C HICAGO, ILL.-After several years in which the collective mood was distinctly logy, the publishing world snapped out of it at this year’s BookExpo America. A “Happy Days Are Here Again” vibe suffused the party-heavy industry convention, at which publishers gather annually to woo booksellers and schmooze each other. The festivities began Thursday with a rousing speech by Bill Clinton, memoirist, and ended Sunday after the death of Ronald Reagan. In between, one couldn’t escape the specter of George W. Bush. Even as publishers griped about the dire world situation, they were also hopped up about the political books that are selling like crazy, thanks to the war in Iraq. The publishing industry, it seems, might just end up rivaling Halliburton in its war profiteering. Everyone knew it would take something cataclysmic to give this industry a jolt.
“Look around you,” declared Leon Wieseltier, the silver-haired literary editor of The New Republic , as he stood in the Random House area on Friday morning, dressed all in black. He was gesturing toward the vast rows of book-filled booths stretching out in all directions. “The best thing for the book business right now is George W. Bush,” he said. “Even Valerie Solanas-do you know who she is? Right, she shot Andy Warhol-even she has a Bush book out,” he continued. (It’s a re-release of her SCUM Manifesto , with a new introduction.) “I don’t expect it to have much of an impact in the red states, but this is precisely Bush’s problem: The hostility has seeped from politics into culture, which is less easily controlled or called back.”
As publishing-industry types flirted, drank and ran up their expense accounts, it seemed safe to say that the industry is once again in decent shape. Or maybe it was more of a “tonight we drink, for tomorrow we die” kind of exuberance.
Indeed, there was something of an air of desperation about the whole thing. Sure, election years always see a spate of quickie books, but one gets the sense that this time publishers are flailing around, publishing even the dumbest political books in the hope that the average citizen will wander into a bookstore and pick up-or better yet, buy!-a copy of, say, The O’Reilly Factor for Kids (HarperEntertainment, October) or 50 Ways You Can Show George the Door in 2004 , co-written by ice-cream maven Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s. For that worthy title, Perseus Books Group had selectively placed in convention bathrooms rolls of designer toilet paper that read: “Wipe Bush, Vote in 2004.”
If nothing else, the political books have finally forced publishing to catch up to the pace at which the rest of the world does business. “Second only to their interesting content, the reason political books are enjoying such an incredible renaissance this year is because publishers are now able, because of technology, to turn them out in five weeks,” said an upbeat Robert Barnett, Mr. Clinton’s lawyer, who has negotiated book deals for politicians for two decades. “The content is current. It used to take a minimum of six months, and the content was much more stale. Now you can go from finish to bookstore in five weeks.” In that time, Mr. Clinton’s publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, is even cranking out a record-breaking 1.5 million copies of Mr. Clinton’s My Life -more than the 1.2 million first printing for Pope John Paul II’s 1994 Crossing the Threshold of Hope . Knopf was not being overly ambitious: Preorders from bookstores have already exceeded 1.5 million, according to Knopf spokesman Paul Bogaards, which means a second printing will begin before the first is even released.
In the case of Mr. Clinton’s memoir, however, five weeks from manuscript to finished copies might be pushing it. Mr. Barnett said he’d read the Clinton memoir over Memorial Day weekend, but a rumor making the rounds in Chicago had it that the book wasn’t entirely finished until some time after that. Even as the Knopf guys were high-fiving all over the Windy City, they must be kicking themselves at least a little. If the former President had finished his 922-page memoir a few weeks earlier, they would have had the book out before Father’s Day. Instead, it will hit stores on June 22.
Will the surge in time-sensitive political books speed up the publishing of other kinds of books? Most publishers doubt it, because most authors-with the possible exception of Mr. Clinton-need weeks, if not months, of pre-publication marketing before their books catch on. Will books with no shelf life that are rushed into bookstores become even more semi-disposable products, not as well-edited as leading cultural magazines and four times as expensive? Ever cautious, publishers didn’t dare to speculate on that. But one hopes that they’re at least posing the question.
It’s also far from clear whether the current hot-selling political books will help sustain the industry financially. “The real question is, can the publishing industry grow into the double digits?” said Laurence Kirschbaum, the head of Time Warner Book Group, as he greeted passers-by in the Warner area. For the next few years, he said, growth forecasts were “only 2, 3, 4 percent.”
Of course, the prognosis varies publisher by publisher. And Knopf is expected to have a very good year. Indeed, if BEA took on the tenor of a political convention, then Sonny Mehta, Knopf’s inimitable publisher, played the role of political kingmaker with his characteristic understated panache. On Thursday, it was Mr. Mehta who-dressed in a sober dark suit and red tie, his face broadcast onto the movie-sized screen-introduced Mr. Clinton to the crowd of 3,000 booksellers, publishers and librarians, many of whom had lined up all afternoon for seats. Mr. Mehta drew thunderous applause after every sentence of his introduction-much to his surprise, it seemed. “Among his notable achievements,” Mr. Mehta began, as the crowd laughed, “is the longest economic expansion in the history of America.” (Thunderous applause.) “He moved the nation from a record deficit into a record surplus.” (Thunderous applause.)
“It was a huge hall. It was kind of spooky,” Mr. Mehta said quietly the following day, as he stood greeting well-wishers on the plush carpet of the Random House area on the trade-show floor, dressed with his usual casual flair in tan desert boots, jeans and a slate gray jacket. “There was such a degree of anticipation,” he said. “It was coming off in waves.” Random House employees and others kept walking by to thank him for bringing the former President to BEA.
Nearby, Mr. Barnett seemed impressed with Mr. Mehta’s new role. “The Wizard of Oz came out from behind the curtain to greet the residents of Emerald City!” he said eagerly. Mr. Barnett was chatting with Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum, who took a more sartorial view. “One of the great insider questions in publishing has finally been solved,” the rather tall Mr. Applebaum said, pointing across to the rather diminutive Mr. Mehta. “Who is the author for whom Sonny Mehta will put on a suit and tie?”
Mr. Applebaum pooh-poohed the notion that publishers were especially eager to cash in on political books. “If you had an off-the-record truth session with the most effective publishers, they’d say they’d much rather have a successful diet book than a political book-a book that transcends all ideologies, genders, all personal backgrounds,” Mr. Applebaum said. “You can be apolitical, but being thin and fit-that’s something that makes a permanent difference,” he continued. “More people want to look fit than sound politically opportune.”
Warner’s Mr. Kirschbaum agreed. “The big kahuna is still the broad general list,” he said as he greeted passers-by with a friendly handshake and eyed a tray of cupcakes that an assistant carried past. In the next booth over, Michael Pietsch, the polished senior vice president and publisher of Warner’s Little, Brown literary imprint, stood by a circular stack of galleys for a forthcoming novel called The Ha-Ha , by Dave King, and charted some of the difficulties with the glut of political books. “The general concern is that best-selling books are selling more than ever and faster than ever,” Mr. Pietsch said. “Something that hits can hit and sell in unprecedented numbers. More books are chasing that little bit of attention, trying to be heard above the cacophony.” That, he said, means that publishers have to market books even more carefully and aggressively, planning months in advance.
The consensus was that besides Clinton’s memoir, no one big book emerged from the convention. But several books were mentioned again and again as the fall’s most anticipated titles: Philip Roth’s new novel, The Plot Against America (Houghton Mifflin, October); Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, November); Cynthia Ozick’s Heir to the Glimmering World (Houghton Mifflin, September); John Updike’s Villages (Knopf, October); Anita Desai’s The Zigzag Way , (Houghton Mifflin, November); and V.S. Naipaul’s Magic Seeds (Knopf Canada, November).
Do You Have a Card?
In the past, BEA was where bookstores placed orders from publishers and publishers made deals for foreign rights. These days, sales are mostly done through visits from sales representatives, while the Frankfurt and London book fairs have long since eclipsed BEA as the place for foreign rights. Which means that BEA is basically an opportunity for New York publishers to travel to another city to network-and get seriously tipsy-with colleagues who work blocks away. Sure, catching the interest of the booksellers is at the top of everyone’s putative agenda, but the real function of BEA is ceremonial. As Daniel Menaker, in his second week with the new title of executive editor in chief of Random House/Ballantine, put it, “It’s like primates gathering around the watering hole.” (The genial, white-bearded Mr. Menaker said he didn’t have a business card. “My parents were Communists,” he said.)
This year, the Random House watering hole was the place to be. Dressed in a smart pantsuit, Gina Centrello, the president and publisher of the Random House Publishing Group, was holding meetings at a conference table. Nearby, Jonathan Karp, the boyish and rising (if not already risen) Random House senior vice president and editor in chief, aggressively introduced passers-by to Robert Kurson, a slightly frightened-looking author whose book, Shadow Divers , is about divers who find a U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. It is expected to do well.
Nearby, a steady stream of booksellers and publishing insiders came by to congratulate Mr. Mehta on the Clinton book. Mr. Wieseltier introduced Mr. Mehta to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who was pushing Bushworld , a collection of her columns on W. and his cohort, which Putnam will publish in August. “I’ve noticed a real vacuum in books criticizing the Bush administration,” the petite Ms. Dowd deadpanned the next day, speaking on a panel about political books with former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile, libertarian pundit P.J. O’Rourke, conservative author Linda Chavez and Ron Suskind, the author of The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill . (On the same panel, Ms. Dowd cooed that Mr. Suskind had once been her copy boy at The Times . “Coffee, light; bagel, schmear,” Mr. Suskind responded, without missing a beat.)
Jon Stewart for Veep!
If the politicians had become authors, the television personalities had begun to take on the import of politicians. At an authors’ breakfast featuring The Daily Show ‘s Jon Stewart on Sunday morning, one audience member drew cheers after asking Mr. Stewart if he’d accept the nomination for Vice President. “In vetting a candidate, we talk about criminal record, drug history, sexual proclivities,” Mr. Stewart answered. “I would not accept.”
The comedian was at BEA to promote his America (the Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction (Warner Books, September.) “It’s a book about nation-building,” Mr. Stewart told the crowd on Saturday night at the jam-packed and slightly surreal party that Warner Books threw him at the kitschy House of Blues club. “If you complete it, you’ll be prepared to build your own nation.”
On the Sunday panel, Mr. Stewart was joined by Mr. Wolfe, whose forthcoming novel I Am Charlotte Simmons concerns itself with the wild world of casual sex on American college campuses, and Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who painted an extremely dark picture of the economic, environmental and political apocalypse brought about by the Bush administration. (For all those who haven’t kept their back issues, Farrar, Straus & Giroux is bringing out a collection of his Vanity Fair editor’s notes in September.)
In Chicago, you can still smoke inside. This must please Mr. Mehta, who on Friday night held court, cigarette in hand, at the stately Standard Club, Chicago’s old traditionally Jewish club, where Knopf fêted 50 years of its Vintage and Anchor paperback imprints with a sit-down dinner. In the cocktail hour, Mr. Mehta’s wife, the novelist Gita Mehta, lounged elegantly on a sofa wearing a pink and purple sari with gold embroidery.
Bushy-bearded diet doctor Andrew Weil mingled, as did Alexander McCall Smith, the author of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency , who had flown in from his home in Edinburgh and was wearing a red plaid kilt and gray tweed jacket and vest. The writer Alice Munro looked very much the grand dame in her black dress with elegant slits on the outside of the sleeves. One guest, a bookstore owner, stood up and proposed a toast to Mr. Mehta. She said she’d been “moved to tears” by Mr. Clinton’s speech. Mr. Mehta in turn thanked his Knopf colleagues. “I just kind of weasel by,” he said.
And then there were the parties, where an upbeat mood was the rule. One blended into the other: On Friday, The New Yorker hosted cocktails and a buffet dinner at a cozy restaurant with exposed brick walls. New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell and his wig-like head of curly hair were there. Little, Brown is aggressively pushing his new book, Blink , about the role of intuition in decision-making, due out in January. Henry Finder, the editorial director of The New Yorker , stood at the bar next to Keith Kelly, the media writer for the New York Post . Nearby, HarperCollins editor Daniel Halpern chatted with his mustachioed HarperCollins colleague David Hirshey, who said he’d be spending the summer editing Seymour Hersh’s book, based on his reporting for The New Yorker on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Terry Gross, the diminutive host of Fresh Air on National Public Radio, was in evidence, as was the novelist Louise Erdrich, who sat somberly in a chair on the edge of the crowded room.
W. W. Norton and Atlas Books threw a late-night party at the shabby-chic Kingston Mines blues club for Rich Cohen’s Machers and Rockers . Sam Tanenhaus, the new editor of The New York Times Book Review , arrived with a backpack slung over his shoulder and three Times ad sales reps in tow. Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, stood nearby, as did Drake McFeely, the president and chairman of Norton, who chatted with Elizabeth Taylor, the Chicago Tribune ‘s literary editor.
On Saturday, news of President Reagan’s death didn’t seem to make a big splash at a cocktail party thrown by The Nation for its literary editor, Adam Shatz. As a young crowd that looked as though it had spent the Reagan era in junior high school ate empanadas and mini coconut cupcakes, the 40th President’s passing barely registered.
BEA’s final frontier is traditionally a raucous party thrown by Publishers Group West, a distributor for independent presses, and this year was no different. After 10 on Saturday night, hundreds of people made their way to the Green Dolphin Street, a restaurant and jazz club with a dark back garden and patio, with stairs leading down to the Chicago River, which glowed brownish orange in the post-industrial light.
David Rosenthal, the bear-like vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster, wandered into the back garden, Heineken in hand, and deferentially greeted an increasingly important player in the industry, Pennie Ianniciello, the book buyer for Costco.
Grove Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin sauntered in with James Atlas and a handful of others. Mr. Atlas, whose memoir on middle age, Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor’s Tale , is due out from HarperCollins next spring, confessed that he’d rented a convertible for his trip to Chicago, his old hometown.
Mr. Entrekin headed straight for the bar, where bad-boy chef/author Anthony Bourdain-dressed all in black, with white sneakers and a gold ring on his right thumb-was talking to Canongate editor Jamie Byng, who shares with Mr. Entrekin a penchant for wearing his hair long and curly. “They’re the Mick Jagger and the Keith Richards of publishing,” Mr. Bourdain told The Observer , as he lit another cigarette.
Well, sure. At BEA this year, publishers could seriously pretend to be rock stars, with former Presidents as the opening act.