I just got back from New York City where I was attending Book Expo America (BEA), the annual convention and trade show of book publishing. What happened? Let me just put it this way. In 2007, the last year I attended as a bookseller, I was invited to over 50 parties and dinners at the toniest New York venues. The following year, my first as an agent, I was invited to…let me try to remember.uh. I believe it was zero including even the party that was being hosted by one of my best friends in bookselling. It was an indignity, but one that taught me a heartbreaking lesson about the fickleness of fame. It calls to mind T.S. Eliot’s unforgettable line: “The only wisdom we can hope to achieve is the wisdom of humility.”
I returned home feeling pretty depressed. After a few months, Leslie told me that it was time to get over it, stop moping, buck up, and start being a good father again to Hayley. I didn’t go back to BEA for three years. But finally, my self-respect restored, I decided to return.
There was reason to be hopeful. Before the convention, I contacted Bob Miller, of Workman Publishers. Not only did he most enthusiastically agree to meet with me, he even invited me to the Workman cocktail party at their offices on Varick Street. It seemed like a sign, an indicator, that my status in this business was starting to look up. I kept waiting for the mail to come every day, even standing on the porch looking for the postman. But as I sifted through the daily harvest of letters, I began to realize that there would be no other invitations forthcoming.
When I got to BEA, I walked up and down the numbered aisles around the convention floor at Javits Center thinking that my old friends in publishing, people I had known for 30 years, would come up and stick an embossed invitation into my breast pocket, give me a little pat, and tell me that they hoped I could come to their intimate private dinner at The Four Seasons in honor their author who had recently won the National Book Award for Fiction. But no. Sometimes they said hi. Sometimes they said: “We’re really sorry you aren’t still at Moe’s.”
On the second day of the convention, I was walking out of the hall and encountered an old friend in bookselling. I told her that I was feeling a little down because I had nothing to do that night. She raised her eyebrows and motioned for me to come with her over to a darkened niche adjacent to the men’s room. She told me that she had pinched an extra ticket to the Publishers Group West Party being given that night and could give it to me if I promised not to say a word about where I had gotten it. I just shook my head and told her that this old bookseller still had a little pride left in his heart.
We walked back to the front entrance and ran into another bookseller, an old friend who had served with me on the American Booksellers Association Board of Directors. She asked me if I would be attending the Knopf dinner for David Remnick of The New Yorker. Looking down at the floor, trying to hide my shame, I told her, “No. I had not been invited.” She looked at me with a kind of smirk on her face, and said only, “Pity”, before turning away and leaving the hall.
As I walked down the aisles, the images of the great moments at BEA seemed to fade in and out of my thoughts like specters of times past, better times for book publishers and booksellers alike, times when we could let go of our phony elitist literary pretentions and indulge our secret longings for all things crass and tasteless.
I remembered the years that the Harlequin booth was the most splendiferous at the show. Harlequin is the downmarket publisher of racksize paperbacks of women’s romance. We used to call them “bodice rippers.” At the booth there was always a bit actress dressed to look like Scarlett O’hara reclining next to a man, probably a “b” list model, with bulging biceps, a shining saber at his side and a patch over his eye.
My favorite moment was in 1982. I was walking down the aisle of university press booths and saw another day actor dressed in overalls and a John Deere cap, dragging a live hog on a leash down the aisle. I believe they were trying to promote a book being published by Oxford University Press, a quantitative economic analysis of the emerging agribusiness economy in America’s heartland..
And the swag back then was something else. This year the only handout I saw was at the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt booth, a book bag promoting the new edition of Tolkien’s Hobbit, tied in to the movie release this December. The fabric was cheap, the workmanship shabby. (I noticed a “made in Bengladesh” label attached to the inner lining.) You would have never seen that kind of Schmattah being given away in the 80s. When I tried to grab one for Hayley, the smiley face greeter at the booth gave me a dark and threatening look and growled, “Sorry. Booksellers only.”
I remembered the best freebee I ever got at BEA. I was sharing a cab with the CEO of one of the major houses. They were heavily promoting a new thriller for the fall called, Jig. Larry, the CEO, pulled a watch out of his pocket and handed it to me. It was oversized. The face was black with huge white letters J,I,G. It was a real treasure. Later I proudly showed it to my friend. She commented rather archly that I might not be making the right fashion statement wearing an accessory with an ugly racist epithet scrawled across it. The Jig watch is now gone along with so many other treasures of my past.
That was a long time ago, a different time. A time when bookselling meant something. It was a time when I used to stand next to the new title table at the front of Cody’s greeting my customers. I remember once an elderly woman came up to me and said, “Mr. Ross, your taste in books has always been unerring. What do you recommend that I purchase today?”
I turned and scrutinized the tall stacks of new titles, the best sellers on the front table, and gingerly picked up one. I turned back and handed it to the woman. “Try reading this one. I think you will find it quite satisfying. People are talking about it a lot this season. It’s called, Jig.”