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BEA and Books

Book Expo and Elizabeth Sifton: Books Today

I went to Book Expo Saturday courtesy of SLJ, and I was glad I did. As you all may recall, Book Expo is the annual gathering of booksellers — the parallel to ALA, but organized around stores not libraries. BEA (America is the third letter in the acronym) was last in New York two years ago. When I went then it was crowded but with a weird, depressing, sense of unreality. The booths were crammed with books, books, books — novels, coffee table books, pop culture, porn, romance, every sort of kids book. Yet — as we used to sing about houses made of Ticky Tacky back in the 60s — they "all looked the same." You walked through forests of overpublishing, as if you were in an amusement park Fun House of overinflated balloons — all bulging out too far. There was too much, and everyone knew it, and no one seemed to know it. No one wanted to stop publishing first, because that would set off a long fall, a sharp decline to — who knew where?

Well this year you could see where. This year all those balloons had popped. Now maybe it was different on another day. I ran into Marilyn Singer — whose many books, poems, anthologies you surely know. She said the place had been hopping on Friday. But on Saturday it was empty — few people in the aisles, far fewer publishers showing, fewer books on display. You felt the emptying out of publishing. To get some sense of that emptying out you should read This is an essay on publishing by the veteran adult editor Elizabeth Sifton. I don’t agree with everything she says, but as Death of Publishing essays go (and they come around every year or so) this is more thoughtful, better informed, more nuanced, and more worth reading. 

I think the slower, smaller, more shaken BEA was largely good — more real than the inflated denial of a couple of years earlier. But that does not mean I know where, and how, we can land on solid ground. What should book publishing look like? How should it blend with ereaders, with downloads, with the net? No one knows. Change is taking place, yet we are are being changed are not sure how, or how to respond. I am an optimist, so I see great possibility in this moment — as I did at Craig’s memorial. But for the moment we have the emptying out of BEA, essays like Elizabeth’s, and well, it is up to us to figure out what comes next.