Cover to cover at Book Expo

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From Potterheads to literary professionals, 6 rules for mastering NYC’s biggest publishing event


  • The 20th anniversary editions of the Harry Potter series, with cover art by Brian Selznick. Photo: Alizah Salario

  • Book Expo attendees waiting in line for a signature from “Potato Pants” author Laurie Keller. Photo: Alizah Salario

  • A section of the “Share the book that changed your life” wall. Photo: Alizah Salario

  • Heather Kim signs copies of her cookbook “Sweet Revenge.” Photo: Alizah Salario

By Alizah Salario

The first rule of Book Expo America is to bring a suitcase. Preferably one on wheels that’s suited to stacking advanced reader copies (ARCs) and bookish swag. Otherwise, prepare to spend hours walking around the Javits Center with bulging canvas totes weighing down each shoulder like saddle bags. It’s a real amateur look.

Book Expo America (BEA), and its slightly wilder sister event BookCon, are the biggest publishing events in North America. Every year in late May and early June, publishers, authors, booksellers, literary agents, librarians and book bloggers descend upon the Javits Center to talk shop, get a sneak peek at upcoming titles and glean wisdom from their favorite authors. Like any other industry-specific conference, BEA is about making professional connections, and of course it’s hard work for the many exhibitors and panelists. For the canvas tote set, it also serves as a literary amusement park, where book lovers can nerd out without judgment.

Which brings us to the second rule of BEA: beware the superfans. Potterheads clamored to snap photos of the new 20th anniversary editions of all seven Harry Potter books, featuring stunning cover art by Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book illustrator Brian Selznick. When placed side by side, the covers form a panoramic view that depicts Harry’s journey throughout the series. A line running the entire length of a Javits Center aisle buzzed with excitement; many in line sported pastel hair and glittery nail polish. “The Wicked King” by bestselling YA author Holly Black was dropping right then and there; distributors handed out the new title like hotcakes. Take note, superfans: really big names can’t be found on the conference floor. Their events generally require tickets, like the discussion between former President Bill Clinton and author James Patterson about collaborating on their forthcoming novel “The President is Missing.”

Fans may have the inside scoop on book signings and releases, but one need only wander the aisles to catch the buzz. Another line snaking around the corner led this reporter to discover “Potato Pants,” a heartwarming tale about a potato and his eggplant nemesis by Geisel-Award winning creator Laurie Keller, and “Rebound” by poet and children’s fiction author Kwame Alexander, who looked unperturbed by the long line awaiting his autograph.

“For a first time author, it’s terrifying and delightful,” says Heather Kim, who was signing copies of her quirky cookbook “Sweet Revenge: Passive-Aggressive Desserts for Your Exes & Enemies.” Kim, who had sleeves of tattoos that crept up to her neck, said that as a heavily tattooed cookbook author, she had received both kind and questionable remarks.

That’s case-in-point for BEA rule number three: Don’t be a genre snob. Part of the joy of BEA is the exposure to different genres and authors. Seeing what small presses outside of New York are churning out is refreshing, particularly for those saturated in the hierarchical and exclusive New York publishing scene.

That being said, don’t forget that BEA is in Manhattan for a reason, so stay loyal to your city. (Rule four). Local booksellers like Housing Works made their presence known with their version of “blind date” books. The mystery titles were wrapped in brown paper with cryptic faux titles like “Sometimes the path to success is incredibly convoluted” written in marker. Publishers were promoting New York-centric titles for fall, including two books about growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s Manhattan. Readers, keep an eye out for Amanda Stern’s memoir “Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life,” and John Fried’s collection of intertwining short stories about coming-of-age, “The Martin Chronicles.”

Rule five may come as a bit of a surprise, but it dovetails with 2018’s “The Reimagined Book Expo” theme. Barnes & Noble chairman Len Riggio delivered the keynote address and was introduced Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association. On the face of it, an alliance between the independent bookstore community and the nation’s corporate bookstore behemoth might seem unholy, but the message was clear: there’s room for both in our current bookselling ecosystem. “There could never be too many bookstores of any type in America,” said Riggio, as previously reported by Publisher’s Weekly. He reminded booksellers to be nimble in the face of change (change being driven by Amazon). Did we learn nothing from “You’ve Got Mail?” Indies and Barnes & Noble can peacefully coexist.

Yes, publishing is big business, and BEA helps many a publishing professional turn a dollar, but reading books? That’s still — yes, still — about hope and wonder. That’s rule six, and the message of the Children’s Books and Authors breakfast led by Jaqueline Woodson, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. The panel included Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis, whose upcoming picture book “Cordury Takes a Bow,” came from a desire to put her daughter into the stories she read, so that she and other African-American girls could see themselves on the page. Davis spoke about the important work of artists and writers.

“We are the truth tellers,” said Davis. “We cannot afford to let 75 manuscripts go unfinished. We are the warriors.”

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