Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Damsels and Dragons

BookExpo America, the BEA, is the largest book fair in the US. It usually takes place at the Jacob Javits Center in New York, a convention hall from the eighties on the west side of Manhattan near a new, very expensive subway station ($2.8bn, to be exact). This is also where it took place this year. The Javits Center has a large central area and all sorts of side rooms; a hall with a big stage, more than a dozen seminar rooms, and there was another stage hall in an area now under construction.

Compared to the Frankfurt Book Fair and its four (or is it five?) large halls, all with two or three levels, all full of books, the BEA is tiny. Even the Leipzig Book Fair is now filling four halls, not counting the one for manga. The BEA fills only one. That is astonishing, because America is the largest book market in the world. And the BEA is shrinking. Each year. When I first visited the Javits Center, fifteen years ago, the publishers filled forty rows. Today they take half as many. Only the Big Five—Macmillan, Penguin RandomHouse, Simon & Schuster, Hachette and Harper Collins—are still holding down the fort. Girls are handing out galleys for reviewers ... am I imagining things or are they all girls’ books? Women are in every aisle as well. Even the opening panel is occupied by four female publishers. The BEA is female.

A small handful of medium-sized publishers are also present. Half of the university prsses are missing, the mini-publishers have shrunk to half a row, the New York Review of Books is not here, many industry magazines are not present. Not even Kindle Direct Publishing, the Amazon subsidiary for print-on-demand books, has a booth. But there is a new indie stage, not for indie publishing companies actually, but for self-published books. Those books are pitched to booksellers—or more specifically, female booksellers. The International Rights Fair is also at the Javits Center this year; many countries are offering book rights. Mostly European countries, but India is also here. Foreign books in the US are usually reduced to a virtually shadowy existence, but now they have their own stage.

The 2019 BEA is astoningishly apolitical. New political releases such as Mike Wolff's book about Donald Trump, Siege, don't seem to exist. Kathryn Sullivan signs poster in the middle of the aisle. Sullivan was the first woman in space. A few steps further, George Takei is sitting at a booth. The Japanese-American actor, known for his role as Sulu in Star Trek, was also—sort of—in space.  Rumor has it that Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the Democratic superstar, is at the BEA, but it’s not true.  But Rachel Madoff appears, the leftist television presenter who has climbed to the top of TV ratings, due to Donald Trump. All strong women.

In recent years, islands in the ocean of books have emerged where Startups presented new ideas; automated e-bookmarks, revolutionary sales platforms, link building for digital books, books on thumb drives; all the young men are now gone. This year, one-third of the hall is occupied with gift booths; not even book gifts, but organic chocolate, ceramic mugs with cats, and Game of Thrones scarves. Daenerys and her dragon, Sansa and her gray wolf, Arya and her dagger. The price policy for booths has deterred many publishers, but not the toy manufacturers.

For visitors, the emptiness is actually pleasant. You meet acquaintances faster since you don’t have to maneuver through a crowd first. Because everything is close to each other and the publishers have hung large banners over their stands, you don’t have to write down where everyone is, or waste time searching through the aisles. In the evening it is easy to get from one reception to another. There is sparkling wine at Macmillan and real champagne in the large seminar room, where a Chinese delegation hosts an event.

The star of the BEA is LA James, the author of Fifty Shades of Gray. James, for those who have forgotten, is the author of the self-published novels very loosely based on the hit series Twilight. They made the big breakthrough; she has sold millions and is now under contract with Penguin RandomHouse. Her new book is called The Mister. It is set in the time of English nobility, which make sense since James is English. She is a very lovely and unpretentious woman, by the way. The book could not be farther away from American reality.

There are posters in the lobby for upcoming releases by Michael Crichton and other bestselling authors, all male, whose books we will see in Frankfurt in the fall. In the exhibition, women and foreigners and foreign women are more or less among themselves. I'd like to be happy to have replaced the white American male in charge, but deep inside, I feel like it's not a good sign for the stability of the book industry when they are sending child soldiers to the front. But at least I got a free tote.



http://www.berlinica.com/

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