Recently I read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica from A to Z in order to write a book called The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (S&S). So I figured I knew a bit about the printed word. I knew that the United Nations defines a book as a text of at least 49 pages. I knew that Edgar Allan Poe married his 13-year-old cousin, making him the Jerry Lee Lewis of his day. I knew that in real life, Proust's memories were sparked not by a madeleine, but by something akin to zwieback toast. So I thought I knew publishing.
With that in mind, Publishers Weekly sent me to BEA to see if there were one or two facts about books I didn't know yet. And I did learn some things. Actually, I learned a distressing amount. I learned that every morning President Clinton looks in the mirror and says to himself, "You're beautiful." I learned that, during the tulip craze, a Dutchman traded his estate and grounds for three tulip bulbs. I learned the unique feeling of mingling with 7,000 booksellers, 600 authors, Marilu Henner and a Viking.
Here, a concise encyclopedia of other things I learned at BEA.
Bill Clinton was, without question, the rock star of the BEA. Fans camped out in line for hours. And when he kept us waiting, the crowd started some rhythmic clapping. People were practically waving lighters in the air.
Clinton gave a happy, positive vibe to the BEA. And not just because he said he loved to go to libraries as a kid (big applause from the library contingent). He told us we were all going to be fine. The nation would emerge stronger than ever. We would survive this time of strife, terrorism and Lad Lit.
Author Michael Szymczyk could be found wandering the floor with a toilet over his head. He was promoting his novel, Toilet, about a toilet that one day wakes up and finds itself turned into a human. He said it's Kafkaesque. Which is appropriate, because if I remember correctly, Kafka worked the floor of the 1924 Prague Book Expo dressed as a cockroach.
I'm still trying to decipher the meaning behind the bizarre disparity in carpet quality at the booths. Why are some so thin? Why some so plush? Is it linked to a publisher's bottom line? To some in with Expo organizers? Regardless, I must give props to Harcourt for their impressively high pile. Very soft. It was like walking on Malcolm Gladwell's hair.
Jenna Jameson has a book coming out: How to Make Love Like a Porn Star. My PW boss didn't know who Jenna Jameson was. I had to reluctantly admit that, yes, I was aware of Ms. Jameson and her work. You know, for sociological reasons. Anyway, the sales pitch had the most titter-worthy double entendre of the BEA: Cal Morgan of Regan Books called it a Trojan horse of a book.
Incidentally, Jameson will have to do battle with Tommy Lee's upcoming autobiography from Atria, which contains a chapter written by his penis. You scoff, but his penis did attend the Iowa Writers Workshop.
The key to publishing success—not counting a keynote speech by your author—is the bookstore owners. I knew they were important, but the amount of flattery ladled out makes me realize the extent of their power. Knopf's Sonny Mehta called bookselling a noble endeavor. And author Ron Suskind said he'd write college recommendations for the booksellers' kids. Note to booksellers: I'm available for SAT tutoring.
I may have read the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But I discovered that to truly know it all, I should read the 26 other encyclopedias at the BEA. I should read The Encyclopedia of Hydrangeas, The Encyclopedia of Thai Massage and TheEncyclopedia of Modern Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism.
Did the Britannica tell me that the Homer Rhode Loop is useful for attaching rapid action lures to heavy monofilament leaders? No, I had to turn to The Encyclopedia of Fishing Knots and Rigs for that.
I was worried that no one would come to the signing for my forthcoming book (my mother was in New York and unable to attend). Luckily, people actually did line up, which was nice. But I was a little wary of the Galley Hoarders. Perhaps you've seen them? The folks with rolling suitcases bulging with any galley not nailed down, whether it's a novel about talking hedgehogs or a Pilates manual. They've got badges that bear the disturbingly vague description "Industry Professional." They instruct you to simply sign your name, not personalize it. And then they're off, rolling away in search of the next galley.
Rumor has it they're putting the galleys on eBay. If that's true, I'd like to know. I'd happily put some up myself.
I learned it's damn hard to resist the lure of free stuff, no matter how crappy said stuff is. A hunk of peat moss. Thanks! Yes, I'll take two. Here, the highlights.
Giveaway most likely to be confiscated by airport security: The Valerie Solanas boxcutters. Verso handed out boxcutters to celebrate The Scum Manifesto, the book by the woman who shot Andy Warhol. As much as I'd like a Valerie Solanas keepsake, I decided to leave mine in the hotel.
Giveaway least likely to be needed by me—the father of a newborn—anytime soon: Condom lollipops handed out by erotica publisher Ellora's Cave.
Giveaway for publishers gone wild: The Mardi Gras beads from Louisiana State University Press. You didn't need to lift your shirt to get them, but rumor has it that Tom Wolfe insisted on doing it anyway. Well, maybe I made that up.
At least one panel could have used a copy of Life Without Anger by Dean Van Leuven (DeVorss, booth 3827). The topic was "Bibliocide," a discussion of negative reviews. It got ugly fast. Famously venomous book reviewer Dale Peck endured a lengthy attack from Philadelphia Inquirer critic Carlin Romano.
Romano said he "hated" Peck's book Hatchet Jobs. He called Peck "disingenuous" and his work "garbage" and filled with "schoolyard name-calling." Peck defended himself, pointing out, for instance, that Terry McMillan is a "very, very, very bad writer." (In case Mr. Peck is reading this and considering reviewing my book, let me say: I think you are a the best writer of your generation. And very, very, very brilliant.).
If you hear the housekeeping staffs at Chicago hotels arguing the merits of Philip Roth and Russell Banks in the next few weeks, don't be surprised. With all those abandoned galleys, they have to be the most well-read hotel employees in America.
I learned that the ISBN's are increasing from 10 digits to 13 digits. There are just that many books. Speaking of ISBN's, here's a great one for old time's sake: 0-7432-5060-5. (Comes out in October!)
Humphrey Bogart loved orgies. This, courtesy of the publisher of The Secret Life of Humphrey Bogart, who has nicknamed the star Humpy. The Britannica had taught me that Bogart originated the phrase "tennis anyone?" But you have to go to the BEA for the good stuff.
If your book isn't written by a reality show contestant or an ex-president, all is not lost. There are still ways to get attention for it. Here, a couple of the best:
Wear a costume. I saw a Viking, a Union soldier, a race-car driver, Barbie, a couple of indeterminate barnyard animals and Santa Claus. When Santa's wearing a badge that says "John Hiddleston," it's tough to suspend your disbelief.
Stage a demonstration. A book called Wild Animus had two alleged protesters—men with high-water pants and picket signs who were supposedly upset about the book's pagan themes. On the pro-book side was a naked-to-the-waist man wearing ram horns. He had glued fake hair to his back. At least I hope he'd glued fake hair to his back.
Use child labor.The Guinness Book of World Records had two sweating kids trying to break the cup-stacking record. A record I didn't know existed.
Bribe with sugar. Publishers gave away enough candy to cause a run on Diabetes for Dummies.
Get an editor whom all 25,000 attendees seem to know. When I walked the floor with Rob Weisbach, it took about one hour for us to move three feet.
Jennifer Weiner—out to promote her novel Little Earthquakes—taught me a good lesson. You should never say, "How's BEA treating you?" You have to say, "Are you having a good show?" The key word is 'show.' Otherwise you're as dorky as that guy I saw admiring a Dungeons & Dragons figurine at booth 1827. Or as, say, someone who read the entire encyclopedia.
I know from my encyclopedia that Gutenberg's invention was inspired by a wine-making press. So there you have it: publishing would not exist without booze. And BEA valiantly upheld tradition. I learned a secret hangover prevention from a source who wishes to remain anonymous: take Excedrin before going to sleep. Something about the caffeine protects you, no matter how many Singapore Slings you put down with Morgan Entrekin.
I hunted down the poor sap dressed as the bespectacled mascot from the For Dummies series. I was itching for a debate. I guessed he'd either be really dumb, or really smart from reading all the Dummies books—including my favorite, Origins of Tolkien's Middle-earth for Dummies.
Unfortunately, I couldn't spark a conflict. I tried to impress him with my knowledge (e.g., opossums have 13 nipples), but that didn't even raise a cloth eyebrow.
A travel tip from Martin Cruz Smith's Wolves Eat Dogs, a new Russian thriller, as discussed in the Buzz Panel: If you go to a Moscow restaurant, do not order game. Do not order turkey or boar. It was probably shot in Chernobyl.
Fresh Air's Terry Gross did a fine job hosting the breakfast panel of David Sedaris, Alexandra Fuller and Alexander McCall Smith (who wore a kilt, sort of a highbrow version of the costume gimmick). "If you ever wondered what I looked like," said Gross. "Now you know I'm shorter than the average podium." Gross also played a clip of her NPR spat with Bill O'Reilly, pointing out, "Even when telling me off, he found a way to work in the title of his book." That Bill O'Reilly is such a Know-It-All.
Bush is everywhere. And I mean everywhere. You can't go to the bathroom without seeing those beady presidential eyes. The urinals had signs for "50 Ways You Can Show George the Door." There were Bush coloring books, Anyone but Bush2004 pins, a spider hole's worth of Bush books by everyone from Graydon Carter to Maureen Dowd. (Dowd wins the phrase-of-the-weekend contest with her "father-son Oedipal loop-de-loop that has rocked the world").
If there was one genre that rivaled Bush-related books, it was probably flatulence-related books. I had no idea this was such an important publishing niche. You had Walter the Farting Dog (with his own doll, which sounded more like a Buick with muffler trouble). And Little Lord Farting Boy. And The Art of the Fart. And Artemis Fowl author Eoin Colfer, who said at the Book Sense lunch that his book was about "a farting dwarf, so I'm just happy to be on any list." The rumor is that Peter Mayle is writing a book about farting in the South of France. Though I may not have heard that right.
At the bash for Augusten Burroughs, another party-goer sneeringly pointed out to me that I was the only one wearing my name tag. Man, tough crowd. I wish I had read Blue Cheese Breath and Stinky Feet: How to Deal with Bullies by Catherine DePino (American Psychological Assn.).
I felt a little guilty about being a Platinum exhibitor. Such a rigid class system here at BEA. Platinum exhibitor, gold exhibitor. They don't say that those in the Remainders section are the Zinc exhibitors. But we all know.
I had high hopes for the political lunch hosted by C-SPAN's Brian Lamb, seeing as last year it was the scene of the Al Franken—Bill O'Reilly smackdown. But if last year's was a WWF cagematch, this year's was barely a badminton game. Very civil. No spittle emitted whatsoever. Linda Chavez said that maybe she and Maureen Dowd could do some hair pulling. But sadly, nothing came of it. No pundit-on-pundit action for this crowd.
You have to feel bad for sign makers in this post—Eats, Shoots & Leaves era. Like booth 2014 with its missing closing parenthesis. It read If (that company called. Let's all be very thankful Lynne Truss was not at the BEA.
I went to the Buzz Panel. It seems every fiction writer is a new John Irving. "He's the John Irving of post-apocalyptic Canadian novels." Or whatever.
When S&S's David Rosenthal talked about my book, I actually got applauded. The last time that happened was when I dropped my tray in the cafeteria.
I met a bookseller who told me Jamie Lee Curtis was talking about my book. Yes! I've arrived. But then the bookseller took it back. It wasn't my book. Damn. Such is the roller-coaster of emotion that is BookExpo America.
The young blonde women handing out the Publishers Weekly Show Dailys had tied their T-shirts up to reveal their midriffs. Spicy stuff! But as someone told me, what happens at BEA, stays at BEA.
Pity the publisher who presents an uninspired pile of galleys. The truly passionate publisher arranges the stack of galleys like a miniature piece of architecture. I saw pyramids, spiral staircases, donuts and, best of all, a stack resembling the Capitol Records Building in Los Angeles. Herbert Muschamp would be proud.
When I saw Taxi star Marilu Henner wandering the floor with a tray of french fries, I felt my PW boss would want me to interview her. I was happy to learn she was there because she's engaged to an exhibitor. Namely Mike Brown of Browntrout Publishers, a company that makes calendars of, among other things, Welsh corgis (booth 2916). Who said publishing can't be glamorous?
I also interviewed Bill from The Apprentice, whose book, You're Hired! (HarperCollins), will prove "nice guys and girls can be successful." I learned he's reading The Five People You Meet in Heaven and (surprise!) The Fountainhead.
I was happy to see that even famous fancy authors like Anthony Bourdain had to stand in the taxi line. And what a taxi line. It was long. Not as long as Bill Clinton's book, but long just the same.
By the way, the taxi dispatcher asked Bourdain, "How do you eat so much and stay so thin?" Bourdain responded that he smokes two and a half packs a day. A nice alternative to the South Beach Diet.
At first it seemed odd to me that the Oreck Vacuum cleaner company had a booth. But I learned it wasn't such a bad idea. The Oreck man told me he had sold several vacuums—some to authors. So if you notice that Gish Jen's rugs look particularly clean lately, you'll know why.
Among the new trivia I picked up from booksellers: a castrated sheep is called a wether. I also found out a claviola is an accordion that you can blow into, and that the worst debutante ball in history occurred when thousands of imported butterflies died during the party. I learned that L. Ron Hubbard, at age 13, was the youngest Eagle Scout ever (he's also, of course, the Joyce Carol Oates of deceased authors, churning out yet another new novel for the fall). So in fact, I do have a lot to learn. Note to self: Change title of book.