Go West, N.Y. Publishers: It’s Showtime in L.A.

To the casual observer, the annual publishing extravaganza known as Book Expo America seems like just another in the trifecta of party-heavy, schmoozy publishing hoedowns, a stateside Frankfurt or London Book Fair. And while the three-day event held last weekend in Los Angeles boasts virtually the same cast of characters (star publishers, authors and agents), indistinguishable venues (large conference halls spread out so that participants are guaranteed more than their required 30 minutes of daily cardio race-walking), and the same kind of events (late-night drinkfests at posh hotel bars), B.E.A. is different in one important respect: It’s less about author-to-agent-to-publisher dealmaking than about “connecting” with the people who actually get the product that those authors, agents and publishers put together: to wit, bookstore owners, known to all publishing types as “the booksellers.”

Now, you’d think the publisher-bookseller relationship would be pretty cut-and-dried. The people who sell the product couldn’t do their jobs without the people who make the product, and vice versa, right? Right, except for one thing: We’re talking about publishing-an industry not exactly known for its inclusivity. And while publishers need booksellers (even the independents, who are responsible for, at best, an estimated 20 or so percent of total book sales), 51 weeks of the year they’d sooner lunch and sup and party with each other-and, of course, complain that the business has become so repetitive, so insular and that you see the same 20 people everywhere you go-than with these mere merchants.

But once a year, from Thursday through Sunday in late May, either in Chicago, L.A. or New York, publishers suck up to booksellers by seeming to include them in the glamorous, glitzy world of big-time publishing. They invite them to splashy cocktail parties with their star authors, schedule intimate private dinners and join them for nightcaps at tony hotels.

And when the convention is held in Los Angeles, as it was last week for the first time since 1999, the uses of celebrity are endless. After a day spent negotiating the proverbially impossible L.A. traffic-most out-of-towners take cabs, which can cost up to $40 each way for those clueless enough to want to stay on the West Side-booksellers and the occasional journalist are invited to unwind with the likes of Martin Mull and Mike Nichols as they toast Steve Martin for his forthcoming The Pleasure of My Compan y at the ultra-glam Hotel Bel-Air. Here’s where the smart celeb-sighters can spot Tracey Ullman mingling among book folk on the terrace of the Chateau Marmont. Here’s where you can visit famous studio honcho Frank Biondi’s Brentwood estate (at a Grove Atlantic party for George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War ), which just happens to be down the road apiece on Rockingham Avenue from O.J. Simpson’s, or belly up to the bar next to HarperCollins’ Jane Friedman, Julie Andrews and former porn star Traci Lords at Fox Studios. On the theory that you can never have too many boldface names, publishers routinely trot out the best show ponies in their stables, even if works by these authors won’t be appearing on the fall list. That’s why Glen David Gold, author of the novel Carter Beats the Devil , shows up at Hyperion’s bash for Steve Martin (Martin Amis, who does have a novel, Yellow Dog , coming from Hyperion sister-distributor Miramax, was also there; ditto former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright), and why now 19-year-old Nick McDonell-who said he’s taking some time off from Harvard to finish his second novel-held court at Grove Atlantic’s Chateau Marmont bashes.

But lest you, or the booksellers, think that publishing has gone totally Hollywood, consider this: There are also daytime meetings at the Convention Center, at which publishers and booksellers sit together pitching and ordering books. What draws booksellers there, when they can just as easily place their orders with the publishers’ reps who visit and/or call them for months pre-publication? Why, star quality, of course! Here’s where a mom-and-pop shopkeeper from Dubuque might gain an audience with Knopf’s Sonny Mehta, or at least spot him prowling the halls looking for a place to smoke. Here’s where an enterprising lit-lover might lay eyes on Grove’s Morgan Entrekin-whom, I swear to God, I saw at his stand one day before noon! And if the celebrity publishers and the in-booth signings by the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Faye Kellerman, Toni Morrison, Jonathan Lethem and Augusten Burroughs (among many, many others) don’t draw them in, the free stuff does: It’s not unusual to see a bookseller at 9:45 a.m. haul three tote bags full of galleys, buttons, T-shirts and other giveaways to his car, deposit them in the trunk and then rush back inside to gather up more.

Make no mistake: B.E.A. is about selling, pure and simple, and in this very bad time in the book business, publishers can be excused for trying every gimmick in the, well, book. Even for an industry built on poor-mouthing-“We’ve been here before,” the Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison intoned at a speech early one morning, and then described the sorry state of publishing when she released her first novel, The Bluest Eye , in 1970-this year seems particularly bad. B.E.A. organizers will say traffic is “strong … not as strong as last year in New York, but still good,” but publishers suggest otherwise; one confided, sotto voce, that sales of his titles were off by a double-digit percentage from the first six months of last year-which, you might remember, was the season just after Sept. 11. Wandering the crowded halls of B.E.A. is like negotiating the floors of Barneys in the weeks before Christmas: The place is packed, all right, but you can’t help wondering how many of the tourists are buying and how many are “just looking.”

So, while talk among the publishing folk is whether Bertelsmann is about to announce that they are indeed buying the AOL Time Warner book division, booksellers are trying to figure out which of the hundreds of titles they’re hearing about will become next season’s The Lovely Bones . At a packed panel presentation on Thursday afternoon, six prominent editors-Knopf’s Mr. Mehta, Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew, Dial’s Susan Kamil, Riverhead’s Julie Grau, Norton’s Starling Lawrence and HarperCollins’ Claire Wachtel made their pitches and predictions, which ranged from Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin (duh!) to The Kite Runner , an Afghan memoir that already had some pre-publication buzz, to Tim Gautreaux’s The Clearing , a Knopf novel pitched by a visibly uncomfortable and admittedly unprepared Mr. Mehta. The point was to get booksellers excited enough to rush over to the booths and place mammoth orders and then talk the books up to their customers.

While the buzz-panel moderator, Publishers Weekly ‘s Nora Rawlinson, pointed out that all the books mentioned on last year’s buzz panel went on to great success, a better judge of future sales might be the packed-to-overflowing bookseller attendance at such events as a Mitch Albom reading and signing for his forthcoming debut novel, The Five People You Meet in Heaven , a probable blockbuster for which Hyperion has taken the highly unusual step of creating hardbound bookseller reading copies, pre-signed by the Tuesdays with Morrie author. Also popular was a performance given by Ellen DeGeneres, who has a new book coming from Simon & Schuster. And execs at Broadway and Dutton must have gone to sleep smiling on Saturday when authors and co-panelists Al Franken and Bill O’Reilly nearly came to blows (unscripted, observers insist) over their wildly divergent political views. On Sunday morning, though many publishing types were already at the airport, booksellers were wowed by Madeleine Albright’s presentation of Madame Secretary , coming from Miramax, and Michael Moore, predictably, woke up the crowd by asking them to vote on whether he should keep calling his forthcoming book Dude, Where’s My Country? (They thought he should, apparently.)

At B.E.A., there’s simply no such thing as too much flattery. At Saturday’s breakfast, Ms. Morrison, who was once an editor at Random House, spent a full 10 minutes of her allotted 15 buttering up the booksellers and only spent the last third of her speech actually reading from her new novel, Love . She told them she was there because of them, and she praised them lavishly for the “hard work” they do getting the books “out of the shops” and building up authors. Thus totally massaged, the audience erupted into passionate applause when she then opined that her novel was, “as you can see”-stop for dramatic sip of water-” perfect .” But perfection, she went on, is not enough. Without smart bookselling, even brilliant books die.

Who says publishing events are drab and undramatic? This stuff was pure theater.

Whether it will work, however, is another question, and there was the predictable grumbling in the halls about the good old days when B.E.A. was simply a nonprofit event sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, instead of the for-profit media event run by Reed Elsevier. There was also speculation about whether, in these poor economic times, it’s even worth a publisher’s while to spend the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to get the players and sets out here for the show. But judging from the comments I overheard at the Hotel Bel-Air while waiting in a (long) line for a cab back from the Steve Martin bash, booksellers were buying the hype, if not the books. Who doesn’t want to go back to Dubuque with tales of spending Saturdays with Mitch or shaking a movie star’s hand?

But all this buttering up has its price, of course, and at moments you could see publishing types’ patience wearing thin. At the Knopf dinner on Friday, for example, the soon-to-be-crowd-pleasing Ms. Morrison sat with a select few at a table far away from the hoi polloi. And by early morning, even the most well-meaning executives had had their fill of the booksellers. I was lingering on the Chateau Marmont patio chatting with friends when the manager of one of the good independents approached me. Praising an article he’d read in this very paper-and having noticed that my own book was due to be published this fall-he began chatting me up. Would I like to come to his store and talk about my work? I said of course, ordered another drink and tried to be charming.

A few minutes later, a New York exec came up to me. “You were awfully friendly to that creepy bookseller,” she said, with some surprise and not a little disapproval.

Silly me. I thought being nice to booksellers was what B.E.A. was all about.