I’m always tempted to look for themes and coherence in events that have none—maybe that’s why I do this. And I know I’m not the only one. The first topic of conversation with pretty much everyone I talked to at BEA this year was “It’s not as grim as last year.” The fact that so many people invoked it, myself included, smacked a bit of holding up the cross ostentatiously to ward off vampires—also, it was true. But that’s not quite the theme I’m thinking of.
On Wednesday I got in my quota of schmoozing, but Thursday I made a point of getting there early to catch the National Book Critic Circle’s discussion of The Next Decade in Book Culture. Introduced by NBCC president Jane Ciabattari and moderated by board member John Reed, the panel was made up of the LA Times’ Carolyn Kellogg, Knopf publicity director Nicholas Latimer, Ed Nawotka of PublishingPerspectives.com, Soft Skull editorial director Denise Oswald, and marketing/media maven Kate Travers. Opinions ran the gamut from A to about E or F, and the tone was uncontentious, but it was interesting nonetheless.
Reed led with the question of the moment, the answer still holding at “It’s not as grim as last year.” He went on to ask about the feasibility of e-galleys catching on, and the general consensus was that although the idea is fine, the platforms are wanting and critics still like to work from the physical object— “mark up a galley, take it home, turn down the pages.”
The long review was pronounced alive and kicking, if feebly. The point was brought up that even a 1,200-word review with a healthy comments section became in essence long-form, as were reviews incorporating several sources in the style of the NYRB, which moved the discussion on to the next batch of topics in an elegantly organic fashion that couldn’t have been planned more nicely. Nawotka mentioned reviews using graphics, such as Ward Sutton’s work for the B&N Review, which segued into the topic of ebook enhancements—what Kellogg called “the Secret iPad Question.” But even within the range of technology-love present, there was agreement across the board that those decisions derive not so much from what demographics say consumers want, or which innovations publishers want to push, or even what the platforms will allow, but with the book itself. Not every book warrants enhancement, as Oswald pointed out: “Some books are a closed system where what you have is what you want.” As Latimer pointed out, deckle edges and colophons are enhancements too.
Talk moved on to how the line between concept and advertising was blurring, with merchants like the B&N Review and Amazon’s Omnivoracious sponsoring reviews and authors making guest appearances in the name of self-promotion (“Is that pimping or journalism?” “It’s enhancement”), and whether amateur reviewers were as valuable as professionals (basically, everyone matters on some level: “The conversation is bigger but it’s more granular”). But the panel kept circling back to the idea of the book itself, how reviews and technology are there, in the end, to serve it, and will be driven by it. Granted, these are people whose jobs all involve having the time and resources to make such judgments, and who value the work as more than just a commodity. There are plenty of decisions being made every minute by people who don’t, or can’t, or just don’t get it. Still, the discussion was refreshing.
One success story was brought up a few times: Paul Harding’s Tinkers, this year’s dark-horse Pulitzer prize fiction winner from the tiny Bellevue Literary Press. It was invoked not just as a Cinderella story, but as a trajectory: How enthusiastic critical reviews hadn’t transferred into sales until booksellers and bloggers took up its cause. Tinkers got what it needed from the greater conversation. Had it been dependent on the standard venues for exposure, the quirky little book would have gone nowhere—it hadn’t been on the New York Times’ radar until after the Pulitzer award.
Out of all the books that could have been mentioned, Tinkers especially pleased me. I’ve read a number of books on my Kindle since I’ve had it, all of them completely satisfying in e-ink form—except for that one. I enjoyed it well enough, but on finishing I knew that I’d have to buy the book in print as well. I didn’t give much thought to the reason. It was a purely emotional response: The book is as intricate as the tinker’s horse-drawn wagon, filled with rows of small wooden drawers, that it describes. I wanted to hold it in my hands, flip back and forth and see words and paragraphs in relation to actual pages. That’s not always necessary for everything I read, but it was for Tinkers. In my case, it’s what the book wanted, and I can’t put it better than that.
I had mentioned this briefly to the incomparable Michele Filgate, the events coordinator at Riverrun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and one of Tinkers’ original advocates. I can’t remember the exact context—Goodreads? Twitter? Response to a blog post? The conversations blur, which is not always a bad thing. At any rate, I had the chance to spend some time with her at BEA on Wednesday, which was great, and she asked me if I’d gotten around to buying that hard copy yet. I hadn’t, and like a magician she pulled one out of her bag for me, a lovely little smooth-covered paperback, light as a bird, with Harding’s signature on the title page. Such a nice gesture on her part, and on pondering it further after Thursday’s panel I’m thinking that not only did I get what I wanted—a physical copy—and not only did Michele get what she wanted—to put it in my hand, that I might enjoy it and even share it—but the book, in some odd way, got what it wanted, and what it needed.
Most books, at this point, probably don’t. But if there was anything I’m going to take away from this year’s stint at BEA, it’s the reminder that all this conversation and new technology and ethereal ephemera, which can often seem the epitome of self-indulgence, is there to serve the book. It’s what we’re doing here. Or at least it’s something we can aspire to.
(Vaguely ironic image is again from Jason Boog’s BEA By the Banners.)