Can’t say they didn’t try to warn me. When I told my agent I was planning to attend a book fair for the first time in my life, this year’s Book Expo America in New York, she said, “I avoid it like the plague. It’s basically a lot of people — primarily made up of aspiring writers — scrambling for free books. The London Book Fair is far more professional and focused. Everyone’s there trying to conduct business, as opposed to trying to score a free carry-all from a publisher to fill with free books. BEA really is a madhouse.”
Fellow writers sounded similar alarms. Don’t go, several advised, because it will swallow you whole — so many books, so many people, so many writers (more than 600 this year). You’ll despair, these writers warned. You’ll come away convinced that no book of yours could ever possibly cut through such a typhoon of clutter. One writer told me that going to BEA is an especially bad idea if you’re in my current delicate condition: author of a novel that’s making the rounds of publishers.
But I like to think that, even as the years pile up, I’m still willing to try anything once. Especially if I can score a free pass. Which I did. Which explains why I found myself elbowing my way through the mob at the Jacob Javits Center on Thursday morning, desperately seeking Snooki.
By the time I found her in the Perseus Books zone, the former star of Jersey Shore was well on her way to a major case of writer’s cramp. Fans snaked the length of the display area, then around the corner and out of sight. They were waiting for Snooki, nee Nicole Polizzi, to autograph something that is not, technically, even a book. It’s a pamphlet containing the table of contents and a five-page introduction to Baby Bumps: From Party Girl to Proud Mama, and All the Messy Milestones Along the Way, a book about Snooki’s recent pregnancy that will be published next January. Dressed in a short short dress and high high heels, her arms draped with pearls, her skin as smooth and brown as warm caramel, Snooki signed as fast as she knew how, exchanging pleasantries and patiently posing for pictures with every fan. A real pro.
Standing nearby was a guy in a sportcoat who looked more Princeton than Jersey Shore. This was Scott Miller, Snooki’s agent, who has sold all four of her books — two novels and now two non-fiction books. He waved at the throng. “It’s great to see so many people interested in books,” Miller said. “This is crazy but it’s not Comic Con, where people wear costumes. I haven’t seen any Hemingways here. Yet.”
“How’s business?” I asked.
“Everyone says the book business is dying,” Miller replied. “But books are still selling and there are new ways to sell them. Every business has challenges, but print books are stabilizing. I’m happy.”
He has a point, I thought. This might be a madhouse, but would the alternative be better — this vast airplane hangar of a building with nobody in it? Imagine if they threw a book fair and nobody came. Now that would get the doomsayers lathered up.
Her signing duties done, Snooki paused to reflect on the relative difficulty of writing fiction versus non-fiction. “Making up things in your head is hard,” she said. “Writing Confessions of a Guidette was easy. But this book, Baby Bumps, was the easiest because I’m telling stories that actually happened. This is not a how-to book about pregnancy, like What To Expect When You’re Expecting. That’s a great book, but it has no humor. I need relatable stories with a sense of humor.”
Point taken. What to Expect must be doing something right — it has been on The New York Times bestseller list roughly since the invention of bread — but it can’t touch lines like this from Baby Bumps: “My pregnancy began with the thought, ‘Holy shit! My egg hatched!'” Or: “Since my ‘eggs hatched!’ moment, my life has changed 180 degrees — all for the better. I’m a different person now. I love who I’ve become…I’m sure people who think of me as a wasted smurf on Jersey Shore might find it hard to believe that, these days, the only bottles I care about are full of formula or milk. I’d rather go to the gym than a club. The only men who see my boobs are my fiance and my son.”
Determined to shift gears, I made my way for the stage where Pulitzer Prize-winner A. Scott Berg was getting ready to speak about his forthcoming biography of Woodrow Wilson. On the way I spotted a bunch of brand-name authors signing their books, including Allan Gurganus, Jonathan Lethem, and Daniel Handler, d.b.a. Lemony Snicket. The major autograph area had dividers that funneled the fans to the long tables where authors autographed books by the metric ton. The vast autograph area brought to mind the cattle pens in a Midwestern feed lot. Indeed, many of the people waiting in line looked like beasts of burden, draped with bulging bags of swag and hankering for more. My agent wasn’t lying.
The turnout for A. Scott Berg’s talk was modest, more like a graduate seminar than a cattle roundup. “The real reason why I devoted 13 years of my life to Woodrow Wilson is that it’s a story filled with tragedy, romance, and compassion — unlike anyone else who has ever lived in the White House. A personal story is what I tried to capture — Woodrow Wilson the man. I wanted to humanize this guy.”
And I wanted to get out of there. It hadn’t been the soul-crushing experience I’d been warned about, but enough is enough. Just before I reached the exit, I was stunned by the sight of four slabs of beefcake flexing their muscles as cameras clicked and book lovers gaped. Had I been teleported to a male stripper convention in Vegas? No, these guys were the frontmen for Ellora’s Cave, publisher of “erotic romance” books that made $30,000 a dozen years ago and now grosses upwards of $15 million a year.
Why is the company so successful?
“Because sex sells,” said Patty Marks, the CEO, as though I must be one dim bulb. “Another reason is technology. Traditional publishers said women wouldn’t read this stuff. And let’s face it, most women are less comfortable with going into a drugstore and buying a copy of Playgirl than men are with buying a copy of Playboy. But with e-books, no one knows what you’re reading. And our books are not just erotica — they’re erotic romance. Sex has to be part of the plot, but so does romance. And just like romance novels, the books have to have a happily-ever-after or a happy-for-now ending.”
Ellora’s Cave is now paying royalties to more than 800 authors who have put out more than 5,000 books, with titles that pull no punches, including Nailed and Buck Naked and Top or Bottom? One of the company’s most visible authors is Desiree Holt, a 76-year-old grandmother known as “the porn queen of Texas hill country.”
So it turns out that Scott Miller, Snooki’s agent, was right. The book business isn’t dying. Books are still selling and people are finding new ways to sell them. I asked the four slabs of beefcake to flex for my camera. They happily complied. They understand that sex sells. Amen. I was out of there, a virgin no more.