and there was more than one occasion when I really wished I had someone to stand in line for me while I went to the bathroom. If I had had another person with me, it would have saved me a world of pain when I accidentally missed the narrow window of availability for two of my absolute must-have books at the Expo because I refused to get out of a line in which I had already invested nearly an hour of my life. Which brings me to...

Don't get in a line unless you know exactly what it's for (and how long it will take). I unknowingly stood in line for an author signing only to discover that it was for not one, but four big-name authors. This meant that, a) the line moved four times slower, and b) there were four times as many people waiting in it. The line twisted and turned so many different ways that I couldn't tell how long it really was until I'd been standing in it for forty minutes. By that point, I was determined to see it through, simply because I was too stubborn to throw in the towel. I was close to the front of this black hole of a line when noon rolled around, at which point I had to decide between abandoning this insane undertaking, or possibly missing out on the advance copies of a book I had my heart set on. I foolishly thought I could make it through the line and still pick up a copy... Big mistake. Most of the highly sought-after books (usually YA titles) are gone in under ten minutes. (See above re: piranha swarm.) I also missed out on tickets for one of the author signings I desperately wanted to attend. This was probably the hardest lesson I learned at BEA. Don't commit to something unless you're sure you have time. Prioritize the books and authors that are really important to you. Also, there's probably some lesson in here about letting your pride get the best of you, but apparently I'm still learning that one.

Neil Gaiman is awesome. I already knew that, and I assume you did too, but it's worth repeating. He was at BEA promoting his two new books coming out in the next few months. As if you didn't feel inadequate enough already.

Happy hour starts at 3 pm. I knew BEA was supposed to be a booze-filled book fest, but I didn't realize that publishers would be giving out free beer and wine before Ellen came on. By 3:30, I was double-fisting a Corona and a tiny plastic cup of wine (to go with the introductory wine book that was just published, of course...it's all business at BEA). I encountered a minor dilemma when I passed by a table with free cake, which I didn't have enough hands to carry. I made the difficult decision to chug the rest of my wine in order to free up a hand for cake. Sometimes you have to make tough choices in life.

Bring tissues. You never know when you might need them. For instance, when Mary Pope Osborne speaks about the importance of children's books, including some excerpts from the letters she received from kids over the years. Or, if you're me, you might need some tissues when you feel so overwhelmed that you need to go cry in a corner.

Don't be embarrassed to make a fool of yourself in front of your favorite authors. I thought long and hard about what to say to my favorite author, David Levithan, whom I was lucky enough to meet at BEA. I wanted to play it cool, which is not exactly my strong suit. (I'm more likely to be that person who shouts, "OH MY GOD, YOU'RE CHELSEA HANDLER" with tactless enthusiasm. By the way, did I mention Chelsea Handler was there?) After hours of internal debate, I decided to go with the unabashedly sincere approach. When it was my turn to have my book signed by David, I told him how much his books meant to me. How often do you have the chance to tell your favorite author that his books changed your life? As it turns out, twice in one weekend, in my case. The next night, I attended a publisher party with a number of amazing authors, one of which was David Levithan. Once I got over the initial shock of being at a cocktail party with the man whose books helped shape my adolescence, I felt slightly awkward (and very nauseated) as I contemplated approaching him. I finally got up the courage to go talk to David, and I even managed to have an entire conversation with him without passing out or spilling my drink on him. It was easily one of the greatest moments of my life. For the rest of the evening, I floated around on my own private cloud of bliss, telling anyone who would listen (including the self-checkout machine at the CVS) about how I TALKED TO DAVID LEVITHAN AND IT WAS AMAZING. When it comes to showing some love for your favorite authors, my opinion is don't hold back. Although, I would advise against trying to hug them. It would be a shame if you had to miss the rest of the Expo because you were being detained by BEA security.

Lastly, a few obvious but essential tips: Wear comfortable shoes, find a bathroom that's secluded enough that there won't always be a line, and carry your business card with you at all times.

After three straight days of schlepping books from one end of the building to another in a crazed, manic attempt to acquire as many as possible, I'm pretty worn down. My shoulders ache, my feet feel fifty years older than the rest of my body, and I barely have two brain cells left to rub together. Looking at all the books I came home with and thinking back on the dozens of unbelievably talented authors I met, it was completely worth all the blood, sweat, and tears. If I had the chance, I would do it all again in a heartbeat. But right now, I can't wait to get started on the stacks of new books I have waiting for me. Oh, and if you know anyone who wants a signed calendar of scantily clad men, let me know. Then again, maybe I'll keep it...you know, for sentimental value...