From the Book Expo America Trenches (Part I)
There was a moment on Saturday, as I was headed down the escalator in the Washington Convention Center, when I suddenly felt dizzy and my hands started to sweat. My heart beat fast and hard, like it might bust out of my chest. Pure panic mode. I promise that it was not just the after effects of the fabulous, best-time-in-10-years kind of night I’d enjoyed the evening before at Café Citron, near Dupont Circle (Publishers Group West fellas and T-Honey: YOU ROCK!). No, it was the once-familiar, sinking feeling of being a hack reporter for Variety, charged with finding a quota of stories about inked book deals, snarky publishing gossip, and whatever “new trends” corporate publicists could spin about a 15th-century medium.
Hi, I’m Jennifer Nix and I’m a recovering staff “writer” for the “Showbiz Bible.” Yes, for one year, my corporate overlords tried to make me believe that the Holy Grail of knowledge and the most important question in America was: What show will replace “Seinfeld?” I, however, primarily covered “major” book publishing and its intersection with the Hollywood movie business. That was a long year, peppered with lunches spent crying in the women’s bathroom just off Variety’s “news” room, lamenting the very wrong career turn I’d taken, and plotting my escape.
I took a deep breath and whispered my mantra: “I am not a corporate shill. I am not a corporate shill.” What a delicious moment of relief when the panic passed. This time, I was at Book Expo America as an independent publisher.
Book Expo, however, is primarily a ridiculous display of fawning and ass-kissing, a giant corporate junket courtesy of the massive marketing budgets at the Big Houses. It’s the yearly gathering where corporate newspaper and magazine reporters wander through thousands of booths, like so many rock stars, saying and writing glowing items about their corporate-publisher-siblings’ books. This process is facilitated by perky and usually blond publicists. Independent publishers are meant to pay the pricey admission just to watch, to stand on the sidelines and not get too familiar with the reporters and reviewers, because really, darling…if their books were any good at all, the Big Houses would have inked those deals.
I’d forgotten, too, about the faux self-deprecation that print media reporters exhibit when forced to sit face-to-face with the throngs of small publishers who come to BEA with the hope of being “discovered” by a big media reporter, rather like Lana Turner in a drugstore, to be the token Unknown-Author-Makes-Good story of the year.
For example, I sat in a room of maybe 400 hopefuls at a panel called, “DC Print Media: Meet the Editors.” There on the dais sat the deputy editor of the Washington Post’s Book World, a national editor of The Atlantic, and a book editor from USA Today. The moderator was a perky, blond publicist named Elizabeth Shreve, who earlier had introduced these same unwashed-masses-yearning-to-proffer-new-ideas-to-the-marketplace to a bevy of National Public Radio producers—in particular to “Fresh Air’s” Amy Salit.
“I describe my job this way,” said USA Today man. “I’m like an admissions counselor, who has to learn how to read faster and say, no.”
From The Atlantic’s editor came a gem of a story about how he works at home in LA, and his dog likes to chew on the books sent to him. I think that’s what it was about. I zoned out at one point and then heard him plead: “Please, no hard-to-open packages.” He also talked about how little room they have to discuss books in his magazine, which now comes out ten times a year, no longer monthly. “But if there is a book that people are going to be talking about, then we want to make sure to cover it.” And how does he know beforehand that folks will be talking about a certain book? The perky corporate publicists!
WaPo’s man talked about the system at Book World, of how a very few of the thousands of books sent to him get put on a table and his staffers “try to read at least 50 pages” to determine if they make the cut for a mention.
A paraphrased compendium of advice for publishers not represented by the perky publicists? Don’t send emails and definitely don’t call us. Don’t get cute or fancy with the packaging—that makes us suspicious. Don’t send us press kits. A hand-written note is nice. We need to hear about your book three or four months before it comes out, but definitely don’t email or call us.
I felt my face getting red. This is how the public learns that books exist, by being anointed by one of these print gatekeepers, who, in all fairness, are overworked and besieged, and given smaller and smaller space in which to mention books. But books are still the vehicles that best carry the ideas that can build our society, correct wrongs, explain us to ourselves and others, connect us, bring us joy—and when necessary, piss us off enough to change the status quo. But first, they have to get by one of these big media types who probably long ago stopped feeling any sense of mission or urgency, or the true power of where ideas can take us. To them, books and the publishers behind them, are more like swarms of locusts descending upon them day after day, no end in sight. With this diseased corporate system for disseminating ideas, it’s no wonder our society is slipping into the shitter.
I raised my hand.
“I’m just wondering how much attention you pay to what’s going on online,” I asked. “Say, when a book rises up to number one on Amazon, or when the blogs are buzzing about certain books.”
“We don’t trust Amazon. Anything can rise to the top of that list,” said USA Today man. The other editors’ faces were steeled against giving too much attention to someone they didn’t recognize, even though I am blond these days. I persisted, and not only because rising to the top of Amazon represents ACTUAL SALES rather than the taste of elitist editors.
“Yes, but you complain about how little room you have, yet there’s unlimited room online to talk about books—and people do. Just seems like those discussions should also factor into your decisions about what to cover in print.” Their faces remained smug and closed, eyes already searching out other, perhaps more respectful, raised hands.
“We don’t read blogs, other than maybe for amusement,” WaPo fella said. (Not surprising to FDL readers, I’m sure.) I persisted yet again.
“But, I publish instant political books, and I don’t have the kind of lead time you demand. For instance I found the George Lakoff bestseller, Don’t Think of an Elephant, and ushered it into the world in six weeks while at Chelsea Green, because I met him in late July of 2004 and we were committed to getting that book out before the election.”
The editors’ faces lit up with recognition. This book they knew. I must be “Somebody.” Atlantic guy interrupted and said that was a book he covered because people were talking about it. Yes, sir, but people were talking about it because it sold on Amazon after progressive membership groups and DailyKos talked about it online and drove sales, one by freaking one, until it caught the attention of big media and stores around the country. That book became a bestseller and introduced Lakoff’s ideas into the national debate after being launched online because I had no other choice with an instant book, and no marketing budget. I had to get creative.
After the panel, I followed up with each of these men, telling them how we are witnessing a sea change—an actual trend!—in book publishing, on both the editorial and marketing/distribution sides of the biz. We can identify new voices and talent emerging in the blogosphere—and these folks come with built-in communities to help spread the word about ideas that get them fired up. I told them about the rise of Glenn Greenwald’s How Would a Patriot Act? to number one on Amazon, purely as a result of bloggers mentioning it and urging their readers to support the ideas therein. I said books don’t have to take a year to publish, and they can help drive the national debate as another part of the media landscape, to shed more light on important national stories that mainstream media leave in too much darkness.
“We really don’t cover very many political books,” said USA Today man.
Yes, at a time when a radical administration is declaring the Constitution null and void, corporate media aren’t in the mood to tell the public about the political books that are trying to make sense of this mess.
So, it falls to us my friends. If your fellow citizens are going to hear about important new ideas—progressive and otherwise—that just might move them to action, we have to sustain the online buzz about progressive books, like Crashing the Gate, How Would a Patriot Act?, Lapdogs, All Together Now, Hostile Takeover, and Stop the Next War Now.
Instead of sitting back and listening as the mainstream media decree that progressives and Democrats have no ideas, we need to be creative about launching vehicles for our ideas, and making sure they sell. We all have to work together to tell our base about these new books and voices, and we have to keep the pressure on the mainstream to cover those ideas and voices so that the rest of America can hear about them.
We have to be the media. Write reviews of these books on online retailer sites. Call up your local bookstore and ask if they carry them. Call your local radio station and ask them to book these authors for interviews. Write about these books on your own blog. Tell your friends and family in person and via email. Buy copies for those Republicans and conservatives in your life.
Call up or send emails to WaPo, The Atlantic and USA Today. Tell them and the rest of the national media that there are more important books than those about dogs with which to fill their pages.
It’s time to talk about political books. It’s only our democracy at stake.