Between Fact and Fiction—The 2004 BEA Favored Fact

Once again, Book Expo America filled the vast reaches of McCormick South in Chicago. Maybe it's just because I know more people every year, but it seems harder and harder to fit it all in. This year, for the first time, there were aisles I simply didn't reach. Some by choice (like the art books area, where I would enjoy myself, but there's no one I should be talking to), but others because with all the meetings and seminars, and spontaneous contacts, I didn't quite make it all the way through.

The best marketing idea was from a kid's book publisher, who decorated the booth with panels of complete book art, blown up to about 28 x 12 and displayed sequentially as posters—just the art, no text.

A great many of the children's books this year had messages on values, environment, personal safety, abuse prevention, patriotism. One I particularly liked was Sleeping Bear's line of a dozen or so alphabet books, such as A is for America, D is for Democracy. This same company also publishes regional alphabet books: S is for Sooner (Oklahoma), T is for Tar Heel (North Carolina). Reading level looks like 3-4th grade but these are fully illustrated picture books.

After a long sleep, books on politics were a lot more in evidence. I saw quite a number of titles critical of the current administration, from publishers as diverse as Wiley, Berrett-Koehler, other prominent presses—and small presses too. University of Minnesota actually themed its booth, "Looking for the Liberal Press?" Last year, it seemed only hard-left presses like South End were willing to be critical, with the exceptions of occasional Michael Moore or Al Franken books.

My favorite of the progressive titles I saw this year: Big Bush Lies: 20 Essays and a List of the 50 Most Telling Lies of George W. Bush, anthology edited by Jerry Barrett and published by RiverWood Books, of Ashland, Oregon. It covers both his personal history—the arrest for drunken driving, the allegations of cocaine use, and of course, his disgraceful record of military desertion even from the privileged and safe post he had—and his record on labor, environmental issues, foreign policy, and other issues during his term in office. There were also a bunch of flag-waving books cheering on the current administration, primarily from small presses.

One smart marketer, Paul B. Ciceri, tied his book, You Have No Rights Here: A True Story About One American's 33 Months in a Middle East Prison to the Iraq prison scandal, though his jail time was in the United Arab Emirates and had nothing to do with the Iraq war.

Six exhibitors used the word Creative in the company title: Creative Card Company, The Creative Company, Creative Homeowner, Creative Publishing International, Creative Teaching Press, Creative Therapy Association. Yet, taking the show as a whole, I didn't see a lot of creativity in publisher's offerings.

In fact, the near-total absence of new fiction from midsize and university presses was astonishing. Most of the novels featured on booth wall posters and in stacks of review galleys were either from micro/solo publishers or great big ones. The one exception I noted had a line of fiction brought in from various third-world authors. Not that there wasn't any other fiction at the show, but the posters were almost entirely focused on nonfiction titles. There were certainly novels exhibited by the largest publishers, but by and large, from authors we've all heard about for years. It's a bit scary to see how few new voices are out there, and how little play they're getting.

Several companies emphasizing ethics, integrity, quality—not so much in their books though there were a few of those), but in their signage. For instance, Nelson Business had a brochure that notes, "Success is not defined merely by spreadsheets and profitability, but rather the sum total of leadership, integrity, character, and, of course, business acumen."

Everyone's ready to do business. Attendance seems off but the energy is good—everyone I spoke to—publisher, vendor, author—seemed very happy with their results.

In the big publisher booths, the deal-making is constant. While there are productive-looking meetings happening all over the floor, at the biggest publisher booths, it's hard to even catch someone's eye, because everyone's constantly in a meeting.

Besides fiction, the number of cookbooks also seemed down—but the number of books addressing singles, and especially single women, seemed quite high—and more of them about enjoying singlehood than finding a life partner. One provocative title was Single, Saved, and Having Sex.

Technology notes: MP3 on CD is a newly popular format for audiobooks. DVDs are everywhere. One company, AV Books, offers a computer format that presents the audio book with each page shown on the screen as it's being read. It also plays as audio-only on MP3, DVD, and iPod players. The first title is Agent Orange by George Hay, read by William Shatner.

Religion and spirtuality were very prominent this year, and BEA even devoted a day of seminars and panel discussions. I went to one that featured Father Andrew Greeley discussing the souring of Vatican II (topic of his new nonfiction book from University of California at Berkeley, The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council—and his new novel, The Priestly Kiss, about a priest caught up in the pedophile scandal. Orion Mountain Dreamer discussed her poem, "An Invitation" and a little book that was made about the poem, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of After the Apple: Women in the Bible: Timeless Stories of Love, Lust, and Longing Please click here to read the full report on that panel. On a lower-tech level, the big non-book items at the show seemed to be book lights and book reading stands. Where's the brilliant inventor who will put a light directly onto the reading stand?

Funniest disconnect: The woman who shouted at me from a small press table as I passed her book on mindfulness meditations, "Buy my book on mindfulness, $10." I wonder if she's read the book!

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