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A Belated and Brief BEA Debriefing

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Buzz Poole, the managing editor of Mark Batty Publisher, has written for the likes of The Believer, PRINT, Village Voice and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also the author of Madonna of the Toast, a look at the cultural ramifications of unexpected religious and secular icons. Keep up with his adventures in surprising iconography at his Madonna of the Toast blog.In light of the many detailed and more timely reports from this year’s Book Expo America, this is not so much about BEA, but about how the setting of this year’s American publishing-industry high holiday really defined BEA 2008. Unlike the other two events of that paper and ink (and more recently pixilated) trinity – Frankfurt and London – this event ventures out from New York from time to time, and this year it tucked itself into downtown Los Angeles – not quite as sexy as American Apparel would lead you to believe, though it is not difficult to interpret those ads as remnants of lascivious thoughts burped up by Charles Bukowski as he leered at a waitress in some cafeteria in this very same downtown. You can imagine how the fact that I stayed in the Stillwell Hotel, a place right out of a Bukowski book (except this hotel reeked like curry) would skew how I was taking in the days. Like all great cities, Los Angeles has a feel that is unmistakable and, for better or worse, wholly its own.That je ne sais quoi struck me on the flight, in fact. The woman sitting next to me, a relationship expert and author, barraged me with her war stories, from her first publishing gig working at Grove Press, fielding phone calls from Sam Beckett (who was asking where his money was) to schooling me about how you know when a television interview has gone well (hers went well on “Oprah”, but not so well on “The Today Show”). And so it began.I arrived on Thursday. A blue-haired resident paying her rent, in cash, delayed my check-in to the Stillwell. Once she counted that $400 out – it took her so long that I worried about her several bags of frozen dinners thawing – I ditched my stuff and was back on the streets. Sunset portioned downtown into stark blocks of shadows and light as I noticed droves of people – young and old, of all ethnicities – snaking into a hotel. I assumed a publishing event, but I was wrong. A toothy, plastic-looking woman informed me that it was a “creating happiness seminar.” This notion alone made me pretty happy, so I decided not to attend.After a busy day of meetings on Friday, I kept away from industry parties that night, opting to hang out with an old friend of mine in Santa Monica, but even there the star-studded grip of publishing choked me. Someone I met works for a talent agency and this guy is a celebrity handler, and had been hanging with Slash the night before, who just so happens to have a book out. I know, because I had seen Slash earlier that day, smaller than I would have thought, but wearing his trademark top hat as he signed books. If you’re not a celebrity in LA, it always seems like you’re only one conversation away from talking about a celebrity.All three days drew people in search of free tote bags and celebrity autographs, but once all of the initial business was done – the true purpose of BEA, the selling of books, foreign rights and film rights, which mostly happened on Friday – things seemed subdued. As Saturday got underway, everyone was talking about how attendance was down. Not only was day one public attendance down by thousands compared to previous years, but everyone was joking about all of the agents, editors and publishers that did not bother making the trip from New York, let alone Europe.And so we were all there, spending the days under artificial lights, nursing hangovers and figuring out where to head at 5pm for some hair of the dog. The big houses threw lavish parties, like Simon & Shuster’s late-night star-studded Prince concert, which happened at his abode. The Consortium/Foreword Party at Hotel Figueroa, peppered with celebrities of the indie publishing realm, also exuded that “only in LA” vibe, what with all of us standing around a pool, blinded by the sun. Yes, we were all in Los Angeles, and most of us seemed ready to be back home, especially once the open bars ended.Some other random BEA observations:Leonard Nimoy has spent lots of time photographing obese nude women (Lucien Freud would approve): check out his The Full Body Project.I, like many others, made it a point to get an advance of Robert Bolano’s 2666, one of BEA’s big stories.Bill Daniel’s Mostly True: The Story of Bozo Texino (Microcosm Publishing, distributed by AK Press) and Over and Over (Princeton Architectural Press) represent the two best trades I made over the weekend.Beyond any logical explanation, BEA did include a teeth-whitening booth (right in the mix close to scores of children’s book publishers, as well as Continuum and McSweeney’s). A session cost $99, and the few times I made it a point to go and gawk, there were always at least three people getting treated, their mouths painted a strange electric cobalt.I’ve never seen such a booth at BEA before, but it struck me, like most everything else about the weekend, as emblematic of where I was, something about the authenticity of the superficiality. There are lots of us that rely on these trade shows to pay our bills – if sales people don’t sell titles, bookstores would be empty and publishers would fold; writers, editors, designers, illustrators, proofreaders and indexers wouldn’t get paid; agents and publicists wouldn’t have clients; critics and academics would have to… I don’t know what they would do.Don’t get me wrong: I am one of these people. And when you get a bunch of us together – anywhere in the world – there can be some good times, because one way or another we’re all in it for the books. For three days last week, there was an enormous cache of books stored in the Los Angeles Convention Center, yet there was a sense that this year the books mattered less, while being seen was the imperative, for those who bothered to show up. For those of us that did make the trip, what really seemed to come to light were the differences between the independent presses fighting like hell to remind everyone that they exist and the big-money houses that spend more money promoting books than it costs to produce them. Of course, this happens when BEA is in New York (and it happens in Frankfurt and London), but LA really seemed to exert itself. Maybe it was just me. I guess between all of the happiness and teeth whitening, however, there were plenty of folks with nice smiles.

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