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What You Would Have Learned at BEA

photo-62 [1]The publishing world was a curious mix of hyperactivity and near-total silence last week, which can mean only one thing: Book Expo America, known as BEA. It’s an absolutely immense industry-only tradeshow and the largest publishing event in the U.S. by far, with roughly 20,000 publishing industry professionals in attendance.

If you didn’t go, you might feel left out. But never fear! Here’s everything you would have learned if you’d gone.

If you’re an aspiring author, there’s pretty much no reason to go. Here I can’t say it any better than power agent and tell-it-like-it-is internet presence Janet Reid in a recent post on her blog [2]:

BEA is NOT a place for writers to meet agents or try to get info on getting published.  Yes, I’ll be there. So will everyone from my office. I’m not there to meet you. I’m there to see what publishers are doing. I’m there to meet with my co-agents from far flung lands.  I’m there to get a sense of the sea changes in the industry… You want to go to WRITER’S CONFERENCES, not trade shows.  Go where agents ARE actively looking to talk to you.

Boom! Aren’t you glad you didn’t go? Cross it off your list.

There are so many books. Possibly too many. Anyone who’s been to BEA, even for a part of a day, will tell you there’s one word that first springs to mind: overwhelming. If you’ve ever needed a physical representation of what it’s like to be a reader, this is it — rows and rows, tables and tables, yards and yards (that feel like miles) of books. Smiling people behind those tables, eager to have you show interest in the books they’re offering. Publishers, self-publishers, associations, sites, etc. Every long aisle gives way to another one, just as long, over and over. Hundreds of galleys being given away, hundreds of authors signing. And it’s precisely because of the overwhelmingness of publishing that you’ll recognize the third lesson of BEA:

Publishers place their bets. You can preview half of next year’s bestseller lists by looking at the BEA posters and displays. It’s no secret that not every published book gets equal treatment, in part because that’s impossible, and in part because the blockbuster model (one Gone Girl subsidizes hundreds of debuts that never make back their advance) still seems to be the Holy Grail of publisher marketing. Coverage begets coverage, so the books that are heavily touted by the publishers or a “Buzz Panel” are books that stand a way better than average chance of doing well in the marketplace. That doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed success, but it sure helps. (If you haven’t heard of Garth Risk Halberg’s City on Fire yet, believe me, you will.)

So you might have missed out on some free galleys, and you certainly missed out on the aching feet and general fatigue that comes with attending, but all in all, you don’t need to see BEA for yourself to understand what it says about publishing. That much, we can see from here.

Q: if you did go to BEA this year or have gone in previous years, are there other things you learned? Reasons to go or not go?

About Jael McHenry [3]

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter [4] (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com [5] or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.