If I had had any objectivity left toward BookExpo America, the annual publishing-industry trade show held in New York City last weekend, it slunk out of the Javits Center the moment James Ellroy asked me to look him up on Facebook.
Granted, he didn’t just ask me. Ellroy, appearing on a panel on crime fiction Friday afternoon with galleys of his new book, Blood’s A Rover, in tow, solemnly made this request of everyone assembled, long after he’d told everyone he doesn’t work on a computer because he’s afraid it would turn his manuscript into pornography.
Ellroy clearly enjoyed being the provocateur of the hour, allowing his co-panelist, New York Times Magazine writer Colin Harrison, to fidget uncomfortably on the other side of the stage. But as Ellroy took aim at notions of genre, movies, and Los Angeles itself, there was a feeling in the crowd that at least some of the burdens of the current climate could be temporarily set down in order to celebrate the love of good reading. As a BEA first-timer, I’d describe my experience there in weather-report terms as “partly sunny.”
I had been warned that it would be a down year for the industry’s normally splashy fair; the Times reported that attendance was down 14 percent, but the throngs pushing through the booths on Friday morning seemed completely avid. At the Thursday-afternoon Editors Buzz panel, where six fall releases got a treatment that John Freeman of Granta correctly described as “an infomercial,” a bookseller behind me told another that her Pacific Northwest store wasn’t new to the recession, because of waves of layoffs in the region starting in the early ’90s. “We are a necessary luxury,” she said with a mixture of pride and sourness. At the same time, publishers who were seen to cut back drew more scorn than the organizers of events with surprise cash bars. I ran into a former classmate whose boss told me, “Did you see [redacted company name]’s booth? It’s a square of carpet. It looks like my living room.” (By way of context, she’s a New Yorker.)
But if concerns about the economy have accomplished anything, they seem to have contributed to a ceasefire between gadget-obsessed hipsters and Luddite librarians about the role e-books and the Internet would have in the future of the publishing industry. This was still a primary concern of the series of lectures presented in conjunction with BEA, at which the Sony E-Reader and the Kindle were trotted out for demonstration like show pigs. But as a Thursday presentation by Books In Print publisher Bowker pointed out, low-tech readers still far outnumber their digital-reading counterparts. Tina Brown can rail all she likes, but the fact that only half of Americans read a book last year scares booksellers more than the sliver of consumers buying their books by the byte.
“Social media” was a much safer buzzword, because it seemed to promise endless amounts of readers waiting to be harvested, although most speakers were too timid to predict any grand long-term effects from online initiatives. I fled a panel when one expert’s self-introduction sweetly declared “the Internet is really about people now,” which sounded a little cultish, but Bowker representative James Howitt was caught off guard when he was forced to admit that his company’s Twitter page only had 24 followers. (It’s up to 60 now.)
If there was one moment when the industry-wide brave face slipped, it was during Thursday’s keynote. Last year in Los Angeles, Thomas Friedman addressed the crowd in advance of his book Hot, Flat, And Crowded, but this year, organizers apparently decided to amp up the star power by inviting two musicians with forthcoming memoirs to take the stage. And to give credit where credit’s due, the first of these, the E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons, politely answered the questions of moderator (and onetime A.V. Club writer) Chuck Klosterman (like, “Who’s [Springsteen] the Boss of?”), with the help of co-writer Don Reo, even getting out his saxophone to play some bits from “Jungleland.”
And then there was the second, Steven Tyler, whose disregard for Klosterman and the audience wasn’t even particularly entertaining. Tyler couldn’t say when his memoir was coming out, and after taking pains to recount his daily schedule, couldn’t really say when he had worked on it. Maybe I wouldn’t have believed him if he had described sitting down at the same desk where he didn’t write “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing,” but the performance was unwarranted. Onstage with him was songwriter Mark Hudson; whenever Tyler was lost for words, Hudson swooped in to kiss his ass a little more with insightful comments like “How great is his voice even when he’s not singing?” The first time Tyler perked up was when he realized his jet was about to leave.
After that show of splendid indifference, it was a relief to meet authors on the floor or in the perpetually humming signing booths who not only were aware of their own books, but happy to talk about them. An ebullient, seersucker-clad Jonathan Miles advised me to write a book about traveling woes because his own debut novel, Dear American Airlines (Andy Battaglia’s favorite book from last year) had erased his; when I told A.J. Jacobs—whose new collection, The Guinea-Pig Diaries, drew a massive line—how much my brother liked The Know-It-All, he said, “I love him!” Maybe it’s only because I skipped the Book Reviews 2010 panel, where panelists decried the “clutter” caused by online reviews, but I left BEA excited to read my finds.
Some bloggers have questioned whether BookExpo could be relevant in its current form. Pat Conroy’s much-talked-about Thursday withdrawal from this year’s conference suggested he or his publisher might have made that judgment call early. Maybe the mega-bestselling author didn’t need BEA to boost his newest book the way he did in 1986, when The Prince Of Tides was going to press.
But other authors were happy enough to suck out that oxygen, which brings me back to James Ellroy. By enormous coincidence, I finished L.A. Confidential for the first time just days before BEA, and I was still reeling a little from its incredible dénouement. I listened, rapt, as the author called himself a megalomaniac and discussed how he wrote several drafts so as to give himself “six to seven times to engage the iron-will pursuit of perfection.”
Even though he claimed to write in a vacuum, Ellroy had a snappy answer prepared for cool-headed moderator Sarah Weinman, who asked how the industry would weather the current recession: “A book today, $24 to $26, is a damn good deal for what it gets you in today’s market,” he pronounced. That apparently didn’t stop him from dipping a toe into the waters of Facebook at his publisher’s behest, but the book’s still the thing.