Out in front of a shimmery glass box located so far west on 34th Street that it’s practically in New Jersey, people in spectacles and comfortable shoes roamed along 12th Avenue, attempting to hail cabs by waving bulging tote bags.
Another BookExpo America was underway.
The consensus on the annual three-day publishing and booksellers’ convention, which alternates cities like a traveling circus, was that there was no consensus-no standout theme, Bill Clinton memoir or looming election. The whole affair was a blur of cheap wine, mini empanadas and free books, punctuated by the odd wannabe author cruising the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center with a toilet seat around his neck. The fact that the expo took place in New York, as opposed to Chicago or Los Angeles, only lent a certain world-weariness to the proceedings.
“I have a wonderful time seeing all of my friends,” said Grove/Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin, who walked the floor and stopped by several B.E.A.-related parties, including Grove’s own dinner on Friday night, a New Republic cocktail gathering, and fêtes staged by The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books. “Somehow, when we go to Chicago or wherever else, it’s kind of like an outing, a full immersion, and you’re all at the hotels together all the time. It’s even more overwhelming in New York, because you think that you’re still running your business and doing your regular life.”
“That’s part of the complication. It’s almost as if you’re commuting over there, and it’s a somewhat inaccessible part of town,” said Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, who was glimpsed at several cocktail parties toting a large backpack. “It’s not so bad for The Times; we’re on the West Side here, too. Although I found, when I walked over, it’s quite a maze.
“I ask the publishers not to pile the galleys on while I’m there,” Mr. Tanenhaus added. “They all come [to our office], and I know galleys are expensive.”
Several galleys were in high demand, including copies of upcoming E.L. Doctorow, Bret Easton Ellis and Candace Bushnell novels; the Kim Cattrall sex book; and a much talked-about memoir called The Tender Bar, by a journalist named J.R. Moehringer, about growing up in a bar.
But Mr. Tanenhaus was apparently in the minority in his desire to be discriminating.
Upon stumbling into the Javits Center’s teeming foyer, the most striking image was of the greedy swag-grabber species that has long populated B.E.A. and seems under no threat of extinction. Everywhere one turned, meaty white hands were grasping at piles of galleys, racks of canvas tote bags, bowls of Jolly Ranchers and ceramic letter-openers. No trinket was too useless and no book too obscure to elude the interest of many attendees, some of whom had brought wheeled suitcases and carts in order to haul their loot. (The atmosphere was nearly as charged as a sample sale at Kleinfeld.) Foot traffic through the padded aisles of the convention center ground to a near halt as those dragging entire libraries lumbered slowly from freebie to freebie.
The author parades did little to expedite traffic. There was the obligatory Paul Auster sighting, while competing Bushnell/Cattrall book signings nearly caused a stampede in the Hyperion and Warner domains. A line of people snaked down the aisles, waiting for a glimpse of the (reported) $2 million woman, Elizabeth Kostova, whose novel The Historian has been compared to The Da Vinci Code and who looks like a cross between J.K. Rowling and Caroline Kennedy.
For those who hadn’t hightailed it to the Theory sample sale down the street (which probably accounted for the absence of many New York–based publishing types), a different sort of escape beckoned in the form of moist, mind-altering chocolate cakes. It was rumored that Quick American-the publishing force responsible for titles like The Big Book of Buds and Marijuana Law: Don’t Get Busted as well as Cannabis Culture magazine, a competitor to High Times-would be passing out hundreds of “funky” brownies to convention-goers (although according to the rumor, attendees who looked like “narcs” would be getting plain old flour brownies).
When The Observer rushed over to booth No. 2857, the lovely brown-eyed girl manning the table said that all of the goodies had already been distributed for the day, and that they were in fact “normal” brownies as opposed to special ones.
“We gave out tons of them,” said the woman, giggling, “and almost everyone asked if they were O.K. before eating them.”
(A publisher at a nearby booth said that earlier in the day, conference organizers had become alarmed and had a little talk with booth No. 2857.)
There were other opportunities for oblivion, including plenty of parties-several per night, in which publishing folk piled into snooty Chelsea and meatpacking district lounges and clubs. At the lively Bookforum party, held at Opus 22 in West Chelsea, gallerinas wandered over from the Goya opening across the street.
Some publishers also learned that having a strict invitation policy can be a little too effective.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, for one, rented the vast upstairs North Cabana at the Maritime Hotel for a party for Michael Cunningham’s new book, Specimen Days, on Thursday night. Clearly anticipating a mob scene, F.S.G. checked and double-checked the RSVP’s, and decisions over plus-ones were deliberated in advance. For much of the evening, the space was barely filled up; most of the people who were there crammed themselves on the outdoor catwalk to smoke. Mr. Cunningham was photographed dancing with Jonathan Franzen to the thumping D.J. Johnnie Darnell (Mr. Cunningham’s selection), as women in paisley sarongs circulated the room with trays of chicken skewers.
All of which pointed to another observation made by several B.E.A. attendees: that famously tight-fisted F.S.G. seems to be spending a few bucks all of a sudden. In addition to its party budget, Farrar, Straus and Giroux was handing out an “Advance Reader’s Excerpt” of George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate, essentially a mini-book printed on creamy paper stock with the texture of silk-a hint at the flood of Iraq war books wending their way through the publication pipeline.
“It’s certainly true that this is the first party we’ve given at Book Expo in quite a while,” said Jeff Seroy, F.S.G.’s director of marketing. “It’s not like I’ve struck oil over here and suddenly have a whole other fortune to disperse. If we are spending more on marketing, it’s an evolution, not a revolution.”
Also buried in the nether regions of the cavernous Javits Center was an upcoming roman à clef by Justine Lévy, the daughter of the French superstar intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy. Ms. Lévy’s novel is a huge hit in France, and according to Dennis Loy Johnson, her American publisher at Melville House, her book briefly knocked The Da Vinci Code off the French best-seller list. In it, she offers a thinly veiled account of her life with her celebrity father, and of the breakup of her marriage after model-turned-songstress Carla Bruni ran off with her husband. Mr. Johnson described the book as “dark and searing.”
Random House was also distributing copies of Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel, a debut novel due in September, which seems to represent the house’s bid for its own Jonathan Safran Foer–type young male writer. In addition to handing out copes of the book at B.E.A., Random House has been dabbling in some unconventional marketing ploys. Next week, it will hold the first of several cocktail parties for young book clerks (who, they felt, “encompassed the spirit or feeling of the book” and could identify with its angsty young protagonist, according to Random House’s director of marketing), the first of which is at Piano’s on the Lower East Side.
And then there are the lunches. Dwight Garner of the New York Times Book Review, Jonathan Sabin from Details, Mickey Rapkin from GQ and Peter Terzian from Newsday, among others, have been invited to eat one-on-one (sort of, since his publicist will be sitting in) with Mr. Kunkel, at any restaurant of the editor’s choosing (the invitation claims that Mr. Kunkel is too “indecisive” to decide). So far, Mr. Sabin and Mr. Kunkel have dined at the steakhouse Smith and Wollensky, and Mr. Rapkin and Mr. Kunkel met at Osteria del Circo near Times Square-all on Random House’s tab. (Take note, Byron Calame!)
Meanwhile, down below the book-grabbing and author-promoting, in the airless basement of the Javits Center, several panel discussions took place. One of them was called “Generation Next: The New Hybrid Young Editor” (otherwise known as “Fear and Loathing in the Publishing Industry.”) The news editor of Publishers Weekly, Steven Zeitchik, chaired the discussion among a group of editors: Liz Nagle of Little, Brown; Chris Jackson of Crown; Lorin Stein of Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Kate Travers of Houghton Mifflin; and Gillian Blake of Bloomsbury. These new “young hybrid editors”-a title that ostensibly suggests a successful compromise of some sort-each bore hangdog faces and tones of gloom, save for the upbeat Mr. Jackson, editor of Angry Black White Boy. The others lamented the fact that few people read any more and commiserated over how unlikely it was that any of them would discover the next Kite Runner (a huge surprise best-seller this past year.)
The sinewy, blond Ms. Blake, who declared herself early on as “a huge pessimist” on the future of reading in general, told how she once planted herself inside Penn Station during rush hour to hand out postcards promoting Robert Sullivan’s book about the New Jersey Meadowlands. Ms. Travers made an impassioned plea for the future of reading, her voice quavering. Ms. Blake suggested that paperbacks might be an option if only agents would cut publishers some slack and “sell us a novel for $20,000.”
Mr. Stein and one of the other editors discovered they were working on similar-sounding books about the cultural significance of messiness and disorganization. Meanwhile, the room was so crowded that booksellers and writers, loot bags in tow, writhed along the floor to find space to sit between the rows of chairs.
“If the business doesn’t get less corporate and become nicer, then we’ll need to find ways to make not very much profit on books,” said Mr. Stein glumly. “We need to publish books that we’ll be proud of when we’re old and fired.”