The Spectacle of BookExpo America: Postcard From New York City, Part 1

Jen A. Miller

It’s not what most people expect from a book conference. There are no scholars huddled together discussing the latest piece of literary fiction that is keeping them up late at night; no gangs of poets arguing about who will make up the future canon of Western literature. Instead, what people found at this year’s BookExpo America, held last weekend at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City, was actress Julianne Moore (really her), Americas Test Kitchen host Christopher Kimball (really him, but not quite as exciting as Moore), the cast of Pirates of the Caribbean (look-alikes, pretty good), Borat (another look-alike, not so good), and the Knight Bus from the Harry Potter series.

This is the spectacle that is BookExpo America, an annual four-day book conference that features author signings, panel discussions, interviews, public forums, and booths—rows and rows of booths—where publishers from all over the world showcase what they have to offer to book buyers, members of the press, and whoever else managed to grab a pass to the show. Those who are willing to schlep them around the show floor can pick up enough free galleys of books—some signed, some not—to last the year.

“It’s really like any other trade show except it’s about books instead of plumbing fixtures or home appliances,” said one industry insider who asked not to be named for fear that his passé attitude would get him in trouble. And even if some presenters were touting the next literary masterpieces—and some did—the reality of BookExpo is that the event is designed for the business of publishing, for the buying and selling of commodities. Some of the booksellers and publicists are on the show floor for three days, and at least this year, not in the most ideal of situations. The temperature at the Javits Center was reminiscent of summer in the Caribbean, not early June in New York City, and the air conditioning system wasn’t up for the challenge. Sweaty bodies pressed through the aisles, and in more than one educational session, papers handed out were used as fans instead of conversation fodder.

The conference was marked by typical conference problems, too—long lines for food (unless one was savvy enough to hit up the food carts outside), high prices (three dollars for a bottle of water), and no where to sit once the wait was over. But for anyone with book business to do, whether it was selling international rights, enticing independent bookstores to stock a certain title, or finding new titles to review, it was an event worth the hassle—if not for the connections, then for the photo op with “Dora the Explorer.”

Next up: what book critics and review editors had to say about the rules governing the ethics of their profession. (Preview: There aren’t many.)