Report from Book Expo America’s first day (5/31/13)

New York City

Book publishers have been amassing at the Javits Center since Wednesday for their annual trade show, Book Expo America, and I had the chance to take the pulse of the industry on Thursday.

I found a distinct upstairs-downstairs divide. Literally.

Up on the main conference floor, the third floor, everything looked glossy and well-lit, with exhibitor booths displaying upcoming titles, publicists handing out free ARCs (that’s advanced readers’ copies) and authors signing books. The people in line were the kind of book-industry professionals who could influence book consumers (booksellers, librarians and media types).

Though they were professionals, that didn’t mean they weren’t also fans. I walked past some huge lines for superstar authors — such as Sue Grafton (“W is for Wasted,” Sept. 10), Scott Turow (“Identical,” Oct. 10) and Lauren Weisberger (“Revenge Wears Prada,” June 4) — and overheard noises of giddy excitement as people met and photographed the authors and anticipation as they got near. I could go on and on. The number of books, authors and publicists was overwhelming. But there was a lot of hope in those lines, among both readers and publicists.

Downstairs, on the first floor, however, conference-goers crowded into overly warm rooms for sessions on industry nuts and bolts. A lot of the talks and panels centered on what the industry could do to succeed in the digital age (topics included using Facebook for marketing, understanding the role of ebooks, how to use metadata to describe books, how to use Goodreads to promote books, and how to measure digital marketing). The atmosphere at the two sessions I attended (on Goodreads and digital marketing) had a kind of earnest seriousness to them that could be taken as studious or glum (or both). They definitely showed that everyone was still trying to figure out what worked in the digital space — and what didn’t.

One panelist, Matt Schwartz, the vice president for digital marketing strategy and product development at Random House (one of the largest publishing houses out there), perhaps summarized it best when he said he was a big fan of “A-B testing.” That is, he likes to try out a variety of marketing approaches to see which gets the best traction.

The goal — both upstairs and downstairs — was to figure out how to get books into readers’ hands. One way of doing that, and one thing that was new this year, was a program called “BEA Selects,” in which independent publishers got to tout some of their upcoming titles in various genres — romance, mystery, literary and sci-fi/fantasy. Perhaps the most compelling title to come out of that was “It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris” (August), a debut literary novel by Patricia Engel about a young American woman who spends a year in Paris. Engel is also the author of a widely acclaimed 2010 collection of short stories, “Vida.”

Perhaps the best moment of the day occurred during a wonderful conversation between Chuck Klosterman (“I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined),” July 9) and Jonathan Lethem (“Dissident Gardens,” Sept. 10). Klosterman asked that if he could choose to boost just one of two powers as a writer, would it be his critical
intellectual abilities or emotional abilities.

Lethem said, “As a novelist, the emotional connectivity is so much more important.”

That sentiment, I think, sums up the power of the book publishing industry. I’ve heard that the top-selling ebooks are mostly genre stuff like romance novels that used to be pulp paperbacks, but that stories that people love are things they want to physically possess and hold. Love remains at the heart of the publishing industry. ■ 518-454-5629 ■ @mjanairo


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