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