BookExpo 2009: ‘Productive Despair’

Last year’s Book Expo, in L.A., had bipolar disorder. When industry people weren’t making increasingly desperate pitches or whining on panels about dwindling book-review space, they were sucking down cocktails in plush booths, dining off Sunset Boulevard with Barbara Walters, and partying on the Fox lot with Ron Jeremy and extras decked out as twenties paparazzi. This year, having taken their meds in the form of layoffs and steep losses, publishers were in a very different mood — not depression, exactly, but the leveled-off state someone summed up beautifully on this year’s much more forward-thinking critics panel (“Book Reviews 2010”): “Productive despair.”

Organizers of the country’s biggest book fair have been floating ideas on the future of a smaller, more sober Expo: Staying put in New York, moving to a middle-of-the-week schedule, maybe even opening to the public, like a nerdier Auto Show or a less nerdy Comic-Con. But for now, self-analysis was in order. Chris “Long Tail” Anderson was ubiquitous, sitting on panels with titles both ominous (“Jumping Off a Cliff”) and needlessly rhetorical (“Do Publishers Still Hold the Keys to the Kingdom?”). More usefully, innovators introduced real-world products — like an iPod-inspired new e-reader called Cool-Er, and former Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash’s Round Table, a fully interactive start-up publishing house. Are these real solutions, or blue-sky pilot programs? Either way, it’s better to try than to whine.

Knopf, for the second time in living memory, had no dinner this year, only a cocktail hour under the fluorescent lights of the Strand’s third floor. But the real measure of lean times was the hard choice publishers had to make about their presence on the actual floor. Or, in the case of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Random House, and Macmillan, off the floor, in the windowless basement meeting rooms to which these diminished giants relegated themselves. (Harcourt at least provided visitors with sandwiches catered by Second Avenue Deli, dovetailing nicely with its fall release of David Sax’s Save the Deli.)

James Ellroy.Photo: Boris Kachka

Everyone thought they had the right approach: Random House had a token presence on the floor with four little signing tables, where long lines for the likes of James Ellroy encroached on their neighbors’ booths. Everyone cut back on galleys except a few precious titles, like Little, Brown’s winter lead, Joshua Ferris’s second novel The Unnamed, of which publisher Michael Pietsch enthusiastically doled out 1,000 copies. “People are trying different strategies,” said Pietsch, before tweaking HarperCollins for only giving away e-galleys — “for us that would be a complete disaster — and Random House for ceding the floor, which “completely eliminates the serendipitous conversation.”

“That seems silly, not to take even a small booth,” said Grove Atlantic head Morgan Entrekin, standing in front of his tiny one-table berth — the same as last year. He and other indie publishers found themselves in the odd position of wise and stable elders, people accustomed to lean times and less prone to making sudden moves in response to huge market forces. In good times and bad, said Entrekin, “It’s hard as shit to sell books.”

BookExpo 2009: ‘Productive Despair’