Books Books

Just back from the BEA (Book Expo America) – the giant book industry conference. It really was a zoo. After five minutes in the convention center, I felt like quitting writing. Sales people pushing ‘units,’ tens of thousands of titles, cheesy convention-floor displays, acres of wasted carpeting. Books shipped and sold like oil or steel.

The weirdest part were the autograph sessions. They line up forty authors at little tables at the end of long roped-off lanes. Then conference attendees line up for free autographed copies of books (a one-dollar donation to charity is reqested). A majority ask for a signature and date, only. Why? Because they’re going to sell them, either on Ebay or in their stores.

That’s right – immediately next to the signing area (itself a football-field of lanes) is a huge “shipping area” where people can load their books into boxes, and then wheel them over to a temporary UPS facility. So the book-accumlulators simply get as many books as they can carry, load up their boxes, then return for more copies.

I’m sure it’s good for the book business, on some level. These are mostly independent bookstores, just looking to make an extra few thousand dollars a year by selling promotional copies of new hardcovers. (I used to buy “cut-out” – so named for the notch in the jacket meant to prevent returns – promo albums from the local record dealer, too.)

Even then, the scramble for sellable product had little to do with books – I mean, with the words inside the books or the order in which those words appear. The longest lines were cooking and gardening authors, whose high-priced, photo-filled books would garner more on resale.

In spite of it all, I did manage to find a number of people who care about the state of books and the ideas they transmit. Cheers to independent publishers, like Disinformation, Amok Press, and Softskull, whose publications continue to break open new minds, and whose determination to run interference for authors like me keeps literary culture alive in the midst of this marketplace.

Meanwhile, in a related saga of the relationship between ideas and the publishing business, Featurewell and Nation Books have just released a volume called Killed:Great Journalism Too Hot to Print, in which one of my own killed stories has been published along with those of George Orwell, P.J. O’Rourke, and Betty Friedan. They’re having an event in NYC (I wasn’t asked to read, but I’ll do my best to be attending) on Tuesday, June 22, at B&N Astor Place, followed by a book party at KGB Bar.