BEA: Dispatches from LA

June 2, 2008 | 9 books mentioned 5 5 min read

All over Book Expo America, the country’s largest book industry trade show, were signs of the major trends in publishing and bookselling. Environmentalism was the order of the day, and everywhere I went there were signs of the industry “going green.” At the American Booksellers Association’s annual Day of Education, Ed Begley Jr. gave the keynote address on how he’s shaped his and his family’s life around notions of conservation, and how independent businesses, particularly indie bookstores, carry on the rich tradition of independent thinking in America. Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, followed this with a luncheon address that stressed the independent bookselling community’s importance as a bastion of intellectual and political freedom. This set the stage nicely for ABA’s major new initiative.

Hours later, the ABA made the long-awaited announcement that Book Sense is no more. It has been replaced by IndieBound, a hipper, younger brand that will attempt to involve independent businesses of every ilk – from independent bookstores to independent dry cleaners to… well, you get the point. I think most everyone would agree that Book Sense had served its purpose and needed reinvigoration. Whereas Book Sense hoped to present a unified front of indies in the face of competition from Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon, IndieBound represents an effort to return to the idea of the neighborhood bookstore and the importance of shopping locally. While the initiative definitely has its share of skeptics (I don’t particularly see how it will help bookstores compete in the online marketplace), it is an infinitely better brand than Book Sense. If the locavore movement can gain traction, maybe this can, as well.

Having BEA in LA was something of a mixed blessing. While it was nice to sleep in my own bed at the end of the night, the stress of everyday life added to the stress of being in 24/7 mingle mode can be a bit much. I did my best to partake of the many parties around town, but eventually I ran out of gas. Edan made it to the Skylight Bookstore party, where she ran into Pinky, some cool people from McNally Robinson in NYC (including Jessica from the Written Nerd), Kelly Link and the folks from Small Beer Press. While she was mixing it up there, I went to the Disney Books dinner at Patina. The guest list included some of the major authors in children’s and young adult books today: Eoin Colfer, Jonathan Stroud, Kevin Carroll, Ann M. Martin and Brian Selznick, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, Dave Berry and Ridley Pearson, Rick Riordan, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. At first, I was profoundly uncomfortable, as I seemed to be the only person in the room who didn’t have strong opinions on every kids’ book published in the last five years, but after a while (and, let’s face it, a few drinks) I felt more and more at ease. You might think a kids’ book dinner thrown by Disney would be tame. You would be wrong. I didn’t go to every dinner at BEA, but I feel safe in saying this was among the raunchiest. Robert Kennedy told a joke about sexual congress between a leprechaun and a penguin. ‘Nuff said. I laughed throughout dinner and learned a pretty good amount about the authors as well. The evening ended with me convincing a group of booksellers that it would be a good idea to forgo a cab and take the metro to their hotel. The metro only runs until midnight here in LA, and I was warned several times that if we missed the train and ended up stranded in scenic downtown LA, then I would have sold my last book, so to speak. Thankfully for me, we caught the last train out of downtown and everybody lived to see the trade show the next day.

The BEA trade show floor, like most large conferences, can be overwhelming without a plan. Mine was fairly simple – spend Friday in panels and meetings, visiting a couple of priority booths in my spare time, then use Saturday (and Sunday, if absolutely necessary) to see the rest of the show. After attending a meeting on the future of the IndieBound webstore, I ducked in to hear Thomas Friedman’s keynote address. He read from his forthcoming book Hot, Flat, and Crowded. While I waited for him to take the stage, I chatted with my neighbor about a Thursday panel I had missed about the future of the e-book. She told me I hadn’t missed much, but that Adobe, Palm, Microsoft, and the others had finally agreed on a single format, making it much easier to compete with the Amazon. Friedman’s address focused again on environmentalism and America’s need to lead the way to finding clean, sustainable sources of energy.

After a day of meetings, planned or otherwise (I ran into Nam Le and did a bit of catching up) and a couple of cocktail parties (drinks with Alec Baldwin in support of his book about divorce (Stephen Baldwin was there!), followed by the Ecco Press/Book Soup party at Palihouse, where I drank a sickly sweet champaign cocktail), I was back at BEA early Saturday morning to hit the booths. I put in appearance at McSweeney’s, which was easily the least conspicuous booth there. Just Eli Horowitz and Andrew Leland sitting behind a card table. I made the rounds of the major publishers, guided for a brief bit by Mark Sarvas, who happened to be walking the floor with Jim Ruland of Vermin on the Mount. We hit the Grey Wolf Press booth, where I picked up a copy of a new story collection by Jeffrey Renard Allen called Holding Pattern.

Rather than laboriously describe each booth and every galley I got (I got too many), I’ll just touch on the highlights. It seemed I had something nice to say about every book that Da Capo brought with them – I had positively reviewed Des Wilson’s Ghosts at the Table for Publishers Weekly, I had been a long-time vocal advocate of Toby Young’s How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, and I’ve been dying to read David Browne’s biography of Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th Century, of which I snagged a copy. I had a great time talking to Gavin and Jedediah at Small Beer Press, and walked away with a copy of John Kessel’s The Baum Plan for Financial Independence. Early on Thursday morning, I’d run into Amy and Janet, two women from Athens, GA who are opening a bookstore there called Avid. They introduced me to Eric and Eliza Jane from Two Dollar Radio, a really cool small press publishing bold, innovative fiction by Rudolph Wurlitzer, Amy Koppelman, and others. I did my usual bit of groveling at the feet of the New York Review of Books, where I thanked them for introducing me to J.F. Powers. They were sweethearts and gave me a pin. At the Tin House booth, I talked up Jim Krusoe’s upcoming event at Vroman’s, which resulted in me snagging a couple of books, including Krusoe’s new Girl Factory and a novel by Adam Braver called November 22, 1963. And finally, as the day wore on and my feet swelled to twice their original size, I spotted somebody in the FSG booth pulling ARCs of Robert Bolano’s 2666 out of a box. I grabbed one. It’s 912 pages long, weighs several pounds, and looks better than 90% of the paperbacks published this year.

On Saturday night, I slept.

For a complete rundown of BEA from the bookseller’s perspective, check out the Vroman’s Bookstore blog.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Patrick has worked in the book business for over seven years, including a two-year stint as the webmaster and blogger for Vroman's Bookstore. He is currently the Community Manager for Goodreads.com. He's written book reviews for Publishers Weekly, and he's spoken about books and the internet at the LA Times Festival of Books, the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association spring meetings, and the 140 Characters Conference. He writes the sporadically entertaining Tumblr blog The Feeling.

5 comments:

  1. ARC = Advance Review Copy. These are the early copies that publishers send out to reviewers so that the reviewers have time to read and review them before the book comes out. In the case of BEA and when dealing with bookstores in general, the ARCs tend to be used more like promotional freebies to drum up interest among booksellers.

  2. Hi Patrick,

    I found your site out of concern for small bookstores. There's one near my house that's about as lively as a used paper bag. I wonder what strategies book stores can employ to strengthen their chances for survival and, looking a booksense turned indiebound website after reading your article, I have to say it appears indiebound is not taking advantage of all the tactics out there. For example, amazon.com grew massively in part because it had a strong community, with good moderators, and the ranking and posting system. But Indiebound doesn't appear to have a community feature at all. It has "specialty picks", one of which is a new york times best seller; Now why would the face of small book stores in America pick a book anyone could get at the nearest barnes and noble's? It shouldn't; the pick is at cross purposes with the need to increase demand for unusual, neglected books–akin to what netflix has done for movies–and unique books are what small book stores as an aggregate have in common! Plus, the site's unwieldy and hard to navigate. I tell you this because you seem to have some connections with the people who are behind indiebound. What do you think of their site?

    If I were a small book store owner (thank god I'm not!) I would immediately ask indiemedia to host a forum where book sellers and book owners can discuss books, the industry, everything in between; (organizing can't end when the meetings do!) and begin another business in which I hire small bookstore owners to police and edit articles about the books they have in their store for a website similar to wikipedia. It always seems that the owners are waiting around for a customer after spending about 10 seconds answering the only one they've had that day.

    Or I may look into partnering with other book store owners in my town to buy a large space where we all house are books in the same large store, and figure out a profit sharing system; kind of defeats the "neigborhood" idea, but pooled resources may help lease a more lucrative property, and turn the place into a happening spot. I'm just throwing out ideas, because I can't find any discussion section at booksense.com

    Curious about what you would do as a small book store owner,

    –Matthew Laufe Scheer

    My site: http://www.threekeywords.com

  3. Matthew,

    Wow, if that isn't a record for the longest comment on The Millions, it's got to be close. Thanks for your interest and concern for indies. I wanted to say right off that the Indiebound site just launched and is only the tip of what they're planning to do. Also, those kind of Web 2.0 experiences that you praise Amazon for are coming to websites like ours (Vroman's) in the very near future. Will we suddenly start out-selling Amazon online? No, but we might offer some things that Amazon can't. Wait and see. Also, I wanted to clarify that I'm not a bookstore owner, merely and employee and a webmaster. I have, however, worked at three independent bookstores, all of whom are successful and thriving, and each of which has its own unique character and style. What are these stores doing to succeed?

    Firstly, I'd say they realize that hosting innovative events, events that go beyond "author X reads then takes questions then signs." Say what you will about James Frey, but the event that we (Vroman's) partnered with Book Soup to put on is exactly the kind of innovative event programming that Barnes & Noble or Borders aren't providing.

    Secondly, I'll say that a bookstore is only as good as its employees. If they don't have great buyers, great marketers (yes, independent bookstores are business and do have to practice marketing to survive), great booksellers, they aren't going to be around for very long. Obviously, we can't compete with the chains or Amazon on price, so we have to compete in other ways. The best way to do this is to offer a superior shopping experience through service and knowledge. It sounds like your local independent store doesn't provide that, which is too bad.

    I hear a lot of people say that they'd like to shop locally – not just for books – but that their local store doesn't meet their needs. Then don't shop there! Nobody should be asking you to shop at their store out of pity or charity or a sense of civic pride. You should want to shop there because you simply can't get that experience elsewhere. Tell the store you were complaining about that they're failing you. They will likely change. If they don't, forget about em. There are a lot of compelling reasons – economical, environmental, etc. – to shop at a local business versus a national chain or a website. The money stays in your local community, lower levels of fuel consumption, preserving the unique character of the place you live, etc. I think the one thing IndieBound is doing right is that they aren't resting on the notion that you should shop local out of charity or because you feel sorry for the local businesses. I'm not here to shill for IndieBound, but I think they're right to focus on why shopping at a local, independently owned business is better for you, your community, and the earth than shopping at a chain. It's a matter of emphasizing our strengths rather than attempting to replicate the experience of an Amazon.com user.

    Anyway, if you can't find a local indie to shop with, consider using Powells.com. They support local businesses in the Portland area, they are family-owned, and they share ideas with other indies.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and I hope you got something out of my inane ramblings.

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