The three days in which BookExpo America had its annual weekend in the spotlight ended yesterday evening. This giant celebration of books was held at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, which was temporarily transformed into a veritable cathedral, filled with worshipers and supplicants to the god of the printed word.
It's gone now, and good riddance. Thanks, but you've charmed and depressed me long enough.
My life, for more years than I care to count, has been devoted to books. I write them, edit them, publish them, read them, collect them, and until Barnes & Noble opens down the street from my store, sell them.
Imagine, if you will, walking into a hall with displays of thousands upon thousands of books. If you like books or, worse still, if you're like me and love them, your first reaction is that you've died and gone to heaven.
That's how I felt when I stepped through the door of my first book convention 30 years ago, when it was run by the American Booksellers' Association. O, frabjous day! Shangri-La.
Then it struck me. I was there as a publisher with maybe a dozen titles on my list. How in the world would anybody notice my books and authors? The Mysterious Press, the company I founded in 1975, was a drop of water in the Pacific. No, it was a grain of sand in the Sahara. It was less than nothing because it wanted to be something, unlike the water droplet and the sand grain, which presumably knew their place.
Today, I have an imprint at Harcourt, where we publish some of the finest authors of crime fiction working today: Thomas H. Cook, Joyce Carol Oates, Andrew Klavan, Thomas Perry, and others. I desperately want them to have success, but I recognize the folly of that sad little wish. Walking through the aisles of the Javits Center, I saw so many titles competing for attention that I accepted the hopelessness of it all. James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, and Nora Roberts will sell 100 million books this year, leaving a few table scraps for everyone else to chase after like starving hyenas after the lions have had their fill.
Hanging out at the Harcourt booth was fun, in spite of the overweening sense of despair that washed over me in my first hour. Knowledgeable book people stopped by to chat, impressed with the gorgeous posters of dust jackets designed for the up-market titles that the other editors and I have acquired and tended with meticulous attention.
Independent booksellers wanted to know everything about the book, and if there was a chance that a few authors could do a signing event at their store. Representatives of the bookstore chains wanted to know how much cooperative advertising was available. (The nasty secret of the chains is that they make very little money actually selling books; their profit comes from promotion dollars given to them by publishers who want their books prominently displayed. So, no, those books that fill windows and are stacked near the check-out counter weren't picked because someone in the store loved them; they are in your face because the publisher backed them up with a truck filled with money to get the best placement.)
In spite of the joys of talking about books with people who care about them, as modest-size bookstores and modest-size publishers, we know we're doomed in our struggle against the behemoths.
Shifting from my role as publisher, I changed hats and strolled from booth to booth as a bookseller, looking for things that might enchant my customers, something that would distinguish my shop from the chains and the online competitors.
The second guy I talked to said, "What are you doing here? I thought you were out of business." That certainly brightened the morning.
"No," I said. "Not yet. You're thinking of Murder Ink [the first mystery bookstore in America, which folded at the end of 2006]."
"Well," he insisted, "I heard it was you."
I felt like Mark Twain, pointing out that the reports of my demise had been greatly exaggerated. He seemed a little put out, as if I'd somehow let him down.
The publishing thing hadn't gone too well, and the bookselling experience didn't improve much, so, feeling as fragile as a hypochondriac, I went to my autographing session expecting to find some cheer.
My editor at HarperCollins had conspired with the publicist to arrange a half-hour for Tom Cook and me to sign copies of "Best American Crime Reporting 2006," (better than remaindering them) with a handout pointing out the qualities of the forthcoming volume in the annual series we edit.
The autographing room was a beautifully organized space. Huge signs listed the stars who would be signing and the table at which they would meet and greet, hopefully doing or saying something to endear them to the people who pretty much controlled their fate. That is, unless you happened to be James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, or Nora Roberts, each of whom might purchase medium-size country any day now.
Since this level of anticipated excitement doesn't occur for Tom and me on a regular basis, we were early, pressing against our restraints, pens in hand. There were probably 2,000 or 3,000 people in the room, waiting for authors to sit down. Lines formed, the $1 contribution to a worthy charity paid, and the crowd surged forward.
Just not at our table. A few feet away, stacks of the new book by the talented artist Edward Sorel towered mightily, and one assistant pushed the galley in front of him while another whisked it away.
There was no whisking at our table. There was not what you could really call a line. What you could call it was a slightly befuddled gentleman who looked at us nervously. Tom, who is a little more outgoing than I am, smiled and motioned to him to come forward, figuring he was a little shy about asking to have his book signed. I smiled, too.
"Would you like us to sign a book for you?" Tom asked.
"Well, no," the gentleman replied. "I was wondering if you could tell me where the bathroom is."
The ropes that the folks at the Javits Center had put up to keep the crowd orderly in front of our table proved to be as useful as a screen door on a submarine.
We did eventually have a few brave souls come by for autographs. One asked me if I was the guy who ran that bookshop that closed.
The worst part of the whole BEA convention? When it ended, I kind of missed it. And looked forward to next year's event.
Mr. Penzler is the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan and the series editor of the annual "Best American Mystery Stories." He can be reached at [email protected].