Like the tall, bespectacled storybook character hidden in plain sight in the Where's Waldo? books, Lance Fensterman's lanky 6'5” frame can be spotted with Blackberry in hand in a variety of tableaux at BookExpo America—author breakfasts, workshops and publishers' booths. “I like to be all over the show,” says Fensterman, “talking with people to know about how they're experiencing it.”
Last year he started a blog (MediumAtLarge.net) to continue the dialogue year-round. “On a whim, I thought, I don't have enough to do, I'll write nights and weekends,” says Fensterman, who, in addition to directing the second largest trade book fair in the world, manages the second largest pop culture event in North America, the New York Comic Con, and launched the New York Anime Festival in December.
As the conversation continues, it becomes clear that for him “whim” carries the same weight, or meaning, as “serendipity,” “fate” and “good luck.” He uses these words interchangeably to refer not just to the blog but to the American Booksellers Association, which he credits with “helping me see a world beyond my little world of bookselling,” and to the path that took him from college dropout to entrepreneur, bookseller and show director.
It was a “whim,” says Fensterman, that caused him to leave the University of the District of Columbia after two years and move to Warren, Ohio, where he and a partner started Warrenpages, a dot-com that offered marketing and Web design services. A “whim” led him to turn Warrenpages into a community Web site by reporting on local stories overlooked by the newspapers. And a “whim” enabled him to fill another need by starting North Perk, a coffee shop/restaurant where he gleaned much of the news he wrote at his day job at the dot-com.
There was only one problem. “I didn't sleep,” says Fensterman. “I worked 15 or 16 hours a day. It was way too much.” That coupled with the death of a childhood friend caused him to question what he wanted to do with his life. “I thought, what is creative and something I'd be proud to be a part of,” says Fensterman, who returned home to the Twin Cities, where he traded the long hours of running two startups with the comparatively shorter hours of his first bookstore job, general manager of the 30,000-sq.-ft. Bound to Be Read in St. Paul.
What drew Fensterman to bookselling, he says, is that “it's the place where art and commerce intersect.” When Bound to Be Read closed in 2005, Fensterman decided to stay with bookselling and moved to Connecticut to help R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., extend its brand, and where he managed Elm Street Books in New Canaan. A year later, thanks to more serendipity, Carl Lennertz at HarperCollins encouraged him to apply for the opening at Reed Exhibitions (which shares the same parent company with PW, Reed Business Information) to run BEA.
The job suits Fensterman, although satisfying the show's varied constituents as well as its large size can be frustrating. “It's hard to please everyone,” he says. “And it's hard to make quick turns.” In the future, he would like to see BEA embrace change and for the participants of each of the shows he manages—for books, anime and graphic novels—to take the best from each other's approach not just to the shows but to the marketplace. “There's a lot trade publishers can learn from pop culture and the rise of free and how to make that work for them. Change interests me; status quo does not. I believe these shows should reflect what's happening in our industry,“ he says.
Nowadays the questions Fensterman grapples with may no longer concern finding meaningful work but making the work he does more meaningful for his constituents, publishers and booksellers alike. “Sometimes we can get jaded at BEA,” he says. “But if you look around, people are still excited about content.” For his next act, Fensterman wants to bring the excitement of the fan component of Comic Con, which is open to the public, to BEA and the networking component of BEA to Comic Con. It's a whim, but it just might work.