Reading Between the Lines at BookExpo


By Diane Brady These are odd times for the book publishing industry. Oprah cancels her book club, arguing it's too tough to find one title a month that really moves her. Retailer Barnes & Noble extends its controversial plunge into publishing with the prediction that 10% of store shelves will be filled with the books it publishes within five years. Established houses struggle while, relative newcomers like Talk Miramax Books enjoy a string of hits. Meanwhile, the fact that celebrities from Rosie O'Donnell to Al Gore are out stumping their prose proves that, though there may be easier ways to make money, nothing is quite as sexy as having your own book.

No wonder BookExpo America, the annual gathering of booksellers and publishers, which ran from May 1 to 5 at Manhattan's Jacob J. Javits Convention Center, retains an edge of glamour that insurance conferences or other industry gatherings rarely match. Plenty of them may get former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to open their events, but at this one, he seemed to really want to be there. Hey, the man has a book to sell -- as he kept reminding the capacity crowd.

And this mostly mainstream slice of American business was clearly enthusiastic at the thought of selling it. More than a few people asked whether he would run for national office before clamoring to get his autograph as he left the stage. No tough questions about his messy divorce or mixed reputation prior to the events of September 11.

SO, WHAT'S NEW? Titled Leadership, Giuliani's June, 2002, release promises to reveal the lessons he has learned in a career that ranges from being receiver at a bankrupt coal factory in Eastern Kentucky to guiding New York City through the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks. Then again, like former General Electric Chief Exec Jack Welch and other leaders with multimillion-dollar book advances, it's probably a safe bet that most of the pithy advice in Giuliani's book will be familiar to readers. Anyone who has been knighted and dubbed Time's Man of the Year has had his philosophy laid out to the masses. Those who remain clueless can bone up on his idol Winston Churchill or thumb through The Godfather by Mario Puzo -- Rudy's favorite book.

Hundreds of other novice and veteran authors were among the thousands in attendance. Everyone from actress Marlo Thomas to CNBC financial news reporter Maria Bartiromo had new books to promote. Jordan's Queen Noor al-Hussein was there, hawking a memoir about her life and love of Islam. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has admitted to "inadvertently" lifting passages from other books for The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga, came to host the "Celebration of Bookselling" awards. Despite the alleged plagiarism, she, too, faced cheers and warmth from the crowd. After all, a little controversy never hurt book sales.

As with previous publishing events, some also used the forum to put old rumors to rest. Tipper Gore, sharing the stage with fellow authors husband Al, Jean Auel (Clan of the Cave Bear) and Pat Conroy (The Prince of Tides), noted that "Pat wrote about erections, [and] Jean wrote about homo erectus. I just want you to know that [Al] is not stiff." Some, including her spouse, seemed to not really know what she meant by that remark.

LOTS OF CHARACTERS. Still, faced with a sunny spring weekend in the Big Apple, participants were in a buoyant mood. Thanks to the city's concentration of publishers, agents, and writers, BookExpo was more crowded than recent events in Chicago or Los Angeles were. Many veterans of the annual publishing fest also argued that New York drew a more vibrant and lively audience, with a bigger share of characters roaming the aisles.

As Pittsburgh author and publicist Celia Rocks put it: "In Chicago, you find a pretty conservative crowd. Here, someone is not embarrassed to say he's Elvis Presley's son." Etan Boritzer of Santa Monica's Veronica Lane Books agreed, adding that New Yorkers are "more aggressive than anyone else in the world."

Perhaps, but the most visible undercurrent of hostility was occasional grumbling about Barnes & Noble's foray into publishing. Among other things, the move could force publishers to lower their prices -- long a sticking point for the retail chain.

WHERE'S HARRY? "It's such a conflict of interest," said a staffer at one major publishing house. Because his employer relies on the megaretailer for book distribution, he didn't want his name used. Over at Friedman/Fairfax, a Barnes & Noble-owned publishing imprint, sales reps downplayed any dissatisfaction. It probably helped that the booth was located away from major traffic and bore no mention of its powerful retail parent. "I think people know this is Barnes & Noble," said one executive, adding that he hadn't seen "anything unusual" from participants dropping by the booth.

Of course, in the near term, a bigger worry than that might be the prospect of another year without a new Harry Potter book, which will take its toll on the children's category. But even with the troubles plaguing the slim-margin world of book publishing, things are looking pretty positive this year. The Book Industry Study Group predicts that consumers will spend $31.8 billion on books in 2002, up 2.1% from last year.

And the biggest area of growth will be in the adult category as Potter series author, J.K. Rowling, continues to struggle with the wildly anticipated fifth installment of the adolescent wizard's shenanigans. Until she finishes, even if Oprah can't find a decent book to recommend, it's clear that others can still sniff out a good read. Brady is an associate editor of BusinessWeek in New York


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