"How's business?" I asked Mister Dummies, the wide-eyed mascot of the IDG Publishing Group. "Good," replied a muffled voice from deep within the interior. And there did seem to be some general agreement on that score. Stable
was the word I heard most often. According to long tall Paul Slovak of Viking, "The market is stable." There were, he admitted, some challenges to be dealt with. "The culture just isn't paying enough attention to books, the way it does to movies or music," he sighed. "Still, in this business, you're obliged to be both pessimistic and optimistic."
I took that to be...optimistic. And certainly that was the note struck by David Poindexter, who runs the San Francisco-based MacAdam/Cage Publishing. We chatted while Poindexter snuck a furtive smoke on some kind of loading dock in back. (If he had been caught, he would have been clapped in irons and flogged on the front steps of Gracie Mansion--but no matter.) It had been a hard couple of years, he conceded, once the post-9/11 recession really hit the book industry. "But I can see it coming back," he said. "The feeling is very upbeat, very positive. We've already given away at least a thousand galleys at our booth. At the last BEA in Los Angeles we did The Time Traveler's Wife
, which turned out to be a huge bestseller--and it took us three days
to pass out a thousand of those. I think the interest is there again, especially in fiction."
I passed from booth to booth, filling up my tote bags with crap. The BEA is very much an Olde Curiosity Shoppe writ large, and among the faux-medieval scrolls and Rubik's Cube keychains and whale-shaped letter-openers I came across this two-headed goat at the Ripley's booth. (Alas, it was for display purposes only.) More to the point, I began collecting galleys. Two of my favorite prizes--Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking
and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Memories of My Melancholy Whores
--were passed off to me discreetly, like contraband. Others were obtainable on the open market: Paul Auster's The Brooklyn Follies
, J.M. Coetzee's Slow Man
, Elias Canetti's Party in the Blitz: The English Years
(which has already created an uproar in the British press for its scabrous critique of Iris Murdoch's erotic performance), Adam Gopnik's The King in the Window
, and T.C. Boyle's The Human Fly and Other Stories
. And yes, I did succumb to the occasional pitch. "Girls kick ass!" one publicist called out, and suddenly I had my very own copy of Kitty and the Midnight Hour
, a werewolf thing.
Whatever. My bags were getting heavier. There was a traffic jam in the aisle, and I darted into a relatively quiet booth, which turned out to be the home of The Book Standard, the new online magazine launched in February by VNU. The editor, Jerome Kramer, filled me in on the details. "The idea was to take all this literary property owned by VNU--a giant, stealthy Dutch conglomerate--and see if we could assemble it into a book-industry portal," he explained. "Publishers Weekly hadn't made any substantial changes in thirty years, and they were very beholden to being a weekly print magazine. We could move much faster. Plus we had the numbers
." What he meant was the treasure trove of sales data compiled by Nielsen BookScan, another VNU property. Casual visitors to the site can read a sizeable slice of editorial content. But only subscribers have access to the numbers, which may ultimately siphon off at least part of PW's audience. (Kramer, I should add, was quick to praise his opposite number at the rival magazine: "Sara Nelson was going to be our star columnist
until she got that job.")
Now it was time for lunch. I made the mistake of descending into the bowels of the Javits Center, where no sunlight ever penetrates and where the low ceilings and the Nathan's franchise make for a gloomy atmosphere--like a weenie roast in a bomb shelter. It was hard to find a table, harder to find a chair. There were ugly rumors that the convention planners hadn't laid on enough victuals. Still, I bought a sandwich, chewed and swallowed, and then headed back upstairs, where it occured to me for the first time all day that traditional print culture was in some serious trouble. Why? Maybe it was the increased visibility of manga: Viz Media, the producers of My Neighbor Totoro
and Full Metal Alchemist
, had hung some humongous banners in the lobby, and other manga houses were giving away galleys by truckful. Nothing wrong with manga per se. But I felt a little twinge when I stopped by one of the booths and asked whether the customers were predominantly specialty comics outlets or general bookstores. "We're selling lots of books to classrooms and summer reading programs," I was told. Really? Has Tokyo Boys & Girls
finally bumped John Steinbeck off the curriculum? I got a second twinge during my conversation with Steve Emerson and Rich Roberge, two fresh-faced Pepperdine grads who run a company called Rocketbook. Both were wearing bright blue flight suits. The eponymous products are DVD-based study guides, with scads of lively animation and pop quizzes from a guy with heavy stubble and a starched white shirt. "Who's that?" I asked them, as we watched the demo on a big flat-screen unit. "Oh, that's Drew Lavey," they told me. "He's done reporting segments on Ryan Seacrest's show." Really? We're going to learn about King Lear
from one of Ryan Seacrest's second bananas
? Help! I admit the demo was cleverly done, and might just make the Thane of Cawdor accessible to your average, O.C.
-obsessed teenager. I admit to wishing Steve and Rich the very best. But my inner curmudgeon had been summoned from the depths, and if I didn't make peace with him it was going to ruin the rest of the BEA for me.