Bringing Corn to the Chickens (Random BEA Thoughts, Part II)

Part I of this BEA-roundup can be found here.

Attendance (and foot traffic on the floor) tends to become the primary evaluative criteria. And the show was crowded on Friday. (Although Saturday afternoon was a bit bleak, and on Sunday, it was damn near post-apocalyptic.) But one interesting thing—and I’m sure Lance will correct me if I’m wrong—in past years, when you went into the show, your badge was scanned, providing some sort of count of people at the fair. This year? No badge scanning at all . . . as long as your badge was visible, you could walk in. Even if it was an outdated one from BEA 2007 . . .

But yes, OK, the fair was crowded on Friday. But to play the cynic, it seemed to me like the majority of people on the floor on Friday were other publishing people. Assistant publicists, editors, marketing folks, etc. People who a) never come back over the weekend, because that’s their “free time” and b) people who tend not to actually buy books. (It’s absolutely true that in this industry—which is totally filled with examples of financial mediocrity and failure—that one of the great benefits is the free books. This is an industry of passion, with the drug of choice available for free at almost all times . . . ) So next year, when the show is on Wednesday through Friday, the floor will be super-crowded with people who are probably not the best target market.

(There was a rumor—denied by BEA staff—that the aisles were closer together this year, which created the impression that the show was more crowded than it was. Not kidding that several conversations revolved around trying to remember just how far apart the booths used to be . . .)

Historically, the show was good for connecting smaller publishers to booksellers they typically didn’t meet with during the year. But thanks to the success of the Winter Institute and the fact that anyone can reach anyone these days (via phone, fax, e-mail, or tweet), it doesn’t seem like booksellers feel that this is a “necessary” show to attend. And in the future, this number will likely decrease, since it’s hard for most booksellers and librarians to take off three days (or more) during the work week . . .

Big Book(s) are often the one and only aspect of BEA that the mainstream media writes about. What are the big books for the fall? Why aren’t there any big books this year? Why can’t we figure out which books are going to be big? More than any other, this topic emphasizes the “buzz” factor of BEA. The logic goes: if you take out the right size stand, come up with the coolest gimmick, and deliver a great product to the appropriate tastemakers, you can do enough marketing at BEA to ensure a book “takes off” when it “launches” in the fall. (Why are all industry metaphors based on rockets?)

Regardless if whether there’s a clear cut “big book” or not (last year, I claimed that 2666 was the book of BEA), there’s at least a lot of chatter about upcoming titles from established authors. This year I didn’t hear much of that at all. Everyone was too busy talking about foot traffic and the fact that neither the New Yorker nor the New York Review of Books threw parties this year. . .

Complaints really might be the backbone of BEA. I mentioned this in passing earlier, but if you stop to think about it, the book world—from publishers to booksellers to authors to journalists to distributors—is filled with mediocrity and failure. Not in terms of the people or product (although in terms of the 400,000 books published last year, there really is a lot of that), but in terms of financial success. If I told the kids at business school that they could get into an industry where everyone is underpaid and more than 80% of all the businesses are two fuck-ups away from bankruptcy, and that the average profit margin is under 5%, their heads would explode. But that’s what it is. Most people get into this business out of their love for books—definitely not because they think books are the quickest way to living large with lots of bling. Which is actually cool. One could argue that book people are the best people to work/talk/drink with, and that the strength of the book community outweighs all financial opportunities passed up by entering this field.

That said, the fact that the book business is a neverending struggle leads to immense amounts of bitching. And BEA is the ultimate cathartic release that escalate quickly into realms of self-reflexive, meta-bitching. Here’s a typical conversation:

A: So how are you doing?

B: Good. Well, you know, we’re hanging in there.

A: Not out of business yet.

B: Yeah, well, not yet. You know, zero growth is the new OK.

A: Same for us. Just trying to make it by. Times are tough. This industry is totally broken. Just look around . . .

B: And what do you think of the show?

A: Kind of sucks, no? I mean, where are the booksellers and reviewers? This place is a ghost town.

B: Yeah, and our booth placement sucks too. We’re behind f’ing Harlequin.

A: F-that. They need to make this show better. Get more people here.

B: And where are the galleys this year? If there’s no free books, there’s no point to this show.

A: You coming back next year?

B: Of course, of course. Haven’t missed a show in fifteen years . . .

Trust me, we need this. . . . OK, two sections left . . .

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