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Overwhelmed by Books

by Jo Freeman

For some time now, pundits have predicted the decline of the book as pixels replace ink and screens replace paper.

But the book publishing industry, which filled the cavernous halls of the DC Convention Center for its annual show-and-tell in mid May, doesn't know it.  Over 25,000 industry professionals and those who wanted to attract their dollars came to do what they do best:  sell books and everything associated with books.

BookExpo America2006 took over the convention center.  Exhibits and booths spread out over six city blocks in the basement and another four city blocks on Level Two.  Elsewhere major publishers rented large conference rooms and filled them with small tables so buyers could confer with sellers. 

BookSense, the association of independent bookstores, hosted a VIP lounge, where Hyperion provided a free lunch to attract browsers to its authors who were autographing and handing out free books, while the Republic of Tea handed out samples of its tasty brews.  There were also seminars, a booksellers' school, a lobby day, and lots of "meet the ...."  breakfasts, lunches and teas. 

I spent several hours on each of three days prowling the aisles without seeing it all.  I ODed on free chocolate, was deluged with offers of free bags, learned to say no to free books, accepted or rejected hundreds of buttons, baubles, pins, posters, and almost anything cheap that one could brand with a name or logo. At my first stop, McGraw-Hill gave me a bright red canvas bag the size of a suitcase and Purple Box Press a slightly smaller purple one, both of which I could easily have filled every day had my back permitted it. 

BookExpo America does not allow wheels on the floor ("No carts, luggage on wheels or empty strollers of any kind will be allowed in the Exhibit Hall or Autographing Area", a policy which definitely favors the strong over the small.  A Utah librarian told me on day two that she had already shipped seven boxes of free books to her home institution and expected to ship some more.  The shipping service on Level Two did a brisk business.

The slightest interest showed to a booth often resulted in walking away with something. Eddie R. Beesley thrust his book Lucky Enough into my hands and Linda Seger just had to give me Jesus Rode a Donkey: Why Republicans Don't Have the Corner on Christ.  Still another author handed me a page proof of Chapter Eight of his novel. However, it didn't have his name on it and whatever else he gave me with that crucial piece of information wasn't attached and can't be identified.  As soon as Bob Kalian saw who I was writing for, he insisted on giving me a copy of The Best Free Things for Seniors which he wrote and published with his wife, Linda. (Most of the free things are just sources of useful information, not actual things.).

Although major houses occupied the most space, the sheer variety of publishers was mind-boggling.  Three of my four publishers were there — McGraw-Hill, Indiana University Press, and iUniverse — reflecting only a slice of the spectrum.  There were also publishers of comic books, left-wing books, right-wing books, cookbooks, religious books, children's books, audio books, video books, CDs, maps and pretty much anything else that can be read. 

There were sellers of things associated with books: eyeglasses, magnifiers, reading lights, printing services, cover designers, distributors.  And the things associated with bookstores: software, packaging, toys, magazines, newsletters, jewelry, souvenirs.  The Authors Guild was there.  The National Writers Union was not.  "America" included exhibitors from both continents and numerous Spanish language publishers.  Also present were publishing groups from Thailand, Poland, Lebanon, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and more that I did not see.  I did talk to someone sitting at a shared booth from Vox Pop, a small coffeehouse and bookstore a few blocks from my Brooklyn house, without finding out why it was renting space to be at this event.

The regulars are industry professionals — booksellers, retailers, librarians and educators  — but many authors came on their own searching for opportunity.  Several rented  booths, at a cost ranging from $1,000 to $3,500 for 100 square feet, they told me. One of these was Brian G. Murray, who came from the UK to promote his self-published fantasy The Death Trilogy by passing out pencils, pens and promotional paper.  He had typescripts for at least ten other unpublished novels spread out on his table, wistfully waiting to be discovered and promoted by a major publisher.  Others were promoting their books without renting space.  A couple dressed in frontier garb walked around giving out buttons and flyers for Nick & Slim, a Colorado children's story.  By day two they looked as tired as I felt, and they were only carrying a basket. Some authors started their own publishing houses in order to publish their own books (e.g. Purple Box Press).  Others started this way, but expanded to publish other authors as well (e.g. Gival Press).   Sometimes it's easier to earn your way as a publisher than as a writer.

There were plenty of authors around who didn't pay for booths.  Big name authors, little name authors, no name authors, wannabe authors and even academic authors — full professors were shilling their books just like Beesley and Seger.  Being in DC, the politician authors were out in droves, sitting at tables signing books and giving them away.  Politicians are good at this, one way in which their experience in selling themselves to voters can pay off.  Unlike the self-publishing and self-promoting authors, the lines were long for most of those standing in the rows of signing stalls on Level Two, or sitting at a publisher's booth in the basement.

Ultimately this show was all about promotion.  If you've ever gotten a rejection for a manuscript, or published one only to hear a loud yawn, and wondered what all the books gracing the bookstore windows have that yours doesn't have, the answer is ...... marketing.

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