The Content and the Buzz

Rumors of Book Expo's demise are greatly exaggerated. Scott McLemee returns from the university press "ghetto."

June 2, 2010

A few days have passed since the conclusion of Book Expo America, the annual trade show for the publishing industry, and it seems like I should have recovered by now. But you do not go to New York City to sleep. It was a hectic experience. In spite of the trend toward rethinking the importance of BEA noted in last week’s column, plenty of scholarly presses were on hand. They had scores of new titles on display -- if not always, as in previous years, for the taking.

Besides which, I stayed about two blocks from The Strand. That meant hours of rooting around, so now a box of old books is headed to me through the mail. (You do not go to New York to be frugal, either.)

As late as 2009, Book Expo occupied a cavernous exhibit hall and spilled over to a second floor that was only somewhat less gigantic. This time, the contraction in scale was unmistakable. Many publishers (and not just academic ones) squeezed into smaller booths than they would have a few years ago. One floor was quite enough. The directory was perhaps a third the size of the one for my first Book Expo, five years ago. And the event ran for just two days in the middle of the week -- rather than Friday through Sunday, as in the past.

But this condensation had the unexpected effect of making the show seem much brisker. People from Manhattan’s media and publishing worlds were happy to have an excuse to get away from the office for a while. "Last year, when Sunday came," one publicist told me, “I could have done cartwheels down the middle of the aisles and nobody would have noticed.”

Things had utterly changed this time in what some scholarly publishing folks called “the ghetto.” This was a stretch of booths on aisle 3700 where the university presses of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, McGill-Queens, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Princeton, Virginia, and Yale all held court.

With so many not-terribly-commercial presses right beside one another, you might expect this zone to be a fairly quiet. But in fact they were in a prime location, and the traffic was at times so heavy that there was gridlock. It was also noisy. All of my meetings with university-press people involved at least one use of the line “What was that you just said?”

By the second (and final) day, everyone sounded reasonably satisfied with the decision to attend. Even university presses far from "the ghetto" seemed to think that the event went well.

“We didn’t get a great spot,” one person said, “but least our booth isn’t across from the remainders this time. That really killed the mood last time.” Another publicist was relieved not to have ended up “next to the L. Ron Hubbard people again.”

Whether or not sales were looking up, people reported a sense that they were at least stabilizing -- which, given the recent trends, almost counts as a basis for optimism. Like the song says, “Been down so very damn long that it looks like up to me.” Whenever anyone expressed confidence about the future, I tried to find out if they were basing their optimism on anything in particular. Unfortunately, the responses tended to be vague, beyond the general sense that revenue from digital books was an encouraging prospect.

One case of a concrete, positive development involving an old-fashioned print artifact came from the University of Minnesota Press, which has kept in print a number of books by Christopher Isherwood, including his novel A Single Man (1964). This was adapted into last-year’s Academy Award-nominated film of the same title. Sales for the paperback were good, and one sees where that would be encouraging. Nevertheless, it seems difficult to extract any advice from this example -- apart from “be lucky with your back list.” (Though smart might count as much as lucky.)

One new title from a university press enjoyed an added bit of exposure during the trade show, given the approaching holiday. This was When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans (University of North Carolina Press) by Laura Browder, a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, with photographs by Sascha Pflaeging. A set of oral-history interviews and portraits of women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, it received a notice in a special edition of Publisher’s Weekly circulated during Book Expo.

The writeup included a quotation from the book’s editor, Sian Hunter, who made a strong case for the special attention that academic presses can bring to their titles: “We tailored the publication process to make sure Laura’s academic and Sascha’s photographic expertise were highlighted, and we kept their contributions and concerns in mind as we made decisions on everything from thematic organization to paper choice and publicity.” These are things the commercial giants tend to regard as needless luxuries -- at least for any book that isn't going to dominate the chain bookstores, and frankly sometimes even then. It was good to see someone at Book Expo talking about editing and publishing as part of a craft, rather than an industry.

Let me end with some quick notes on forthcoming books that caught my attention while wandering the aisles. This list won’t be exhaustive -- just a few things I particularly look forward to seeing, or already am reading.

The expression “crossover book” is often used to label an academic title that has the potential to go beyond the academic world to interest a wider audience. With David Foster Wallace’s Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will -- forthcoming in January from Columbia University Press -- we need to coin a phrase that means the exact opposite. With the iconic image of a bandanna-wearing DFW on the cover, it is bound to catch the attention of a broad public. But this new book -- anchored by his philosophy honors thesis “Richard Taylor’s Fatalism and the Semantics of Physical Modality” (1985) -- is going to find readers primarily among experts in the semantics of physical modality. All 47 of them. You know who you are.

In addition to the thesis -- written at Amherst College while DFW was working on his first novel -- the volume will reprint Taylor’s paper “Fatalism” (1962) and a dozen responses to it published in British and American philosophical journals. The contents will also include a memoir by a fellow Amherst alum and an essay connecting DFW’s philosophical work to his other prose. It will conclude with another paper, “The Problem of Future Contingencies,” by Richard Taylor, who died in 2003.The book will be a lot shorter than Infinite Jest, but fewer people are going to finish reading it.

No commercial publisher had the good fortune or the good sense to acquire the rights to Jon Savage’s The England’s Dreaming Tapes, published in Britain last year and forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press in September. Collecting more than seven hundred pages of transcripts from interviews Savage collected in the late 1980s while researching his landmark book England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond (1991), it is not the only oral history of punk rock available. But the prepublication sampler from the Minnesota booth, consisting of about one third of the entire book, was the thing I read first, and enjoyed most, after returning to my hotel room.

You can’t let the pleasure principle run your life, of course. I did keep an eye out for conservative titles while at Book Expo -- intending to read something more or less certain to challenge my assumptions about everything, or at least to remind me what they are. The problem, of course, is that you want to find something actually worth reading as well. After lingering around right-wing booths, I came to feel a sort of compassion for conservative publishers – or at least for the people designing their covers. Clearly it is proving as difficult to make Barack Obama look menacing as it was to show George W. Bush as thoughtful. In either case, the ears don't help.

As it turns out, Cambridge University Press will satisfy my craving with Norman Podohertz: A Biography by Thomas L. Jeffers. The author, a professor of literature at Marquette University, has had access to Podhoretz himself as well as to his papers and family. I see that on the final page Jeffers pays homage to the benefits the neoconservative mastermind has created for “his country, his people, and the values they exemplify and share.” Yes, this should do nicely.

At the other extreme, the radical press Verso -- now celebrating its 40th year of translating pretty much every European Marxist theorist anyone has ever heard of -- is scheduled to publish The Idea of Communism this fall. It consists of papers from a conference held in London last year, addressed by Alain Badiou, Terry Eagleton, Slavoj Žižek, and plenty more besides.

You may well be thinking, “Didn’t Žižek just publish three books last week?” and of course he probably did. (Either then or the week before.) But what makes The Idea of Communism newsworthy is that Verso is trying to find someone in New York to sponsor a replay of last year’s conference.

Assuming they manage to find a university to host it, this could be a major event in book-promotion history -- especially if there is an open slot for Žižek to host Saturday Night Live.


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