Publishers bring to BookExpo America the books they most want to promote, but attendees always have their favorites. To the prevailing question, What were the big books at BEA?, here are some answers. First, it’s no surprise that in-demand titles included MacArthur Fellow Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a reenvisioning of slavery in America; NYPL Young Lion/Granta Best of Young American Novelists/New Yorker 20 Under 40 Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, a novel about family and hard choices; and titles by Pulitzer Prize winners Robert Olen Butler and Richard Russo (the war-shaped Perfume River and Everybody’s Fool, about facing mortality, respectively).
Titles from notable best-selling authors range from Terry Macmillan’s hopeful I Almost Forgot About You and Liane Moriarty’s edgy-weekend Truly Madly Guilty to Justin Cronin’s trilogy wrap-up, The City of Mirrors: The Passage, Bk. 3, Jodi Picoult’s heartrending Small Great Things, and Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, set in World War II Britain. The latest from astute and popular cultural chroniclers Jay McInerney (Bright Precious Days), Ann Hood (The Book That Matters Most), and Alice Hoffman (Faithful) stood out. Also big: Fredrik Backman’s Britt-Marie Was Here, a No. 1 LibraryReads Pick, and works from cult-favorite authors Alan Moore (Jerusalem, a visionary epic) and Winston Groom (El Paso).
What’s striking about these heavy hitters is that even the most popularly written among them are often serious and ambitious in theme. Picoult’s Small Great Things deals with racism, Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven with the impact of war on the home front, Backman’s Britt-Marie Was Here in part with economic depression, and Groom’s El Paso with war along the Mexican-American border a century ago, echoing border issues today. Other themes emerge from BEA’s most popular titles.
Though women’s fiction authors McMillan, Moriarty, and Picoult proved durable, as did YA author Gayle Forman in her adult debut, Leave Me, the mystery and thriller categories had the edge in genre fiction. Louise Penny’s A Great Reckoning, next in the series starring Chief Inspector Gamache, former Chief of Homicide for the Sûreté du Québec; William Brodrick’s The Discourtesy of Death, a new Father Anselm mystery; and Thomas Mullen’s Darktown, a 1948-set thriller featuring the first African American officers in the Atlanta Police Department all got snapped up quickly. Patrick Hoffman’s Every Man a Menace, about international drug trafficking, and Blake Crouch’s sf thriller Dark Matter also got attention.
Attendees seemed to like their debuts icy as well. Among the show’s most popular titles from newbie authors were B.A. Paris’s Behind Closed Doors, about a couple that only seems perfect; Emma Flint’s Little Deaths, whose antiheroine is accused of murdering her children; Hollie Overton’s Baby Doll, about a young woman’s escape from long confinement by a kidnapper; physician David Casarett’s Thailand-set Murder at the House of Rooster Happiness; and Anna Snoekstra’s Only Daughter, whose heroine puts herself in danger when she pretends to be a family’s long-missing daughter.
Other popular debuts proved more topical. Affinity Konar’s Mischling deals chillingly with twins at Auschwitz, Meg Little Reilly’s We Are Unprepared shows a marriage and a community upended by a climate change–induced megastorm; Marie Benedict’s The Other Einstein portrays Einstein’s brilliant but suppressed physicist wife; and Brit Bennett’s The Mothers limns the consequences of shattered young love in an African American community. Bennett’s book was the one in-demand title at the Penguin Random House booth whose author was not signing, which says something. Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, literary fiction that could also be classed suspense, features a young outsider aware that her babysitting charge may be in danger from his own family.
Interestingly, much of the literary fiction that caught attendees’ eyes is historical. Jonathan Rabb’s Among the Living portrays a Holocaust survivor’s choices in postwar Savannah, GA, and Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow a Russian aristocrat under house arrest at the Metropol Hotel in postrevolution Moscow. Short story master George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo uses a mystical touch to explore the death of the president’s son; Robert Hicks’s The Orphan Master features a former slave, now a midwife, seeking justice for her murdered son; and Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko follows complicated family fortunes through four generations.
Whether LJ‘s Day of Dialog featured fiction authors destined to be big or gave those authors an extra push is impossible to surmise, but in-demand fiction authors Bennett, Butler, Cronin, Foer, Foreman, McInerney, Moriarty, and Whitehead all appeared in person at the event or were highlighted on the editors’ picks panel. In fact, the galleys for Moriarty’s Truly Madly Guilty, an editors’ pick title, were available only at Day of Dialog. Nonfiction Day of Dialog authors fared well, too.
Editors’ picks titles that went on to fortune on the show floor included John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis’s The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat, John Simpson’s The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary, and Stephon Alexander’s The Jazz of Physics. Big titles from featured Day of Dialog authors included Gary Younge’s Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives, Eugenia Cheng’s How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics, and Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, whose three creators, Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton, were all present. Craig Carlson’s Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France, not featured on any Day of Dialog panels but available at Day of Dialog from the publisher, also proved a big hit at the show.
Indeed, author/title visibility made a difference. Many of the sought-after show titles were also BEA Editors’ Buzz Books, and Thames & Hudson did especially well with two titles, Laurie Wilson’s Louise Nevelson: Light & Shadow and David Thomson’s Television: A Biography, that were highlighted in LJ’s BEA Galley & Signing Guide and in a story on the publisher featured in Publishers Weekly‘s Show Daily.
Hot nonfiction titles with a historical bent included Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Haunted Life; Patrick Phillips’s Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America; Adam White and Barney Ales’s Motown: The Sound of Young America, billed as the official visual history; and Beth Macy’s Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest; a True Story of the Jim Crow South.
Hot lifestyle titles included Jennifer McCartney’s The Joy of Leaving Your Sh*t All Over the Place: The Art of Being Messy, Kate McDermott’s The Art of the Pie, Vern Yip’s Design Wise: Your Smart Guide to a Beautiful Home, and, a sleeper hit, Paint by Sticker, which allows you to re-create 12 artistic masterpieces one sticker at a time. Also among the popular nonfiction titles were Evan Cuttic and Ryan Nalls’s Rene-Charles: NYC: Little Bulldog in the Big City; Ian Brown’s Sixty, a memoir on aging; and Nicholas Martin and Jasper Rees’s Florence Foster Jenkins: The Inspiring True Story of the World’s Worst Singer, the basis of a forthcoming film starring Meryl Streep.
Current events titles did especially well. In-demand works included Julissa Arce’s My Underground American Dream: My True Story as an Undocumented Immigrant Who Became a Wall Street Executive, Mychal Denzel Smith’s Invisible Man Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education, Anthony Sadler’s The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Heroes, David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, Kyle Schwartz’s I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids, and Brad Snyder and Tom Sileo’s Fire in My Eyes: An American’s Journey from Being Blinded on the Battlefield to Gold Medal Victory.
As with fiction, like Brit Bennett’s The Mothers and Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, a number of in-demand nonfiction titles were by authors of color and Hispanic authors, from Alexander’s The Jazz of Physics to Arce’s My Underground American Dream, or like white poet Phillips’s Blood at the Root address relevant issues. One certainly wishes there had been more such titles, but a quick reckoning reveals that a greater percentage of in-demand titles fit the diversity mold than galley guide–listed titles overall. That, at least, is hopeful.