Meanderings Amongst Words: Book Expo America, Chicago, 2-5 June 2004

People have brought to my attention that my blog here has been gathering e-dust, languishing in the vast underworld of unheralded, undersubscribed blogs. It ain’t for lack of material — lord knows all kinds of zany things have been happening. So, best to write up the events of last week before they get corrupted and ultimately deleted by the editorial caprices of that gentle tyrant, memory.

I spent the better part of this past week at Book Expo America in Chicago. I arrived in the Windy City — so-called apparently because of its fickle political affiliations and not the hearty sweep of air through its skyscraper-fortified corridors — on a Tuesday night, and through some strange convergence of fate, all of my housing options with friends fell through at once. This gave me a prime excuse for slumming it, so I ensconced myself at a Lincoln Park hostel full of foreign travelers unwilling to call it a night, ever. Although getting to bed at 3am was consistent with my usual sleep time minus West Coast jet lag, it did not make for a pleasant rousing at the butt-crack of dawn to get to my writers conference at McCormick Place, Chicago’s gleaming behemoth of a convention center just south of the Loop.

The Writers Conference, sponsored by Writer’s Digest — separate and not related to the main Expo, lest you think that your $149 will grant you the privilege of wandering onto the convention floor, ha — was a full day of talks and workshops on how to get published. Almost every attendee was a first-time author. I’d peg their average age at 45 and say 60% were female. They were there to soak in the advice of the sages on Writing the Popular Novel, finding an agent, The Best Way to Create a Non-Fiction Book Proposal, Writing the Breakout Novel, creating a marketing plan, etc.

My favorite part was the Pitch Slam Breakout, when everyone had 30 seconds to pitch his/her nonfiction book before a panel of three highly experienced agents and editors — Michael Larsen, of the Larsen-Pomada Agency, Jonathan Malysiak of Dearborn Trade Publishing, and Bethany Brown of Sourcebooks. It was a miniature parade of dreams, with each would-be author condensing years of thoughts, experiences, ideas and life lived into half a minute of plea and proclamation before three judges and a hundred fellow dreamers. The fascinating diversity of the proposals was only outdone by the responses of the panelists. Right after every pitch, each one got the microphone and commented on the viability of the project, how best to market it, what angles to explore etc. Remarkably all three panelists paid full attention and gave cogent, constructive and gracious commentary to every one of the 40+ presenters — quite a feat. Their real-time analysis evinced that these people really know books and readers. I was there, so I tried my hand at pitching my non-fiction self-help proposal. The feedback from the panel and audience was quite positive — precisely the fuel I needed to propel my writing for the next three months. (Addendum from the future: I finished that 55,000 word book for a Sept 1 deadline. It was The Tao of Dating for Men.)

The final talk of the day was also memorable. Heather Sellers, a willowy young writer and English professor from Hope College, spoke with mellifluous voice and heartfelt reason on Page after Page: Six Ways to Go Home Writing. Her six principles made all kinds of sense, and her exhortative yet caring delivery made her suggestions mom-irresistible. After all, I am writing in this blog after a three-month hiatus, am I not? I bet everyone else in the room wanted to give her a hug afterwards, too, so here’s a remote control hug from my keyboard — mmhmm, there. (And if you want to know what the Six Ways are, write me and I’ll tell you.)

After that talk I sought out Michael Larsen, the panelist whom I hadn’t had a chance to thank after the pitch slam, and as we spoke and exited McCormick Place, we ended up sharing a cab to the Miracle Mile area of Chicago. I’ve got to tell you: this man is good. Even after the barrage of pitches and a procession of prospective authors buttonholing him about this and that for hours, he still questioned me with genuine interest, listened to everything I had to say, and was incredibly gracious while still challenging my half-baked notions. I have met and heard of others who are phenomenally good with people — Bill Clinton comes to mind — and Michael is certainly one of them.

Of course, Bill was to make an appearance of his own. Thursday’s main event was the keynote address on My Life, the autobiography of William Jefferson Clinton. I had never seen him speak live, and this was quite a treat. In customary Bill fashion, he was 45min late to appear, but in customary Bill fashion he was brilliant, so we immediately forgave him the peccadillo. Sonny Mehta, the patriarch of Alfred A. Knopf — the ne plus ultra and toniest of the tony publishing houses — delivered a rousing hagiographical introduction whose structure seemed to follow a point-by-point comparison of the most glowing aspects of Clinton’s legacy with the current President’s most dubious accomplishments. Even though W. was never mentioned by name, you could almost hear the hissing sound of hot air escaping from his carnival balloon persona with each invisible Sonny Mehta verbal stab — [Clinton] presided over the period of greatest economic expansion in American history, pffffffffft… went from record budget deficits to record surpluses pfffffffffffffft… was an agent for peace pffffffffttt.

But back to Bill. Yes, everything that you have heard and suspected is true. Clinton’s a phenomenal public speaker, and within the first ten syllables he had connected personally to even that camera-toting neck-craner 300 feet away in the far back row (I should know — that was me). Even though the audience was about 4500 strong, with camera crews and Secret Service men littering the landscape, he was able to address you and you alone, as if it were all a fireside chat between old friends. Talked about the process of writing the book (20 notebooks written in longhand and transcribed by an assistant); the gambits with his editor Robert Gottlieb (he tried to sneak in ‘Robert Gottlieb is the greatest editor in the world’; Gottlieb cut it, with some reluctance); growing up in Arkansas in the pre-GI Bill era, where the gas station attendant was likely to be as smart as your doctor, making for an interesting childhood; his family of gifted storytellers, poor white folk who didn’t have a racist bone in their bodies; his wife (“my Senator”); and yes, politics.

He was particularly evenhanded and non-vindictive towards his loyal opposition, urging us to think of them not in terms of their being good or bad people, but of being right or wrong — Bush was merely fulfilling his campaign promises. He ended the speech with an invigorating message of optimism, tacitly acknowledging our troubled times by drawing parallels between now and other eras of turmoil and divisiveness, reassuring us that at these historical inflection points, Americans have always chosen greater unity. I interpreted that all as meaning “Don’t worry; the Bushies will lose,” and left the speech with a big smile on my face.

Of course the main event on the convention floor had yet to happen. Once I stood before the vast and particolored array of booths on Friday morning, it was with a mixture of awe and bewilderment that I uttered the syllable immortalized by that arch-thespian and bard of Western Civilization, Keanu Reeves: “Whoa.” Where do I start? I decided that the beginning was a good place to start, and I designated the real estate under my feet at that moment as The Beginning. This was going to go well.

It’s fair to say that in the first day of the Expo, I was exposed to more information than your average medieval man dealt with in a lifetime. Hundreds of publishers hawking their wares, the more prominent, well-heeled ones closer to the main entrance, the name-recognition factor dropping as you move to the back of the convention floor — the domain of the independent presses, offbeat products, solo visionaries and just plain zealots.

Hierarchy and means were also displayed through carpeting, as you unconsciously sped up when your tired feet hit the nanometer-thick quartz covering (ow), while finding yourself lingering a little bit longer on the superplush shag with extra-squishy foam of Bantam Doubleday (mmmmmm). Marketing managers hawk their wares, give away sample copies, posters, toys, pens, plush animals — anything to get your attention and achieve salience amidst this vast sea of printed word. Meetings with buyers happen a hundred all at once (one Canadian buyer told me she had 14 meetings on that first day) while agents and booksellers trudge around lopsided, adding yet another publisher’s catalog to their bursting bag of goodies.

My mission was mostly exploratory — finding out how the industry works, what its social customs are, deal structure, proper channels of information, etiquette, protocol, form. Thou shalt not submit a Proposal unsolicited, unless a publisher explicitly says they art cool with that. Thou shalt have an Agent, for thou shalt thusly distinguish thyself from the unwashed masses whose unpolished words are unworthy of Dissemination. Thine Book Proposal shall follow the Proper and Accepted format or shall be consigned to the Black Hole of Rejection, whence not even its cries of despair will ever be heard again by the Literate Living.

Lots of great books, people, conversations. Surprised by the preponderance of Christian presses, and how well they do. Did you know that Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages series has sold 2.5 million copies? Oy. And then there’s the ubiquitous LaHaye/Jenkins Left Behind series — cover of Newsweek two weeks ago. How can a book sell 60 million copies in my supposed country, and I know not one person who has read it? (See discussion on Red and Blue America in the next blog installment).

I did not attend any of the author luncheons, where for a mere 30 beans, you got to hang with the likes of Terry Gross, Tom Wolfe, Maureen Dowd and David Sedaris. My good man Baratunde Thurston ’99, comedian and writer whom I had the good fortune of bumping into (check out for his latest shenanigans), had the pleasure of munching lunch with P.J. O’Rourke before ever knowing how much they would like each other — lucky dawg. Mega-, mini- and quasi-celebrities abounded, of course — Marilu Henner and Gene Hackman were looking sharp, and that dude in the cab line who looked like chef/author Tony Bourdain actually was Tony Bourdain. Who knew. In any case, the sheer amount of stuff going on made it absolutely imperative that I clone myself, stat. I can see a phalanx of a dozen mes (that would be the plural for me), ripping down the aisles simultaneously, devouring all data in their path with the efficiency of a locust swarm. That would be a lot of underwear I’d have to pack for the next trip for all twelve of us, though.

Which brings me to the next section. Scored scores of freebies. I love you, Andrews & McMeel — not just because you brought Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes to the world, but also because of the Open Your Mind, Open Your Life and Sex Games (for mature audiences only) decks of cards, which will no doubt make me a more enlightened, hornier person. Thank you Picador, who gave me two copies of one of my favorite books of recent memory, which shall remain nameless lest prospective gift recipients think I have spent any less on them than the cover price suggests.

My favorite book title would have to be How to Clone the Perfect Blonde, by Sue Nelson and Richard Hollingham. At first your friendly neighborhood arch-skeptic dismissed the book out of hand. But when a quick browse yielded concise, coherent explanations of such concepts as general relativity and reverse time travel according to Kurt Goedel, I happily snagged my purple-pink advance copy. Cloning is good. Already finished the first Don Miguel Ruiz book, The Four Agreements (be impeccable with your word; take nothing personally; assume nothing; always do your best) and I’m halfway through The Mastery of Love — partly because of my superhuman speed-reading powers, and partly because the book is small, short, with big print and wide spacing. Highly recommended as a jump-start to a better life — Toltec wisdom is fully consonant with Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, and the simple brevity of the Four Agreements render them quite practical (go to The Secret: Unlocking the Source of Joy and Fulfillment by Kabbalist Michael Berg, a beautifully produced book, has also been a satisfying read. I could give away The Secret here (which can be boiled down to one verb in the imperative voice), or I could make you work for it. OK, fine, I’ll make you work for it — write me and I’ll tell you. Maybe.

Although I was slated to return on a 9am flight back to LAX on Saturday, the orgiastic festival of books beckoned me back for one last swing-through, and who was I to resist. My cravings sated by early Saturday afternoon, I ventured out to find transport back to O’Hare Airport. Now there is no art in hopping a cab for $45 that takes you straight there. And although the $21 O’Hare shuttle is a much better deal, it still lacks the panache that would make it the most efficient means of transportation at the lowest price. There’s always the Blue Line of the El, about a mile from there, which costs $1.75 all the way, plus the cab fare that would get you to it — 8 bucks all said. As I ruminated my options, going from McCormick Place to the adjacent Hyatt, the solution presented itself in clamorous splendor: a series of charter buses marked ‘Midway’ and ‘O’Hare,’ with lines of people getting on them. Bingo. The nametags dangling from the queued-up passengers’ necks betrayed their identities as pharmaceutical employees who were also at the convention center that weekend. I waltzed back in to the hotel and found Steve, a friendly pharmaceutical employee who cheerily answered all my questions about their new products, why they were all here, oh they’re new hires on their initial training, how interesting, based all over the country, even LA? Neato. Having acquired my blag story (which I did not end up using anyway), I thanked Steve, wheeled around, placed my Book Expo nametag in my pocket where it belonged, and proceeded to board one of the O’Hare-bound buses, which got me to the airport in 45 min for the total cost of goodwill towards all large pharmaceutical firms. Thanks for the ride, and I promise I’ll tell all my asthmatic friends about your all-Levo albeturol (racemic purity is in, baby) which the FDA approved and works so well. Mission accomplished, and see you all next year in New York City.

7 thoughts on “Meanderings Amongst Words: Book Expo America, Chicago, 2-5 June 2004

  1. Cool…

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  3. Allegr

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  4. Allegr

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  5. Allegr

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  6. Allegr

    Cool site. Thanks!!!

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