Book Expo 2014: Report from the Floor

by Tony Buchsbaum

Every year at this time, the book universe gathers to celebrate itself (and why shouldn’t it?) at Book Expo America. This is the spot to be if you’re a book lover. But good luck getting in. It’s not open to the public — except for a little bit. But more on that later.

This year, BEA was held at the massive Jacob Javits Convention Center in NYC. In years past, Javits was filled to bursting with BEA-ness. More recently, it’s been a bit smaller, mostly confined to the main exhibit hall and select meeting rooms downstairs.

What happens at BEA? Books. This is where publishers from all over the world showcase the big books coming out between spring and Christmas. So it’s around six or seven months of bestsellers-to-be, all revealed at once in one form or another. By which I mean, glossy jackets displayed in fancy digital frames at one end, and deluxe, hard-to-get-your-hands-on advance copies at the other. Oh, and it also means book-world celebs: authors, movie and TV and music stars, all crashing into one giant melting pot of literary yumminess.

The big publishers — Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, Hachette, Macmillan, and their ilk — hand out advance copies or arrange them in neat stacks on the floor, free for the taking. Think: kid in a candy store where your money’s no good. Some only give out books when their authors do signings in the booth or at one of the 20 autographing tables where the lines can range from, say, two people to 200.

When a publisher brings in a movie star or Anne Rice or Pat Conroy or some other name author, there’s a line. A long one. When they bring in a debut novelist with no name but an interesting book, it’s more manageable. Either way, it’s a blast. You get a few precious seconds with your favorite author, and then you get a signed book that feels like a bar of gold in your hand.

This year, Billy Idol and Jason Segel signed little previews of their books. Neil Patrick Harris and Jane Lynch signed posters. Jodi Picoult, Alan Furst, Karin Slaughter, Lorenzo Carcaterra, Ben Mezrich, Tracy Letts, Colm Toibin and a starfield of other authors came to sign advance copies of their new books for adoring fans — and by adoring fans I mean booksellers, librarians, VIPs and members of the press.

Every year, there’s one book everybody wants but relatively few actually get. Two years ago, that book was The Twelve by Justin Cronin. This year, it was The Bone Clocks by Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell. (I, for one, can’t wait to read that one.)

A walk through the aisles reveals editors, publishers, agents, publicists and authors. Unless you know their faces, you spend a lot of time with your eyes cast down so you can read their badges. It’s kind of funny, actually, how eye contact is made only when you know the face — or suddenly, the name. Either way, it’s great fun.

This year was also the inaugural year for BookCon. This one-day public event was held inside the exhibit hall. For around 30 bucks anyone could come in, mingle, attend some very cool star-studded Q&A sessions and grab books.

When people who love to read come together with those who write, there’s a genuine frisson. When a kid who loves to read comes face-to-face with the author of her favorite book, prepare for wide eyes, some respectful screaming and sometimes tears. To people who love to read, authors are rock stars. BookCon brings them together, and everyone wins. Readers, authors and publishers.

Across BEA and BookCon, the highlight events were a reception for Hilary Clinton, whose new book, Hard Choices, will be out in a week; separate events headlined by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler; a session in which John Green schmoozed with the director of The Fault in Our Stars about making the movie; and one more in which David Mitchell gave away some secrets about his writing process. And on and on and on.

In a word, this year’s BEA was pretty awesome. Next year’s will have a new world of treasures. If you can snag a ticket, do. I’ll see you there.

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