Our friend Kayla has just dropped us off at the train station. Breakfast conversation centered around young adult books and the previous day at BookExpo America. Kayla is young, and very cheery. She fancies herself a bit of a book hoarder: She took home seventy books yesterday. I picture the small, slight Kayla riding the train home with a heavy rolling suitcase, giddy from her haul of convention giveaway books.
BookExpo America is a yearly convention of publishers, authors, and the service industries that spring up around them. The Javits Center, a huge hall for shows like this, is filled with audiobook studios, distribution houses, and book trailer designers. Even bookstores have a presence; Powells–from Portland, Oregon–has a booth. (Oddly, its rival, Strand Book Store, from across town, is absent.) Like any trade show, companies give out swag and branded canvas bags to haul it home. I’m there to meet other freelance editors, make connections with authors and publishers, and in general enjoy the atmosphere of getting the book out there that permeates the publishing world. Kayla’s haul is on my mind as we walk up to the train platform to go into the city for a second day at the Expo.
Martha notices clothing a lot, and randomly notices Janice, specifically her sleeves: open and Summery in the slight breeze, and appropriate for this warm sunny Thursday. In the next few minutes, we introduce ourselves, our tastes in books, where we live. The three of us are connecting, in that overexcited way of strangers finding commonalities.
Janice is reading a book that came to the top of her to-read pile on the day the author died. As the three of us walk onto the train together, I share with her how, when I was a boy, I read a copy of this poetic, emotional book, my copy illustrated with mechanistic line-art. It made Bradbury’s prose seem oddly automated and disturbing. Given this book’s themes of cyclical inevitability, I always somehow connected with those illustrations, and when I lost that copy, I hunted down another of the same oddly heavy editions. That volume, too, has since gone missing. In my head, The Martian Chronicles is a book that will be lost by design.
We talk to Janice on the train for half an hour, about co-ops and the morality of unions and the streets of our home town. And books. We talk a lot about books. We exchange personal information before she gets off the train in Newark.
Why do people like to talk about books so much? The obvious aside–people like to talk–reading is something you do on your own, and the experience of reading takes place completely in your head. It’s an odd situation, one where you’re utterly alone yet connecting with a writer and their world on an intimate level. Talking about it is a bit like therapy after a life-changing event, or debriefing from an intense experience: We want to make sure other people also feel this way, that we’re normal for reacting the way we do to books.
Kayla–our friend with the suitcase of books–asked if I could pick up a copy of Bitterblue for her. “You’ll be the only man on that line,” she said. Wandering the aisles of the Expo, we quickly find out that Penguin not only has no copies of the book but that they never had any at all; its appearance on the convention’s schedule is an error. I point Martha at some interesting displays I saw yesterday, ones where publishers have particularly clever displays or interesting content. We’re tired after several hours of pushing through crowds and collecting thin canvas tote bags, and sit at a table to sort through our haul of free books and pamphlets and business cards. I keep an eye open for any stray copies of Bitterblue, just in case, but fail to find it. Kayla will be disappointed.
When we get home later tonight, I’ll have several hours of work to do, mostly consisting of following up with potential connections in the hopes of getting more editorial work from freelancer-friendly publishers. There are very few individual authors at BEA hawking their books, and the few we do see are hidden away. We stop by the EFA booth for a few minutes, and it’s fun introducing Martha to some of my fellow “editorial freelancer” colleagues.
Like reading, editing is also something done alone, but it’s an activity that gets me inside the mind of a writer. There’s an added dimension: What an editor does on the page goes back to the author, and, if we’re doing our jobs well, it’ll affect the book and improve it. We’ll help the writer create that moment where the reader is alone yet in good company. This entire conference is, to me, about finding more clients with more books to edit, more opportunities to envision that reader-moment in the software emulator in my head.
I find writers and editors and designers and marketing people to talk to. Of course, I gravitate towards talking to other freelancers, as well as people who would like to freelance. But I notice an odd attitude from those who are interested in doing freelance work. I meet several such at the expo over these two days and, like a man buying a romance novel, many tell me that my friend is interested in freelancing. Considering that those on staff at a publisher face the prospect of their co-workers being there, I can understand this, but it still is odd. But we all have one thing in common, at least: We all love books, and like to talk about them. Many quirks are forgiven among those who share a passion.
That room filled with publishers and authors and hangers-on suddenly seems less like a marketplace and more like an excuse for lonely people to connect with someone, or at least with someone different. That’s probably true of any business convention–it’s a chance to get out of the office. And editors and publishers do have offices, or at least the ones from the big houses do. But authors and readers? They’re the beginning and the endpoint of any book, and they’re the most alone. Even librarians, those misunderstood information technicians who interact with people all day, love to see people along with a good book.
BookExpo America isn’t just a giant therapy session for the publishing industry; a lot of business is conducted at the accidental conference tables thoughtfully set up in the larger booths for informal gatherings. But I believe that a major part of the Expo’s appeal is knowing that people like us will be there. We can escape from television and the internet for just a few days. That Amazon CreateSpace booth in the back is easy to ignore. (That’s the one next to the Nook giveaways.)
We’re riding the train back to New Jersey as I write these words in my own attempt to debrief from this intense couple of days. I’m tired from several hours of walking against crowds, but I’m also happy from this two days of immersion in the world of books, business, and authorial desperation. I have the beginnings of a stitch in my side, but, at least at this moment, I’m optimistic about getting more work from this, or at least some more connections in my chosen field. At the moment, I’m happy. And I’m not alone.
Note: Some names here have been changed.
Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He also plays acoustic guitar in the bands Baroque & Hungry, and The Trouveres, the latter of which will be playing at the New Jersey Renaissance Faire this weekend.