the American Book Association's annual convention arrived in Chicago last weekend hobbled by big-publisher defections, riven by acrimony and with nearly everyone expecting the worst of the downsized event -- which, in what seemed perhaps a sort of psychic overcompensation, sported a peppy new name: BookExpo America. "Thanks for showing," read the button worn by the convention's director, Marilyn Harrington, trying her best to be a good sport about it all. "This is a transition year," Harrington told the Chicago Tribune -- though to many it must have seemed "transitional" only in the sense that a bald spot is a "transitional" hairstyle.
For years, publishing heavyweights have been grumbling that the ABA convention wasn't worth the massive investment in time, money and energy it cost them to send a contingent. Last year both Random House and Viking Penguin stayed home from the trade show, in protest against antitrust lawsuits brought against them by the ABA for allegedly favoring the chain bookstores with discounts and leaving independents high and dry. This year, a number of other big publishers joined them, among them Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Bantam Doubleday Dell -- which left the BookExpo bereft of virtually all of publishing's biggest names. These defections had something of a cascade effect, and the total number of exhibitors dropped from 1,600 last year to only about 1,250 this year.
Still, those who did show made the best of it. Yes, various publishers' representatives told me, the show had been a little slower than in years past. But their sales were running about even with last year, they assured me, and the show's seeming implosion had given them the opportunity to really talk to buyers. With the big publishers gone, the argument went, buyers could go looking for gold among the smaller presses. Besides, the aisles were wider this year as well, and less cluttered with pesky people. "There's nothing like low expectations to make a show seem like a hit," one university press rep explained, having apparently absorbed some of the convention director's can-do spirit. It was an opinion shared by many at the convention -- though few of those I spoke to could promise they would be back next year.
The absence of the big publishers helped to emphasize just how much of the book trade has little or nothing to do with actual books. Strolling the aisles, one discovered Dilbert magnets, Dilbert Squeezies, "Fashion Victim Key Chains," "Bach for Dummies" CDs, magnetic poetry kits and an astonishing number of booths selling nothing but bookmarks. When I slowed down for a moment in front of one booth, the woman within it grabbed hold of me and launched into a high-powered five-minute pitch for ArtTalk. conversation-starter cards. (She didn't, alas, seem to be offering any conversation-ender cards, a handy convention accessory I would have paid good money for on the spot.) And for those who wanted to be spoken to when no one else was around, there were audio books by the bushel for adults, and Barney "Electronic Board Books" for the kids.
Barney was not the only one to have gone high tech. Giant Amazon.com banners fluttered overhead, there were computer screens everywhere, and some publishers seemed to be almost embarrassed to be offering anything as low-tech as a plain old book. Bookstores hyped their computer searches, publishers hyped their Web pages and I walked away from the show with a "Surf Illinois" mouse pad from the University of Illinois press. Standing between the swoopy architecture of the Microsoft Press booth and the upscale-Kinkos look of Xerox's space, you could almost imagine you'd plopped down in the middle of an Internet World trade show. Half the people wandering the aisles seemed to be carrying complimentary Microsoft Press tote bags (I snagged two myself); the only things missing were AOL giveaway disks and business geeks talking knowingly about ATM.
Despite the presence of an embarrassing number of execrable celebrity non-books on the publisher's lists -- this fall will see the publication of an "autobiography" by Pamela Anderson Lee and a children's book by John Travolta, both put out by the apparently unashamed Warner books -- this was an event mercifully short on celebrities. Not entirely, of course: New Age guru John-Roger made an appearance, with "celebrity actress" Sally Kirkland (as J-R's publicist described her) in tow. Charlton Heston brought forth "Charlton Heston Presents the Bible." Richard Simmons trotted in with "Sweetie Pie: The Richard Simmons Private Collection of Dazzling Desserts." And Oliver Stone held forth in a Sunday morning session on a semi-autobiographical 30-year-old novel of his he'd dug out of a closet and whipped into publishable shape at the behest of an editor at St. Martin's Press. "I got totally self-absorbed," Stone told the crowd, recalling the time he spent writing the book three decades ago. "I found myself on the edge of pathology, almost."
Like Hollywood, the publishing industry seems more interested in recycling old formulas than in taking a chance on anything new. This fall, the 8 zillion fans of "The Celestine Prophecy" can thrill to another sequel: "The Celestine Vision," due out in November from Warner. And, also thanks to Warner, "Rules Girls" will be able to upgrade themselves to "Rules Girls II" when that sequel hits the bookstores and the talk shows in October. Those who take the war between the sexes with a little less seriousness can pick up a copy of "Women are From Bras, Men are from Penus," which promises to tell readers how to "bypass ... communication and get ... even in your relationship." (Lest anyone get the wrong idea, the book is cleverly labeled "a Parody" on the cover.) Even kids can get in on the sequel action: Health Communications is launching a kiddie version of its Chicken Soup series called "Chicken Soup for Little Souls." Among the titles: "The Best Night Out With Dad" and "The Goodness Gorillas."
No one at the BookExpo needed to worry too much about the state of their souls: There were soul-healers of every stripe eager to help out, sometimes for free. The whiff of incense from the New Age aisles was hard to miss, as were the innumerable booths devoted to some form or another of "alternative spirituality." Llwellyn Press, which claims to be the oldest New Age publisher around, offered visitors FREE palm readings, Tarot readings, Gypsy fortune telling, aura viewings and something called a "Feng Shui Giveaway" which I can't even pretend to understand. (Booksellers who missed the giveaway could catch up at a Sunday session called "Feng Shui in the Bookstore: Business Profits + Client Satisfaction Together at Last!")
Tucked away toward the back of the convention hall I discovered a booth promoting something called "Soul Aerobics," which seemed to be a book of some sort, though 15-minute "Soul Aerobics sessions" were being offered three times a day as well. When I passed by the booth, no one seemed to be aerobicizing body, mind or soul. Two representatives of the company -- soul aerobics instructors, presumably -- sat quietly, dressed nearly identically in sporty whites, above them a giant Soul Aerobics poster seemingly designed by the graphics wizards of the Heaven's Gate cult. Another sign implored visitors to "ask us about" some nifty Soul Aerobics premiums: "a free Soul Aerobics article for your newsletter ... a regular Soul Aerobics of the week/month feature for your radio show or publication ... A Soul Aerobics event for your library, bookstore or biz."
Needless to say, I asked no such questions, nor did I attempt to jump-start any discussions with my complimentary ArtTalk. conversation-starter card. With all the catalogs and promotional junk I was carrying, and the fancy footwork required to escape the clutches of overeager publicists, I was getting enough of an aerobic workout as it was.