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After Work: The Big Book Ballyhoo

…Books, books, books. Aisles of them. As a reader, it’s easy to forget that book publishing is an intense, serious business. This year’s big draw was Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman. Not exactly whom you’d expect, but certainly indicative of the current economic interests of publishers and booksellers. And he himself had his own book to push.

Me, I wandered around with my tongue hanging out, flipping through books I could buy only if I were willing to commit to a dozen or so. I eagerly accepted catalogues of the fall lineup, first chapters, bookmarks, posters and shopping bags…

Dona Gibbs enters book heaven at BookExpo America.

For more of Dona’s joyous words please click on After Work in the menu on his page.

“You gotta be on-line,” the earnest pudgy thirtysomething man urged from the depths of a deep sofa in the corner of the cramped bookstore.

He grabbed a couple of chocolate chip cookies from the plate the proprietress offered him and crammed one in his mouth, crumbs scattering down his shirtfront. The co-owner, her husband, stood studiously polishing his glasses.

“Oh, I don’t know. We had a hard time changing the cash register and getting a credit card machine,” the woman replied.

“But you’re going to be left in the dust. On-line sales are the way to go.”

Both co-owners shook their heads.

This was a scrap of conversation I overheard in my local bookstore over a decade ago when we lived in a small commuter town of 15,000 outside New York City. At that time our two-block-long shopping street had two bookstores. Each would gladly order any book the customer wanted and call up when it arrived three days or three weeks hence. Each would also gladly recommend books they had enjoyed. During slow times, they read, and customers could take their tips seriously.

Trudging through BookExpo America. 2007 at the multi-acre Jacob Javits Convention Center, I reflected on that prophetic conversation. The cookie gobbler had been right. Today on-line sales rule the book business. Books on demand are around the corner. E-books, while not shoving traditional paper books off the shelves, are here.

Google and Microsoft had both taken big booths at this trade show extravaganza. There was even one piece of digital machinery called the Espresso Book Machine that cranked out a paperback in five minutes. Of course, George Eliot’s Middlemarch might take oh, say fifteen.

BookExpo is an enormous promotional event to ballyhoo upcoming fall titles. Practically every American publisher you could name -- and many you probably never knew existed -- turns out for this event. Freebies abound. Not only were there uncorrected proofs for the taking, there were autographed copies. I saw three galley copies of Nick Hornby’s new book exchange hands. Alas, none for me .

Books, books, books. Aisles of them. As a reader, it’s easy to forget that book publishing is an intense, serious business. This year’s big draw was Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman. Not exactly whom you’d expect, but certainly indicative of the current economic interests of publishers and booksellers. And he himself had his own book to push.


Me, I wandered around with my tongue hanging out, flipping through books I could buy only if I were willing to commit to a dozen or so. I eagerly accepted catalogues of the fall lineup, first chapters, bookmarks, posters and shopping bags.

Whatever notions I had that only studious, bespectacled types in crumpled clothes and sensible shoes populated the book business were shoved aside by reality.

BookExpo America attracts both wonderful and the weird.

Here’s a catalogue description for “Strand Prophecy”, which claims it’s a combination of X-Men and Jurassic Park.

And here’s an ad for Ellora’s Cavemen, “Seasons of Seduction”. The covers of volumes one and two feature bare-chested guys who it seems have been caught in a spray of cooking oil. “We wrote the book on erotic romance,” the copy says. Mmm.

Then there’s Minnesota Historical Press which publishes,” general interest and scholarly books that contribute to the understanding of Minnesota and Midwestern history and culture.” All these and more under one roof.

There’s more than books and digital book gadgetry at BookExpo. There are vendors with greeting cards and stationery. Sellers of small stuffed animals. Book lights. Reading glasses. Knick-knacks. And kitsch aplenty. Booksellers – both the big chains and the small independents – are feeling the sharp pinch of economic realities and eager for sales of any kind.

I had turned up at a BookExpo on the last day. Midmorning, some people were already starting to pack up. There was a sad feeling to the place.

“You should have been here yesterday. It was hopping,” an earnest woman from a small press told me.

I hope that doesn’t turn out to be a metaphor for the book business.


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