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Musings Upon Return from BEA (Book Expo America) 2005

abstract:BookExpo America is the largest annual event attended by book industry professionals from across the US and the world. This year's affair was in the Big Apple with attendance rivaling long established European Book Expos in Frankfurt and London. BEA is where booksellers, retailers, rights professionals, international publishing executives, librarians, educators, and anyone else involved in the exciting world of books meet. What goes on?


June 24, 2005
Lots! But first, a few pointers.

When in Rome Do as the New Yorkers Do.  

The first thing to perfect in New York is your cab hail.  Much like Clark Gable's demonstration of the hitchhiker's technique to Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, each person masters their own style. Do not waste time on a cab with its top light out, (it's occupied) and avoid the 5 pm shift change when you will be completely ignored by streams of cabs heading like horses with blinders back to the barn.

Second, always double check your hotel reservation. If you mess up you will find every hotel room in the city and beyond fully booked—and have to go begging around to friends. A test of true friendship is someone who will share their already cramped, overpriced room with calm dignity—or you may get lucky and a local will lend you their vacant (read not a speck of furniture) apartment for the night, an ordeal calling for generous fortification with libations at the corner French bar/bistro before bedding down with a NYC phonebook for a pillow. 

The third recommendation is to garner invitations to insider BEA parties where the so-called important people are meeting. Publishers Weekly claims to disclose all on their BEA Blog.

For mere mortals like we web editors, the idea is to contact all the wonderful people who sent you review copies or introduced you to the authors you interviewed over the preceding year, and set-up appointments to visit them at their booth, go for cocktails, enjoy a publisher's lunch and get the latest information on upcoming titles, advance gallies, and garner their hot picks (preferably sent postage-paid directly back to the office so you don't have to dislocate an elbow dragging your carry-on luggage back home.)

Author Luncheons

Author lunches are held each day. Their popularity derives from the opportunity to speak about their upcoming books, and use the platform to discuss the influences and experiences that have shaped their ideas and careers. The most notable and memorable events occur here. Since the audience is extremely knowledgable of each speaker's body of work, the jokes are clever and subtle—some pre-reading required! 

The Saturday author luncheon featured Nick Hornby, Simon Winchester, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Michael Cunningham.

Skating Contest

If this were a skating contest judges would have held a 9.5 for Hornby and Winchester, and a 6 for Kearns and Cunningham.

Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity (Riverhead 1996), About A Boy (Riverhead 1999), and his latest, A Long Way Down (Riverhead 2005) entertained us with the writer's sources of inspiration. Derogatory remarks were made at those writers who when interviewed spritely comment that, "upon waking up each morning they are eager to get down to their computer to see what their characters have been up to all night," as though no inspiration was required and their books have a mind of their own. [Audience giggles ensued - haven't we all heard that one.] 

This led up to the premise of his current book, which came about when he discovered with surprise the growing incidence of suicides in the general population and the non-random periodicity of these events being linked to specific dates and times in the calendar year.

"In fact," he went on to say, "I began to think if you had a propensity toward the act," he surmised, "it would not be entirely unlikely to envision bumping into another suicidal person the very moment and location you yourself decided to do the act."   This led Nick to imagine the conversation that might ensue between two people meeting in such a circumstance, which of course is the hook for his dark comedy, A Long Way Down a novel designed to bring focus and attention to a troubling subject and for those inflicted to find a glimmer of hope and seek help.  

Next up came Simon Winchester, author of A Crack in the Edge of the World:  America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 (HarperCollins October 2005)  Simon is equal to Nick in wit, execution and delivery of a story. He spoke about how he and his editor came upon his own personal formula for writing best sellers, "Simon is a man who brings dull things to life." If we had all had Simon for a Social Studies teacher we would have aced the course. He writes about geology/geography natural disasters and unusual men.

His first book was the unlikely story of the man who helped compile Webster's dictionary, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (Perennial 1999). Simon likes long titles.

Four basic elements of that successful story form the criteria for the formula to which all successive novel concepts are picked: It should be about

  1. An obscure historical character who is inherently fascinating whose life and work have also had a strong impact on civilization. 
  2. An unusually talented but hither-to-unknown individual
  3. Their life have had tremendous ups-and-downs
  4. Some form of bodily mutilation [or tragic death] ensues 

He went on to describe how he had found the perfect story meeting all the above criteria—a man called William Smith, creator of the first geological map who eventually went mad (we hope) and cut off his penis (yikes) who died ignominiously, "Perfect!" both he and his editor cry—only to discover when Simon reaches the library housing all of this man's effects, letters and papers, it had not three days earlier been taken out by another person! (No I'm getting it all wrong; but you get the picture.)

Alas, the life of a geological biographer.  The book did become, The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, and you must remember, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded (Perennial 2004)

Click on the above titles for purchase and then get Simon's latest when it comes out this October.  He is living with the fear [that writers have] of their works "going straight from the typewriter to the remainders table in one seamless act of progress."

Third up, Doris Kearns Goodwin, a scrupulous political historian who won a Pulitzer Prize for her biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, No Ordinary Time (Simon & Shuster 1995) and spent ten years before that penning President Lynden Johnson's memoir, Lynden Johnson and the American Dream (St. Martin's 1991).  She is a popular political speaker for radio and television.  However in this instance she needed to red-line edit her talk, which lasted an incredible forty minutes and summarized each chapter and gave every punchline in her biography of Abraham Lincoln titled, Master Among Men:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon & Schuster). Admittedly, it will be masterfull in her hands.

Forty minutes later... poor Michael Cunningham, who needs no introduction as the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Hours (Picador 2002) adapted brilliantly for film winning multiple Academy Awards, has spent the last five years coming up with his next novel, Specimen Days. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2005) As current Hollywood darling screenwriter de jour Michael is working on several projects with the likes of Meryl Streep and Julianna Moore but will be taking time out for this current book tour. 

The gauntlet has been thrown down—to book groups everywhere who loved his previous works enough to challenge themselves to read Specimen Days, a novel he describes as, "part ghost story, part sci-fi (his favorite genre) part apocalyptic," with a sexy four foot green reptilian female protagonist. I am thinking; Michael Mitchell's sextet, Cloud Atlas meets Bladerunner with a touch of Jurasic Park.  Not to lose site of his homage to the W section of great writers, moving from Woolf to Whitman as the literary genius whose commentary is the thread running through these disparate forms. If you are a Whitman fan, you'll recognize the title. Here's a great NPR interview with the author.  

I met Michael Cunningham after his appearance at UCLA's LIVE Spoken Word series, where he entertained the audience with his early stories of transforming from unknown to consumate author.  Today his best comment was the incredulity of The Hours being the runaway popular and critical success about "three depressed lesbians in New York— you do the math."  Lets see if Specimen Days can capture our imaginations.

Next in the Series from BEA: A Round-up of Publishing House Picks




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