The following is a collection of observations gathered from my first experience at BookExpo America (also known as BEA), which I attended at the Javits Center on Thursday, May 28th. This is an annual three-day exhibition of new and forthcoming books, primarily attended by publishing professionals and others in the book industry (including librarians and library employees), though all are welcome to purchase tickets. Each day features different events, including autographing sessions with a crazy amount of popular and emerging authors.
Given that BookExpo is more of an “industry” event, despite its widespread appeal to the everyday reader and book fanatic, I thought it would be fun to give you Checking the Shelf readers an inside look at what is essentially a convention for book nerds. Although BEA will be moving to Chicago next year, I have my fingers crossed that it will return to the Big Apple and you fellow book geeks reading this will gain some helpful insights, should you decide to take the plunge and attend.
- They want you to take the books! My number #1 goal for BookExpo was to get as many free books as possible. Unless you’re a member of the publishing profession and using BEA as a networking opportunity, this will probably be your goal as well.
Although I had heard of BEA over the years, it had never occurred to me that I could or should attend. A librarian colleague who goes every year coaxed me into it, telling me that BEA is a book lover’s paradise. For the $69 ticket that I would purchase (thanks to the librarian discount), I could spend several hours walking through the Javits Center collecting free books and hobnobbing with my favorite authors and a few celebrities-turned-authors.
Despite this advice—that more or less everything from books and tote bags to posters and pins were free—it felt downright wrong to just start grabbing anything that wasn’t nailed down. As soon as I entered the venue, it also became clear that things were not as simple as “everything is free.” Most of my time was spent amongst the publishing companies, who had set up book displays in their predetermined sections. There were large banners hanging overhead indicating the aisle numbers; to give you a sense of the scope of this shindig, these aisle numbers went into the thousands! Some publishers had tables for autographing sessions with their featured writers. In fact, it seemed to me that most of the “bigger names” that day, like James Dashner, Jesse Eisenberg, Julianne Moore, Kathy Reichs, and so on, did their autographing at publishers’ tables.
As I was saying, I have spent nearly thirty years building a solid reputation of non-thievery, and the last thing I wanted was for one misunderstanding involving a plastic lightsaber to undo me. I appealed to a nice young woman handing out adorable tote bags and asked her what the deal was with the free books…were the books being displayed on the shelves and tables up for grabs? She said that generally those were in fact just for display or for purchase at BookCon (a somewhat separate event being held that Saturday), but that in her opinion, it couldn’t hurt to ask. Whew…now that I had the general lay of the land, it was time to get some free stuff.
For the rest of the day, I generally breezed past the pristine publishing displays, unless they had bowls of bite-sized chocolates or candies (most did). At one point, I noticed a stack of hardcover books on the floor next to a publisher’s table. They were copies of Life is Short, by Bill Klein and Dr. Jennifer Arnold from the TLC show The Little Couple. I knew Bill and Jen had been there the day before and wondered if these were extras. Feeling emboldened by the Tote Bag Girl, I asked the women manning the table if these were free to take. Their emphatic response: Yes, please take! Thank you, Tote Bag Girl!
- Plan your day! This advice was given to me time and time again from BookExpo veterans. Advance planning is essential because BEA is constantly buzzing with activity. Each day is comprised of multiple autographing sessions and several panel discussions and talks, in time slots of thirty to sixty minutes. Of course, these events overlap and you will undoubtedly have to make some tough decisions about which authors are musts and which can be skipped.
In the weeks preceding BEA, the Expo’s website and app became my best friends. I scrolled through the lineup and checked off the authors I was most interested in seeing, creating a virtual calendar that I referred back to constantly throughout the day. I continually refined my game plan, adding names and deleting others, trying to make peace with the simple fact that the laws of physics—namely the coveted ability to be in two places at once—were working against me.
- Bring people with you who will do your bidding! This sounds very sinister, very Wicked Witch of the West. Let me explain. BEA is not cheap, and if you attend with a friend, relative, or partner it’s only logical that they would be readers and book appreciators. However, there are different levels of book fandom; perhaps your BEA partner is less enthusiastic about the day’s lineup. Also, it just might work out that they have a less packed schedule than you and can therefore hop on the Lauren Groff line while you wait on the line for Julianne Moore (my BEA partner did that for me). The way I see it, this is the only we can get around that whole being in two places at once problem.
- Bring a wheelie suitcase! Bringing luggage on wheels is something “people in the know” do. Had this piece of advice not been repeatedly and emphatically passed along to me, I may have abandoned most of my inventory on the streets of New York, like a metropolitan Gretel making her way to Penn Station.
The BEA website was a little misleading when it came to luggage, warning that suitcases were not permitted. Thankfully, my experts assured me that the standard protocol for BEA is to bring a suitcase, check it (you can bring it, but you can’t lug it around with you in the main conference area), gather your freebies in the tote bags that will surely be given to you from multiple companies, and take periodic trips back to the suitcase to unload your haul when it becomes too heavy. The wheelies were arranged in rows according to ticket number in smallish areas that had been roped off, allowing everyone easy access to their suitcases…and there were a lot of suitcases! Maybe I have forgotten to mention this, but there were hundreds of people attending this thing each day! Anyway, the rolling suitcase was a lifesaver. We followed protocol and were able to briskly maneuver home with our three dozen or so assorted books, totes, flyers, pens, and so on…or at least as briskly as anyone is able to wheel a suitcase around in New York City during rush hour.
- Standing, and waiting, and boredom, OH MY! You will stand on lines and you will wait. You will stand and wait on lines for upwards of 30-45 minutes, depending upon the popularity and chattiness of the author. If you are lucky enough to be in the part of a line that’s near a wall or otherwise away from general traffic, you may have the opportunity to sit down. On the ground, of course, so don’t get too excited. I would recommend that you bring something with you to read while you wait. Or better yet: crack open one of your new BEA finds. Another fun option is getting to know the people on the line. I had a great conversation with a fellow public library employee while waiting on the Julianne Moore line, and made friendly chitchat on a few other lines.
Unfortunately, the waiting is a necessary evil. It’s important to make sure you are on line at least 30 minutes before the start of an especially popular signing or you may be out of luck—they could run out of books or run out of time. This is probably a good time to explain a few things I have been putting off. First, there is the matter of tickets. Certain authors are so popular you need a ticket to ensure you get at least a book. These tickets are completely free, available in limited amounts, and are offered on a first-come, first-served basis in the early hours of the day (about 7 a.m.-10 a.m.). The ticketed authors that I was most interested in for my day were Brian Selznick and Jesse Eisenberg. A friend who had gone the day before warned me that tickets sold out very quickly—I would need to get there by about 8:00 a.m. if I had any shot. This did not happen. Missing out on the new Brian Selznick book was a big blow. However, this brings me to my next point…
- There is still hope if you don’t get a ticket! You remember how Charlie Bucket was dejected and hopeless, certain that he had missed his shot at a Golden Ticket? But then he ripped open a Wonka Bar and there it was! These kinds of small miracles happen at BookExpo. My friend—the one who warned me about the tickets—also assured me that it sometimes pays off to hop on the end of ticketed authors’ lines even if you are one of the sad ticketless. After receiving my autographed copy of Freckleface Strawberry: Backpacks! from Julianne Moore (more on her later, no pun intended), I raced over to the autographing area at the back of the Center. There, along the back wall, about 20 tables were set up with ropes delineating lanes for each table. I put on my best pleading face and made my case to the young woman manning the Selznick line. It turned out, there was another woman who had the same idea and I was allowed to wait off to the side with her. We were told that if the line was down to three or four people and the hour wasn’t over, they would let us on the line. After a mere five minute wait, we heard the magic words: Let them through!
- An ARC is not an “ark” and a “galley” is not a sea craft, nor is it a small kitchen. In publishing speak, an ARC is an Advanced Reading Copy and a galley is an unedited proof of a book. Both ARCS and galleys are unfinished, meaning they still contain errors and need furthering tinkering. From what I saw, the books given out at BEA were all ARCS or galleys. They run the gamut from being a complete book to a collection of excerpts with a generic cover. For instance, Kunaal Nyaar, known for portraying Raj on The Big Bang Theory, was on hand signing his upcoming book of essays. I did the standing, and waiting, and boredom game only to be given excerpts. Turns out his book wasn’t completed in time for BEA….whah whah whah. On the other hand, it is pretty cool to know that you could be receiving the first first edition of what could become the next Harry Potter.
- Authors are awesome people! With the exception of three not-as-friendly writers, all of the authors I interacted with were personable, thankful for my time and interest, and even chatty. Mitch Albom’s line moved achingly slow, but it was because he took the time to have conversations with every person he saw. When it was my turn, he asked my name, where I was from, what I did for a living. We had a whole conversation about the importance of libraries as educational centers! When I thanked him for taking the time to talk with everyone, he brushed it off, saying, What should I do? Just stare at people? I said that some people do that. He responded, Then what’s the point?
My experiences with first-time authors were equally cheery. Will Walton, a first-time YA writer, was practically giddy as people came to his table (and he had a decent line). We were all given paperback ARCs of his book, but he had the real deal, hardcover version open on his table. Will Walton asked every single one of us to sign HIS book! Seriously! It was the sweetest gesture. More than anything, it made me realize what a powerful thing it is to be a fan—for as much as we get out of the experience of meeting them, the authors are getting just as much, if not more. It sounds a little hokey, but we are a part of their dreams. Lisa Jakub, a former child actor-turned author, was signing copies of her memoir. I happened to be second on line (a rare moment when I beat the crowd that day). As Lisa Jakub—clearly excited—brandished her marker, she told the woman in front of me that she would be the first person she had done this for (this being signing her own book). That’s special, right? I think so.
- Julianne Moore is perfection! She’s one of the most highly-acclaimed actresses of our time—she has an Oscar, Golden Globes, wears couture gowns on a regular basis, and has killer red hair. She had every reason to more or less treat this experience as perfunctory, and she did not. She never stopped smiling, making eye contact, and connecting with the fans. I just wanted to pass that information along to you all.
- Don’t dwell on the authors you missed! I spent the days following BEA wallowing in a bit of self-pity that I missed out on Judy Blume, Delia Ephron, Mindy Kaling, and other writers who made appearances on Wednesday or Friday. I kicked myself for not attempting to get on the lines of other ticketed authors, as I had successfully done for Brian Selznick. Oh, well…There will always be next year or the year after, or other book signings. As Long Islanders, we are lucky to live next door to the hub of the publishing industry. I would recommend that even if you never make it to BEA, you keep an eye out for signings and author events in NYC or here on Long Island.
Finally, for anyone interested, here’s a list of my BEA loot, as shown in the above photo and going in order from top to bottom of the pile:
The Marvels—Brian Selznick
Fates and Furies—Lauren Groff
Hurry Up and Wait—Maira Kalman, Daniel Handler, and Sarah Hermanson Meister
The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto—Mitch Albom
Goodbye Stranger—Rebecca Stead
The Kindess Diaries—Leon Logothetis
Life is Short—Dr. Jennifer Arnold and Bill Klein
Saint Mazie—Jami Attenberg
Nancy Clancy: Star of Stage and Screen—Jane O’Connor
You Look Like the Girl…–Lisa Jakub
Fortune’s Little Heartbreaker—Cindy Kirk
Freckleface Strawberry: Backpacks!—Julianne Moore
Anything Could Happen—Will Walton
Last-But-Not-Least Lola: Going Green—Christine Pakkala
Come Rain or Come Shine—Jan Karon
Becoming Maria—Sonia Manzano
*Not shown: Yes, My Accent is Real—Kunal Nayyar