Sitting in the emergency room of Roosevelt Hospital last Tuesday, I remember thinking, Librarians are crazy.
I’d just come from the annual AAP-sponsored dinner in their honor, where I’d sat across from two affable pros from DC Public all aglow from the presentations of Cory Doctorow et al. There’s nothing better than BookExpo America for collection management, one declared as an AAP associate handed out swag bags stuffed with the speakers’ titles. Like many other librarians I’d met at the show, she had paid her own way and used vacation days to swing the midweek schedule. It’s worth it, she attested.
I’m glad she got a return on her hard-earned time and cash. Speaking as a ten-year veteran of BEA, I can’t echo the sentiment. I’m just going to come out and say it: I’ve hated the whole enterprise since 2000, when I first attended as an assistant for Library Journal. My naive assumption then was that a small city grew up in an airless, sunless space with inedible food to gather the people who make publishers, agents, editors, writers, press, and librarians jobs possible‚ readers. How confused I was not to witness publicists engaging throngs of the book-buying public or attend an editor-led panel eliciting the opinions of that same demographic. What I saw instead were mysterious transactions taking place over tables stocked with covetable sandwiches and bottled fizzy water, gratis galleys stacked waist-high in little towers guarded with the ferocity of Genghis Khan, Elvis impersonators pointing at their hunks of burning love, and, of course, the odd D-list celebrity (remember Heidi Fleiss and Tom Sizemore?).
The older I got, the less patience I had for the ridiculousness. After the success of the iPod (which signaled the beginning of the ebook era to me) and the first deaths of major newspaper review forums, I didn’t understand how they got away with being so irrelevant. I used to stand in LJ‘s Librarians’ Lounge conjuring Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver: Someday, a real rain will come and wash all this P.T. Barnumism from the aisles‚Ä¶
For better and for worse, you don’t get accosted by The King or spy many book orders being placed anymore. But it would be a mistake to conclude that BEA has adapted to the sea changes in book culture. True: this year’s iteration featured a Digital Book Zone to address the surge in e-media and a DIY Authors Conference to embrace the print-on-demand explosion. But no matter where I was standing in the Javits, I sensed a prickly resistance to reckon with what has always been true: that publishing has never been about Us, the supposed tastemakers, gatekeepers, purse-string holders, critics, and consultants. We’ve never held the power‚ we just got too good at making self-delusion our business.
BEA 2010’s packed-to-the-walls panel on The Next Decade in Book Culture (video here) lent credence to my inkling. This forum sponsored by the National Book Critics Circle, an organization I respect deeply, should’ve minted a fresh publishing manifesto that pointed back to readers‚ who they are, what they want, how they fragment and cluster‚ but it devolved instead into How To Get Published 101, with some of the panelists holding forth on how not to bother them (very 1999, comrades). Add to that the missed opportunities for publishers, librarians, and vendors to discuss a sustainable e-book model and the nasty case of hives that sent me to Roosevelt Hospital, and you’ve got a below-average conference experience. (I was allergic to my dress, not BEA, as it turns out.)
Still, there is a light. After every BEA, I drag my jaded ass home in awe of the intimacy collection development and reader’s advisory librarians foster with their patrons. The way they work the show is a thing of beauty, hustling for just-the-right books for just-the-right readers, gleaning and sparking word of mouth‚ the magic of publishing‚ like some kind of Tolkien faeries. Wherever you are, you move me with your passion, good will, good humor, and maddening insistence to keep caring about a trade show that has overlooked your genius for decades.
(For more coverage of BEA 2010, see the June 3 edition of BookSmack!)