nEW YORK — When the line of fans (hundreds) waiting to have Ian McEwan sign his upcoming novel Sweet Tooth started pushing up against the line of fans (many, many hundreds) waiting to have Chris Colfer of Glee sign his debut children's book The Land of Stories, it looked as if the ensuing jam might freeze up the whole massive convention floor of BookExpo America.
That juxtaposition of celebrity and serious authors was just one kind of strange bedfellows at the publishing industry's largest U.S. convention, held June 5 to 7 in New York City.
Some 20,000 publishers, booksellers, librarians, authors and members of the media converged on Javits Center, which sprawls over a couple of blocks on the bank of the Hudson River. One speaker, Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report, called it "the Lollapalooza of quietly reading to yourself," but BEA's central purpose is bringing people who write and publish books together with the people who do the most to put those books in readers' hands.
Just a few years ago, the traditional publishing world was ruffling its feathers over the unknown quantity of digital publishing. Now e-books are unquestionably part of publishing's future, the only question being how big a share, and BEA this year boasted a whole section of dozens of booths occupied by digital publishers and distributors.
The unsettled nature of that future got an awkward underline from booth positioning: Right across the aisle from each other were Amazon, the bigfoot of digital, and the Authors Guild, which accused Amazon in a June 4 letter to its members of being a "monopolist."
E-books haven't taken over entirely, though. For the third year in a row, the number of independent bookstores in the United States has increased, from 1,512 to 1,567. And publishers clearly consider the "handselling" those booksellers do an invaluable marketing tool.
Most of those publishers' book promotion at BEA involves handing out copies of new and upcoming books, plus vast numbers of tote bags to haul them around in. Sometimes flashier tactics are employed and go awry. I was glad I skipped the event on Pier 40 for Robert Sullivan's upcoming My American Revolution, in which he recounts re-enacting George Washington's escape after the Battle of Brooklyn. For a taste of history, a dozen or so booksellers and others were loaded into two rowboats, one of which promptly capsized, dumping seven people into the 60-degree Hudson.
Things were drier at the many author events, the biggest of which was an engaging hourlong conversation between rock musicians Patti Smith, whose 2010 memoir Just Kids won the National Book Award for nonfiction, and Neil Young, whose memoir Waging Heavy Peace will be published in November by Blue Rider Press.
Talking about digital technology's impact on music, Young said something that resonated with an audience intensely interested in parallel developments in book publishing: "Listening to Coltrane on an MP3 is like reducing a Picasso to wallpaper. . . . The technology we've been burdened with by the content providers is very, very, very stifling and very neglectful of the muse."
Bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver, whose novel Flight Behavior lands in November, took a more optimistic view, although she confessed to having just gotten her first e-reader this year. Imagine readers complaining about Gutenberg's printing press, she said: "This paper just doesn't do it for me. I need to feel the skin of a dead sheep between my fingers for the words to work."
Here, from BEA, are a few more choice words from people who make their livings with them.
"(Publishers) told me, 'White people don't read about black people, black women don't like black men, and black men don't read, so who is going to buy this book?' " — Walter Mosley, whose 42nd book, Merge/Disciple: Two Short Novels from Crosstown to Oblivion, will be out in November
"To me (the viral video of a skydiving elderly woman) is the greatest metaphor for writing a book. Suddenly you find yourself in midair hanging upside down by your underwear." — J.R. Moehringer, Sutton, September
"An A-plus reading experience is when the reader just melds with the character." — Michael Connelly, The Black Box, November
"Connecting with readers (through social media) is great, but every hour spent on a blog or Facebook or tweeting is an hour not spent on the craft." — Michael Koryta, The Prophet, September
"Thank you, Kindle, for being able to hold 1,400 books but never feeling as good as holding the real f------ thing in my hands." — Jimmy Fallon, Thank You Notes 2
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.