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Dispatch From BEA: Witches, Barnacle Penises Highlight the Year's Buzz Books

Adventures in kerning.Courtesy of Morrow; Holt; Little, Brown.

Maybe it was the early hour — eight in the morning — but today's BEA "Buzz Panel," the annual ritual whereby six editors try to manufacture excitement for their very special galleys, was astoundingly brisk and efficient. Unlike last year, there were no video presentations or long, teary effusions. Forty minutes after Publishers Weekly's editor-in-chief, Sara Nelson, introduced the editors, the whole thing was over. This is entirely thanks to Nelson, who peppered the editors with questions actually relevant to the booksellers ("What's the writer's backstory?" "Who's the audience for this book?") and interjected her own buzzy testimony ("I've met Kira Salak," Nelson said of the travel writer whose first novel, The White Mary, is out this fall, "and she is an incredible storyteller.") You get the feeling she could have done this on her own.

Maybe it was the early hour — eight in the morning — but today's BEA "Buzz Panel," the annual ritual whereby six editors try to manufacture excitement for their very special galleys, was astoundingly brisk and efficient. Unlike last year, there were no video presentations or long, teary effusions. Forty minutes after Publishers Weekly's editor-in-chief, Sara Nelson, introduced the editors, the whole thing was over. This is entirely thanks to Nelson, who peppered the editors with questions actually relevant to the booksellers ("What's the writer's backstory?" "Who's the audience for this book?") and interjected her own buzzy testimony ("I've met Kira Salak," Nelson said of the travel writer whose first novel, The White Mary, is out this fall, "and she is an incredible storyteller.") You get the feeling she could have done this on her own.

Buzzed books (only one per editor this year) seemed more or less split between kooky dysfunctional families and, well, witches. Witches are huge. Kathleen Kent's The Heretic's Daughter and The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry (you can call her Sandy), both feature them. And though Nelson insisted "they couldn't be more different," they are both set in Salem, and the latter comes with a built-in publicity tour pushing Barry as Salem's answer to Savannah's John Berendt. (One reason for the glut of witches? Barnes and Noble's lead fiction buyer, Sessalee Hensley, likes Salem, we heard publishing employees gossip on the floor later.) Richard Nash, who helms Soft Skull Press, led with something we've all been waiting for — essentially a book version of Little Miss Sunshine called The Flying Troutmans, right down to "three crazy people traveling in a van." Nelson had the last word: "Edgy enough for twentysomethings, and not so super-cool that older readers wouldn't like it."

Most of the digressing was left to Harmony editor John Glusman, owing to the fact that what he's selling, The Book of Animal Ignorance, is basically one long digression, a smart bathroom read from Aardvark to Worm. Based on a BBC quiz show, it features such delightful factoids as the animal with the largest penis: the lowly barnacle (it can be seven times as long as its body). And even then, Nelson cut right to the heart of the matter. "Are there pictures?" she asked. "Yes," Glusman replied, "which is important to me, because I don't like to read." —Boris Kachka