The day before BookExpo America, the country’s largest publishing conference, I’m looking for a meeting room and I walk into the wrong one. It’s a narrow room with an extremely high ceiling and three of four walls made of solid concrete. If it weren’t for the ugly blue carpet, I would’ve guessed the room was used for interrogations by the Soviets.
The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center is a 675,000-square-foot space in West Midtown in Manhattan, designed by architect I.M. Pei and opened in 1986, which I would guess is the last time the building was renovated or cleaned. It’s a huge concrete box that, despite having an entrance made almost entirely of glass, lets in little light and even less air.
It turns out the room I’m looking for is on the fourth floor, from which I can see the entire exhibition hall. Hundreds of booths are being erected for the next four days. In the middle, I see signs for the largest publishers, nicknamed the Big Six, who have appropriately colossal booths. Surrounding them are a handful of smaller publishing houses and independent presses, as well as book-related tech startups and similar companies. According to the BEA manual, there are over a 1,300 booths in total.
On the north side of the building, I can see into a closed-off area of the exhibition hall. It looks like a big hangar, mostly empty except for the scattered building debris and a small bulldozer. I can’t tell if the area is under construction or simply decaying.
Once the doors open, the BEA show floor feels just like any other large conference exhibition hall. It’s crowded, loud, and full of booths that try to bait attendees with the promise of swag. And like most conferences, it works. But outside of the usual conference fare — t-shirts, stickers, and tote bags (of which there is plenty) — every publisher booth offers advanced reading copies of their biggest books for the fall and winter. It may function primarily as a trade show and networking conference, but at its heart, BEA is still an event that rewards book lovers with books.
Most of the booths look the same, each trying to evoke the intimacy of a small bookstore (neatly shelved paperbacks, small tables and chairs to sit in) while loudly announcing titles from major authors in genre fiction. In the lobby of Javits are huge banners for new books by thriller author Michael Connelly and romance novelist Debbie Macomber. There’s an even bigger banner for Justin Cronin’s vampire novel The Twelve. For Ally Condie’s popular young adult series Matched, there is a photographer taking people’s photos inside a giant plastic bubble that resembles the cover of her books. Bridge Publications, which mostly specializes in L. Ron Hubbard’s materials, has a pair of guys dressed as buccaneers, promoting what I could only guess were pirate-themed Scientology books. (I didn’t get a chance to investigate, as one of the pirates scared me off when he tried to get my attention by yelling “YOU THERE, BOY!”)
The BEA audience includes a lot of people involved in the publishing industry — editors, sales reps, agents, authors, retailers, librarians — but the crowd looks surprisingly casual. I try and glance at as many conference badges as I can. There are a number of “bloggers” among the attendees, most of whom are lining up for the various author signings throughout the exhibition hall. Lines for young adult authors seem to be the longest.
I make a rule not to take any books, even if it’s one I’m looking forward to. Carrying even a handful of paperbacks around all day and then back to my hotel seems like a hassle. But for some BEA attendees, it appears to be the entire purpose of the conference. I see dozens of roller suitcases being tugged through the exhibition hall, stuffed to the brim with books. I admire the commitment to lugging sixty pounds of books around all day, and in a moment of cynicism, I wonder how many of those books will actually get read. But I realize that more books will probably get read than free XL t-shirts will ever be worn at most other conferences of any sort.
I have an invitation to the Little, Brown and Company party, hosted in a space called Studio 450. When I arrive, there’s a line out the door, and they’re checking to see if everyone’s name is on the guest list. We’re packed into a freight elevator in small groups. When the elevator doors open on the fourteenth floor, I’m greeted by a huge white room with windows on all sides, the west side overlooking the Hudson River. There’s an all-female jazz band performing, and at the center, an open bar. It looks like a party out of a movie. A server hands me what he says is a “Little, Brown Book cocktail,” which tastes like an overly sweet Mint Julep.
It doesn’t look like there are casual book readers or librarians here, just publishing folks, booksellers, and authors dressed to the nines. Everyone seems to know each other already. It almost feels like being at someone else’s high school reunion. I look around for a familiar face. Out of a crowd of what I estimate is 200 people, the only person I recognize is Tom Wolfe, who sticks out in his eccentric white dinner jacket. I’m too intimidated to say anything to him.
I get introduced to Michael Connelly, and I tell him that he’s my dad’s favorite author. Connelly politely says “thank you,” and I realize that I have nothing else to say to him. I walk away and try and find another Little, Brown Book cocktail.
The upstairs of Studio 450 is quieter, with fewer guests, a separate bar, and an outdoor terrace. I spot Lev Grossman, author of The Magician King (one of our favorite books from last year), who I’ve met briefly before. I call out his name, but he replies, “Oh, I’m not Lev Grossman. I’m his twin brother Austin.”
My first thought is that this guy must be fucking with me. But after further explanation, I realize that, no, I am looking at the twin brother of Lev Grossman, and he is also a novelist. We end up having a pretty great conversation about videogames. He’s the first person at BEA I give my business card to and it doesn’t feel like a professional courtesy.
Michael Pietsch, publisher at Little, Brown, gives a short speech to commemorate the house’s 175th anniversary and its legacy of great literature. He says something along the lines of: “There’s nothing more powerful than handing someone a book.” Pietsch ends his toast by introducing the band’s next number, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane’s “My Little Brown Book,” and asks everybody to dance. Nobody does, but it’s still pretty inspiring speech.
This is one of the first parties I attend at BEA, and I ask a BEA veteran if this level of extravagance is something I should be expecting at other parties.
“Oh, no,” she says. “This is definitely one of the ritziest BEA parties I’ve ever attended.”
In addition to the Little, Brown and Company party, I also find myself at a party across from the offices of Random House, and then later, at another Little, Brown party at a back alley speakeasy. I meet more authors, more editors and sales reps, and I have a great time. Every party has free drinks. I accept.
Javits feels even more oppressive when hungover. The walls look taller, the concrete grayer, and the fluorescence that illuminates Javits feels like it’s sucking the vitamin D from my skin. It’s only day two of BEA, and the exhibition floor is definitely getting off to a slow start. I imagine that everyone who doesn’t have a pressing need to be on the show floor is sleeping in at their hotel.
It becomes clear to me that the conference itself isn’t nearly as important or interesting as the parties surrounding it. A couple days earlier, I sent an email to a friend who works at a small publisher, hoping to meet up. I receive her reply:
Hey! Sorry for the late response. BEA made me crazy so I scurried off after a few hours yesterday. ([My publisher] doesn’t have a booth. BEA is for suckers.) I might be back tomorrow though… Will you be at the Tumblr party tonight?