I should have brought a bigger bag.
Veterans of BookExpo America know this. You can pinpoint the returnees by their huge canvas bags brimming with goodies.
Once I realized I needed a bigger bag — my over-the-shoulder black fabric tote wasn’t exactly cutting it — I tried to snag one at a company’s booth. Nope. All gone.
I wasn’t jealous. Well, maybe a little envious.
I didn’t intend to leave with much from my first trip to BEA. (That’s why I only brought the small messenger bag). Despite being an avid reader, I had never attended BEA before. I simply wanted to know the meaning behind the event. I was there to observe and learn.
I spoke to industry insiders, met dozens of authors and learned about books scheduled for release in the coming months.
BEA is where readers and writers of the world unite.
OK, not exactly. But it felt that way as I scoped out names and companies on ID badges as I crossed the floor. People from libraries across the country, hundreds of employees from publishing houses. And so many authors.
If the idea of writing a book seemed daunting, BEA is a good place to alleviate any fears. With so many publishing houses of all sizes, it seemed there has to be a home for everyone. But we know that’s not the case as we hear stories about people who can’t get deals.
However, the publishers were all there, and it was inspiring rather than scary to interact with them.
Before I started to assemble my BEA collection, I walked the Jacob Javits Center’s convention floor. I only got so far before I was distracted … by the male cover models for Ellora’s Cave, a publisher of erotic fiction.
I wasn’t the only onlooker who stopped in their tracks. Women lined up to take pictures of the beefy models and the men were all too happy to pose, flexing their muscles and snuggling close to their female fans.
“We have a lot of fun here,” said Ellora’s Cave CEO Patty Marks. “It helps get people to notice us, but we do all sorts of conventions. Women enjoy our books and certainly enjoy our cover models.”
If you were feeling extra feisty, Ellora’s Cave even made calendars of the men. Like the canvas bags, those also went quickly.
I was able to tear myself away from the booth once I realized there were hundreds of other exhibits to see, including the Big Five publishing houses. I knew I’d hit the big-time once my feet began to float on the plush carpeting–a sweet relief after walking down dozens of aisles.
This is where swag bags start to fill. Many publishers were happy to give away advances copies of books. But I had to say no, as my non-swag bag usually just holds my wallet, phone and keys. There was certainly not enough room for the dozen or more books I could have grabbed.
Much of the booth space was set aside for business meetings, such as publishers trying to persuade booksellers to carry their books. Various publishers had discounts varying from three to five percent. A real bargain.
The key was getting one of the thousands of BEA attendees to notice your booth. Big signs and banners help. However, if you’re not Simon & Schuster or Penguin, the other companies had to find ways to get people to stop. If you didn’t have models standing at your booth, the next best thing was an autograph signing.
That’s how Barefoot Books lured me in. I had heard of the children’s book company because it recently announced it was removing its books from Amazon’s store. Coincidentally, Barefoot Books was set up right across from the mega retailer at BEA.
But a group of women stood in front of the colorful booth with cameras in hand.
As I peeked around their bodies, I saw someone I didn’t expect — actress Debra Messing. As a huge “Will & Grace” fan, I understood why these women stopped.
I didn’t initially know why she was signing posters at Barefoot Books, but I stood in a short line to get her autograph without thinking about how I was going to carry this poster on the train ride home without it getting wrecked.
Turns out Messing has done voice work for Barefoot Books. About six years ago, she sent a handwritten letter to CEO Nancy Traversy saying how much she loved the books and wanted to participate.
“I was so surprised and touched,” Traversy said. “Anytime someone like her says they want to do voice work, of course you say yes. She had a young child at home and loved the books. She was the perfect person.”
After scurrying off with my autographed poster from a kind and smiling Messing, I found myself at the autograph pavilion. Some of the more popular signers congregated here, with tickets required to receive their autographs. But the booth to get tickets was at the front of the convention center and my poor feet wouldn’t let me go in the opposite direction of my destination.
Many of the signers were well-established authors, such as R.L. Stine and Mary Higgins Clark. But tickets were needed.
As I kicked an imaginary rock in front of me and made my way past a booth selling “Keep Calm and Read On” T-shirts, I decided to make one more quick pass through BEA, just in case I missed anything — like Grumpy Cats or dog balloons.
I noticed a line of people near the Shadow Mountain Publishing booth. I craned my head to look for a signer, but spotted nothing. However, I realized the line was mostly men — an aberration for the female-abundant crowd.
So I asked who was signing.
“John Stockton.” The basketball legend was autographing advance copies of his autobiography.
“Do you need a ticket?”
Boom! The greatest assist man of all time. And almost no wait.
One problem — by this point, my small, black bag was over-filled, crowded by books and magazines and business placards. On top of that, I was still holding the signed Debra Messing poster.
The line moved quickly. A few basketball fans chatted up the former Utah Jazz point guard. One even asked if he would coach the Brooklyn Nets next year.
My turn. I racked my brain for something witty to say. I wanted to tell him how I loved the Dream Team and how I watched every game no matter the time it aired when I was 12 years old. I wanted to tell him how awesome he was in video games, or his NBA Finals performances, or those ridiculous short-shorts that players wore during his playing days …
In the end, I gave him my brightest smile and simply said, “Thank you.”
Those words summed up everything I felt at that moment.
That, and how I really needed that bigger bag.