Dispatches from the Hell Mouth: The Best and Worst of BEA 2015

A crowded BEA 2015 showroom floor! photo c/o bookexpoamerica.com

Book Expo America, the US publishing industry’s annual conference (“like fashion week but for book people”), has ended and its bespectacled and tote bag-lugging masses have now retreated to their book-filled lairs to lick their wounds (read: put Band-Aids on blistered feet) and offer thanks to the publishing gods that they need not return to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center for at least another two years. (BEA—long a New York staple—moves to Chicago for 2016, and hasn’t yet announced its 2017 location.)

“There’s a culture of complaining about BEA before, during, and after the conference itself,” Oyster editorial director Kevin Nguyen said, “it’s one of those necessary evils you have to put up with—like, ahem, low wages—if you want to be in publishing.”

Certainly complaining about BEA is one of the book industry’s more florid outlets for stress. The Javits Center is “definitely the Hell Mouth,” according to Kickstarter publishing community manager Maris Kreizman. “A gymnasium from hell,” from author Cori McCarthy. Melville House, meanwhile, tweets Hieronymus Bosch paintings as show floor maps.

It’s not all bad. Mark Krotov, a senior editor at Melville House, talked with his coworker Alex Shephard, the publisher’s director of digital media, last week on the Melville House blog about the strange disconnect between all the genuinely good things about BEA and the social pressure to come up with a new and creative ways to compare it to actual hell.

“I think it offers an amazing look at the very large and very diverse ecosystem that is book publishing,” he said. “It’s probably the best way for people in book publishing to see how large their world is–that publishing encompasses Chinese printing companies and creepy Scientologist publishing houses (with good free candy) and men dressed as ancient Greek warriors, and academic presses I’ve never heard of. It’s not a complete picture by any means, but it’s a fascinating one.”

I’ve pretty roundly enjoyed the BEAs I’ve attended, though by Friday afternoon I’m inhaling a McFlurry from the McDonald’s on 10th Avenue and looking forward to falling asleep before 9pm. I’ve snagged galleys, spied Tim Gunn, and, once, snapped a blurry, distant picture of Grumpy Cat, who was sitting on a bed in the Chronicle booth, her head held up and out by a handler so that the line of people that wrapped around the booth could take a photo with her famous face. That was probably the saddest thing I ever saw at BEA. Like me, BEA’s attendees have experiences that run the gamut. Here, gleaned from Twitter and email, are some of my favorite:

Maureen Johnson, author

Imagine having a panic attack inside a Faraday cage—that’s what the Javits Center is.

Katie Adams, book editor, Liveright

I’d been back from maternity leave—after having my first child—for about a month, and I was still nursing. I was assured by the website of the Javits Center that I could pump (with my chic and subtle portable breast pump suitcase) in the infirmary. What I discovered was that not only was the infirmary located in the remote bowels of the building, but the room they had available was horrendous. I sat on a folding chair because the couch was covered with a visibly dirty, used sheet, and there was hair all over the floor. I felt a bit like a criminal in a makeshift dungeon. A clean room really seems like the bare minimum they could provide in order to avoid making a new mother feel vulnerable and discouraged. At the time especially, I was in tears. It was degrading.

Sara Zarr, author

I will always remember BEA & Javits as the place I contracted swine flu.

Emily Hughes, digital marketing associate, Penguin Random House

It is honestly my considered opinion that every hour you spend in the Javits Center takes ten minutes off your life.

Kelly P. Simmon, publicist, Inkslinger PR

I had a woman climb onto my back three years ago to try to get a galley.

Liberty Hardy, bookseller, RiverRun Bookstore

I had my front tooth knocked out on the bus on my way to BEA a few years ago.

Dustin Kurtz, marketing and publicity

All my most tragic details are versions of “haha I don’t know what to do with my hands why did I come to this party why am I alive.”

Erin Shea, librarian

The only horror story I have, which is not a real horror story, is how terrible the food is in the Javits Center. The food there is so terrible that the only thing that looked appealing to me was some sort of sweet ‘n’ sour chicken, which I purchased with a 5-hour energy because I find conferences exhausting. When I checked out the check-out guy asked if I was hungover! Nope, just have really limited food options and a lethargic personality, I guess.

@HarperPerennial, famous Twitter personality

Walking the floor is prettaay boring. I think two years ago I worked our blogger party pretty late and got locked out of our office, which was where my bag was. I tweeted a hasty “FUCK!” to the Perennial account instead of my own and got in a smidge of trouble.

Ryan Chapman, managing director of marketing, BOMB Magazine

I introduced literary agent Kate McKean to Josh Landon at Kobo’s insanely loud party at the Ace Hotel. When the three of us split a cab to the next fête I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Two years later I officiated their wedding. (Oh, and Kate became my agent.)

Jeff Wasserstrom, author

For my one and only BEA book signing in 2007: highpoint was pretending crowd lining up for next-up author Dave Barry was actually for me. (To be honest not everyone in the line was there for Dave Barry… some came for his coauthor, Ridley Pearson.) I made a deal with them, I would cede the signing table to them 10 minutes early if they gave me signed copy of Peter and the Starcatcher and they agreed to take a signed copy of my China’s Brave New World—And Other Tales for Global Times.

Heather McCormack, collection development manager, 3M Cloud Library

Henry Rollins used to take a booth. Don’t think he has for years, but he is essentially a self-publishing genius. The Heidi Fleiss sightings ten-plus years ago were pretty spesh. New cultural high. Then there was that time I asked Ruth Reichl where the Ruth Reichl signing was. One more: I saw Bernadette Peters in the can. She said, “Nice hair.” Um, what about your hair, lady?!

Wilda Williams, book review editor, Library Journal

Let me tell you about the time a librarian dropped her panties in a publisher’s booth, Vandemere Press. Apparently the librarian had overheated and just needed somewhere to disrobe! But I may have gotten the events confused. Might have been ALA!

Another BEA memory: Random House spending $500,000 to duplicate Sistine Chapel in their booth. When $ flowed like wine—I think it was in the late 90s (‘96 or ‘97).

And, there were the dueling beefcakes Fabio and Topaz Man. They were across the aisle from each other. Of course, there are also the Galaxy Press pirates!

Kevin Nguyen, editorial director, Oyster Inc.

A couple years ago, Galaxy Press—better known as the publisher of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard—had a booth dedicated to their new line of pirate fiction. (This sounds like a joke but it’s not a joke!) So Galaxy Press had hired a handful of costumed swashbucklers to yell “ARGH!” at passing conference attendees with the hope of probably luring them to the booth to steal their money. (I’m not sure if this last part is true, but it would be consistent with BOTH the Scientology and pirate themes.)

If you’ve been to BEA before, you’ll know that having costumed performers at a booth isn’t that outlandish. Some romance publishers will have muscle-y body builders surrounding their booths. It’s kind of like the notorious presence of “booth babes” at tech conferences, only exploiting men instead of women, which makes it a little less disgusting.

I was running back and forth across the exhibition hall for various meetings, and each time, one of the Galaxy Press pirates would yell out, “You there, boy!” This happened three or four times before I lost it. I finally conceded, walked over to the booth, leaned in close to the pirate, and told him “to never, ever fucking call me *boy* again.” The pirate was probably eight times my size, but he suddenly seemed very small as he apologized quietly. I feel bad about this in hindsight, because the pirate was just a guy doing his job. Which is what everyone is doing at the Javits Center.

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