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1

Enjoying Many Happy Reunions & First Meetings at Book Expo 2017

I’ve long since quit keeping track of how many annual Book Expo conventions I’ve attended since Undercover Books opened in 1978; over the past 39 years I’d say I haven’t missed more than five of these trade shows. I’ve written about many of them on this blog. Last year was a miss with the show in Chicago, so I was glad that the Javits Center on the west side of Manhattan was the venue once more for the 2017 rendition of the book industry’s annual get-together. Though the show is diminished in attendance and book industry importance since the glory days when it was known as ‘the ABA,’ the period when the American Booksellers Association, the trade association of indie booksellers, owned and ran the convention. It was a great asset, but eventually they sold the show to a company that ran trade shows; currently, it’s owned by Reed Exhibitions. Their management and the choices they make each year about the show is a topic of much discussion and some controversy among booksellers and publishers.

While registering on Wednesday afternoon, May 31, I was startled to see #TrumpRussia figure Carter Page in line after I’d registered, which prompted some quick picture-taking and tweeting from me before my first event. As I was that afternoon, I’m still very curious about what he was doing at the show. Hoping to sell and publish a book? Or, perhaps he already has one in the works? I figure it was one of these—why else would he attend Book Expo? Maybe he hopes to take the same route that the guy who goes by Milo has announced he’ll do: self-publish. And yet, if he’s gonna tell his story, I imagine the congressional committees and Special Counsel Mueller would want to hear it first. That could set up a constitutional struggle: Page’s interest in exercising his free speech rights versus the legislature’s and the law’s interest in exercising their key oversight and criminal prosecution authorities. I love Book Expo for this—you never know who you might see next! One year, I saw former FEMA Commissioner just a year or two after Hurricane Katrina.

https://twitter.com/philipsturner/status/869967470739828736

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The fair’s kickoff event, held before the show floor would open the following morning, was the Editors’ Buzz Panel, where each year six editors are invited to talk about the one book they’re bringing out in the coming months that has them and their publishing house colleagues most excited. In past years, while the lineup always skewed heavily toward fiction—a product, I guess, of the notional that novels lend themselves to hand-selling by booksellers more readily than nonfiction, not an idea I endorse—there would usually be at least one or two nonfiction books among the novels. Not so this year, when it was six novels, one after another, with each editor being introduced at some length by moderator Annie Philbrick, co-owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic, CT, and Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, RI. I’m sure all the novels are worthy, but the program choice led, in my opinion, to an at times leaden and repetitive recitation of plot points, reading of blurbs, and comparisons to other novels, that lasted one hour and fifteen minutes. The other issue I had with the program was the exclusive predominance of big-house publishers, (e.g., three titles from imprints at Penguin Random House, one title from an S & S imprint, one from Hachette, and one from Harper), with no mid-sized majors or indie presses in the mix. Are we supposed to believe there were no worthy titles from among publishers like Grove Atlantic, Norton, Algonquin, Graywolf, Counterpoint, Beacon Press, Other Press, and others of their ilk?

Of the six novels presented (each  mentioned here), I found myself most interested in possibly reading The World of Tomorrow by Brendan Matthews, a first novel set in NYC during the 1939 World’s Fair, and The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, the conceit for which is that a fortuneteller can tell characters the very day they’ll die. The whole program would have flowed much better with some adjustments and variation, including briefer presentations by the editors (some seemed stretched to fifteen minutes, which would never be tolerated at a sales conference) and by injecting some narrative nonfiction in to the mix. After the last presenter finished, there was a mad scramble of people rushing to the back of the room to get ARCs of the six books, but it was so intensely crowded, I felt someone could’ve been trampled. Surely, there must be a better way to distribute the reading copies than a mad scrum that has people gasping for air! I hope the Buzz Panel programmers take note of these points for next year’s panel.

After hours, Book Expo always offers action, and this year was no exception as the sales rep group Parson Weems Publisher Services celebrated its 20th anniversary as a company with a delightful bash at the Landmark Tavern, near the Javits Center. PW sales reps Chris Kerr, Linda Cannon, Eileen Bertelli, and Jason Kincade were great hosts and I enjoyed drinks with many people there in the back room of the tavern, with the late afternoon light fading to early evening as the party unfolded, and the good ale they serve. Glad I could introduce my brother-in-law Ev Taylor to many old friends at the party.

The convention floor opened the next morning, and thanks to the MTA’s new subway stop for the #7 train at Tenth Ave and 34th St (which has the steepest, most vertical escalators I’ve ever seen in NY’s subway), I was right on time for my first meeting of the day. Chance encounters also quickly bloomed, as I bumped in to old and new friends like John Whelan of the superb gift book publisher Cider Mill Press; Tom Nevins, longtime member of the Random House sales force; B.J. Berti, Senior Editor for crafts and illustrated books, St Martin’s Press, to whom I was introduced by another old friend, Mike Shatzkin, one of whose new ventures, OptiQly, was being introduced at Book Expo; Peter Costanzo, digital publishing specialist for the AP; Kevin and Spencer Williams, Talonbooks, Vancouver, BC, who are clients of Consortium, a distributor that’s especially good with literary lines, were excitedly sharing with booksellers copies of one of their lead books, Anima; Rob Sanders, Greystone Books, Vancouver, BC, who had a big hit this year with The Hidden Life of Trees, which he’s following up this fall with The Hidden Life of Animals; and Herb Simon, Chairman Emeritus of the group that owns Kirkus, with whom I discussed the NBA, since he’s principal owner of the Indiana Pacers; George Greenfield, literary and lecture agent, who I chatted with in the crowded aisle in front of Hachette’s stand; Michael Korda, who’s publishing a new book with Liveright, Alone, an historical chronicle on the 1940 evacuation from Dunkirk, which he experienced firsthand as a 6-year old child.

I had prepared a memo that outlined all the current projects I’m agenting, and was pleased in several of my meetings with publishers and editors to register interest for the proposed new titles:

  • The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, a new book about the last months of the poet’s life;
  • Dirty Windshields: A Canadian Rock n’ Roll Band’s Misadventures Across the USA and Beyond, CBC broadcaster Grant Lawrence’s hilarious and heart-tugging book about his years as frontman and lead singer of the breakthrough punk band, The Smugglers
  • The Lust Club: Confessions of a Prada Model, a one-of-a-kind memoir by a male fashion model;
  • The Twenty-Ninth Day: A Dangerous Journey in the Canadian Arctic, a wilderness survival story the center of which was the grievous mauling by a grizzly bear suffered by the author
  • Ten Garments Every Man Should Own, by Toronto writer Pedro Mendes, publisher of The Hogtown Rake menswear blog;
  • A book about the development of Rap music through the history of sampling, Bring That Beat Back, and another music title by a true pioneer of electronic and hip-hop music;
  • How Horses Help us Heal: Reports from the Field, a deeply spiritual book about equine therapy that surveys the many equine therapy centers in the US;
  • Crash Test: How an Automaker Evaded Accountability, a corporate whistleblower’s account of a company’s lethal malfeasance;
  • Macoupin, a novel of the American prairie spanning 1800 to the near-present, by Jack Heinz. “Caste and class are most subtly yet vividly described in prose as spare and suggestive as an Edward Hopper landscape.”—Ward Just

It was exciting to represent these books and authors at Book Expo.

I got in an autograph line to meet Mira Bartok, whose earlier book, a memoir set in Cleveland about her schizophrenic mother, called The Memory Palace, I had found very compassionate. So did the National Book Critics Circle, which gave it their memoir prize in 2011. Her new book is a departure, a YA fantasy novel called The Wonderling. I also stood in line a while to get a book signed by actor William Daniels, who played Dr Craig in “St Elsewhere,” and had a memorable role in “A Thousand Clowns” with Jason Robards, Jr. Little did I know how hugely popular he is, so after some time waiting, I exited the very long line, but first got a picture of him signing his acting memoir, There I Go Again. Later, I did hang on in a shorter line long enough to meet Brooke Gladstone, longtime co-host of one of my favorite public radio programs, “On the Media,” author of The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time, a copy of which she signed for me. I also stood in line for novelist Mark Helprin, who as a younger author back in the day twice traveled to Cleveland for successful events at Undercover Books, for his outstanding early books A Dove of the East and Winter’s Tale (the latter for an event that drew hundreds of people in 1983). On this occasion, I had scrawled my name on a post-it note, as the publisher’s representative asks so an author doesn’t have to guess or hear correctly how your name is spelled; Mark did something of a double-take when he read my name, and looked up at me. We shared a rush of remembered friendship, as Mark and I had exchanged letters years ago about his books and our lives. My sister Pamela had met him once during a visit she made to New York City. He knew my black Lab Noah, who readers of this blog will recall I have written about here. We had a pleasant reunion there on line, even while people behind may’ve been wondering about the hold-up. I look forward to reading his new novel, from Overlook Press, Paris in the Present Tense. I also went out of my way to find Carol Bruneau, whose publisher Nimbus brought her down from Halifax, Nova Scotia to promote her forthcoming short story collection, A Bird on Every Tree. In the early 2000s I published her first novel, A Purple Thread for Sky, about the enduring legacy of an old family quilt. Carol and I had a sweet reunion, talking about Canadian books and writing, and our mixed-up modern world. I’m reading the opening story in the new book, “The Race,” about a long distance swimming competition, and am reminded anew that Carol writes enormously enjoyable sentences. Her new book will officially be available in September, and can already be pre-ordered from the Canadian book chain, Chapters. I know many readers of this blog will savor her writing.

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I got a lot of pictures over the three days of the Book Expo. Here are some of my favorites.

3

Serendipity During Book Expo America

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One of the things I love about BEA is the prospect of serendipitous meetings. One spontaneous encounter I had during the convention at the beginning of June was when I bumped in to a friend, the literary agent Laura Nolan, who was on the floor at the Javits Center with her author client Dagmara Dominczyk, whose first novel, The Lullaby of Polish Girls, is out from Speigel & Grau this month. We got to talking, and soon Dagmara’s publicist from Random House took this picture of the three of us with my digital camera. Here Dagmara is in the center, between me and Laura.

Her novel has drawn lavish praise from fellow writers and Dominczyk was the subject of a NY Times Style section profile last Sunday, centered on her recent reading at WORD bookstore in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, an historically Polish enclave, an event that became a homecoming for the novelist.

When I read the Times story about the reading at WORD I was relieved to find one of the least snarky pieces I’ve read in the Style section. I find that part of the paper has a pronounced predilection for snark and sarcasm, and I often avoid it entirely.  (See the recent story on tech change agent Rachel Sklar, which framed her new entreprise that seeks to “change the ratio” of women in tech, as her “trying” to become an entrepreneur). Even while the article on Dagmara likened the attractive author and her sisters to the Gabor sisters of the 1960s, and highlighted her marriage to actor Patrick Wilson, it didn’t stint on informing readers that Dagmara, 36, had attended LaGuardia HS, the Manhattan high school of the performing arts, and moved to Greenpoint with her sister where she wrote her novel, after she got her first really good movie role.

LaGuardia happens to be where my teenage son Ewan will be a senior in the fall, also in the drama department, but that’s not the only coincidence I found in the story: Dagmara’s big break came when she got a lead role in the 2002 version of “The Count of Monte Cristo”  This is a genre–the swashbuckler–that I love.  Additionally, I  am about to begin offering to publishers a terrific proposal for a new anthology of swashbuckling fiction.  It will naturally include selections from Alexandre Dumas, whose own father is the subject of Tom Reiss’s 2012 Pulitzer-winning biography, Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. It is kind of an eternally sturdy genre.  Cultural consumers always seem ready to take in and enjoy a new swashbuckling book or film.  In the proposed anthology, editor Lawrence Ellsworth will include a new Dumas translation of his own, along with pieces by Rafael Sabatini (author of Captain Blood and Scaramouche); Johnston McCulley (creator of Zorro), Anthony Hope (Prisoner of Zenda); Baroness Orczy (The Scarlet Pimpernel); Arthur Conan Doyle, and about 15 great and ripe-to-be remembered writers.

All that from a meeting on the convention floor! It’s things like this that keep the book business fun.

Here are the great advance comments that Dagmara’s book has received, from Emma Straub and Adriana Trigiani, who introduced Dagmara at WORD.

“The Lullaby of Polish Girls is a striking and vivid debut novel, absolutely buzzing with energy. Dagmara Dominczyk’s freshly observed story about the intertwined lives of three friends is both sexy and sensitive, with a raw, openhearted center. Dominczyk’s love for her complicated characters is apparent from the first page to the last, and by the novel’s end the reader cares for them just as deeply.”—Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures

“The Lullaby of Polish Girls will make you swoon. Dagmara Dominczyk has written a glorious debut novel inspired by her own emigration from Poland to Brooklyn with depth, intensity, humor, and grace. Dagmara is a natural-born storyteller. I’m crazy about this book, and I know you will be too.”—Adriana Trigiani, author of The Shoemaker’s Wife

I wish Laura and Dagmara much success with the book. imgres

4

Book Expo America–Off to a Quick Start on Day I


Buzz panelAlthough the exhibit floor doesn’t open until tomorrow, there was lots of activity at the Javits Center today. My wife and I stopped in the hall just before 10:00 AM and got our badges as certified press, covering BEA for this blog. In the late afternoon, was the annual Editors’ Buzz panel, where a select panel of editors get to pitch their favorite titles of the coming fall season. By far the most exciting presentation was made by Liese Mayer [spelling corrected here from above tweet], of Overlook Press who touted the novel she acquired just after joining the company, The Facades, a first novel by Eric Lundgren. She said the novel combined elements of Kafka’s forbidding city and Batman’s modern Gotham. I grabbed one of the galleys and, after her compelling presentation, am eager to start reading the book. I also was interested in the presentation by  Picador editor Anna deVries of The Affairs of Others, a novel by Amy Grace Loyd and so took a galley of it. Now, running off to evening activities!

6

First Day of Book Expo America, June 4: BEA Bloggers Conference

Monday, June 4, I will be attending the BEA Bloggers Conference. The regular Book Expo America (BEA) is from Tuesday, June 5-7, but first I’m looking forward to hearing from and meeting many other book bloggers. I’ve been attending this convention virtually every year since 1978, and it’s always a thrill. This year is going to be an exciting one, and it all starts in a few hours.

7

New Book I’m Agenting Points to Breakthroughs in Designing & Building a State-of-the Art Military Helmet

According to a science article by Washington Post reporter Ben Guarino, the claw of the mantis shrimp packs a wicked punch in dispatching its prey, and has even been known to split or amputate the thumbs of unlucky fishermen. But for me the most remarkable part of this fascinating article regards the material of the claw, or club, as it’s also described in the story:

“UC-Riverside scientists and engineers say they have detected a heretofore unknown natural structure in the outer layer—the critical ‘impact area’— of the club. Were helmets or body armor to be created following this mantis shrimp template, they say, soldiers and football players could be protected from immense blows. When viewed under a microscope, the outer layer of the club has what the scientists describe as a herringbone structure. There, fibers of chitin and calcium compounds are arranged in a series of sinusoidal waves. When the shrimp strikes a prey’s shell, the researchers think this herringbone wave buckles, dispersing the impact throughout the club without causing catastrophic damage to the predator.”
This is of keen interest to me and investigative reporters Robert Bauman and Dina Rasor, as we begin marketing to publishers their new book, Shattered Minds: How the Pentagon Fails Us All with Combat Helmets that Fail to Protect Our Troops. Here’s a draft pitch letter I’ll soon begin sharing with prospective editors at publishing houses:
This startling book, written by two authors who’ve covered the Pentagon for many years, reveals that in the twenty-first century, while traumatic brain injury (TBI) has become the signature injury suffered by our troops, the defense establishment has failed US fighting men and women by continuing to issue them an antiquated military helmet that fails to mitigate the worst of this tragic harm, even though superior design and technology are available.
This investigation by Dina Rasor and Robert Bauman, the first book to examine this most basic item of military equipment, features the stories of two sets of whistleblowers determined to expose the truth about the failures military helmet bureaucracy. Their book braids together the two stories to chronicle the helmet scandal and its human impact.
Readers will learn about retired Navy doctor Robert Meaders, known affectionately as “Doc Bob.” He began helping his grandson obtain protective pads that deterred the blunt force and blast wave impact caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). These pads made even the standard issue combat helmet more protective than they were without them. Soon, frustrated by his futile efforts to convince the Marine Corps’ bureaucracy in Washington DC to add these protective pads to the helmets of combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and receiving an avalanche of requests from many Marines for them, he started a nonprofit organization, Operation Helmet, to raise funds so the pads could be provided to the troops free of charge. Despite the improvements his pads offered, Doc Bob was blackballed from the military procurement system
Tammy Elshaug and Jeff Kenner, longtime employees of North Dakota defense contractor Sioux Manufacturing discovered to their dismay that the required density of the Kevlar material woven into netting supplied by Sioux for combat helmets was being shorted in the plant where they worked. Bringing their discovery to the attention of management—believing the boss would surely clean up the illegal practice—they were instead accused of stealing company secrets and having an adulterous affair. Both were fired, leading to a lawsuit and a judgment they won in court that brought the company’s bad faith practices to light.
Doc Bob did not know about Jeff and Tammy and they did not know about him. Yet all three struggled during the same time period to do what was right for the troops. This book chronicles, interwoven to show the courage and dedication of all three, and also, to explain why the Defense Dept, despite news coverage of their revelations, has continued to do the indefensible. The authors use all their years of reporting and investigative experience to explain to readers and policymaker how this could happen. Critically, they also offer information on how the public, press and the military departments can fix the problem and give US troops a better combat helmet that will help them survive their service and continue contributing to the defense of the United States of America.

Upon publication the authors will write op-eds and columns that offer an open challenge to technologists, designers, 3D printers, materials scientists, and high level defense thinkers to finally design the best possible military helmet. Despite the Pentagon’s failure to this point, we also hope to gain their attention to bring new talent and focus to the goal. In the same regard, we are excited about the effort being undertaken by the Head Health Challenge, which also relates to football helmets, an effort that has been covered by Liz Stinson in Wired magazine. I’m hopeful we’ll be able to forge a constructive link between the Defense Dept and the NFL with this initiative to design and build a superior helmet. I recommend you read the marvelous article by Ben Guarino, which also has video from UC Riverside scientist David Kisailus.

 

8

PIG IRON, a Lacerating Beauty of a Book by English Novelist Benjamin Myers

I was only rounding the halfway bend when I tweeted the above last weekend about Pig Iron, Benjamin Myers’ 2012 novel. The investment in the story that I expressed then paid double as I finished the book, progressively becoming more and more gripped by the fate of its narrator, John-John Wisdom, a young man whose hardscrabble history is steadily revealed to the reader through the course of a beautifully twined narrative that braids together parallel first person accounts by he and his mother. Through them we at last learn the whole truth of the Wisdom family.

In the parlance of England, the Wisdoms are “Travellers,” perhaps not exactly ethnic Roma but wandering tribes nonetheless, reminiscent of Europe’s long-shunned gypsies. The inventiveness with language and vocabulary was reminiscent to me of what Russell Hoban did in Ridley Walker and Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, without the same futuristic-apocalyptic intimations as Hoban, but a violent strand like Burgess. Young Wisdom’s late father was a bare-knuckle boxer, while his son’s a fighter of a different kind. John-John, only recently released from a five-year prison sentence, is determined to put his life back together following a deed that he only hints at when a new girlfriend asks him about his time away from the rural climes he cherishes, his “green cathedral.” The references to a rural idyll reminded me of when a terminally ill Dennis Potter, creator of the magnificent “Singing Detective” TV series, expressed a deep connection for the Forest of Dean in his courageous 1994 interview with Melvyn Bragg. John-John Wisdom and Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim in “Slaughterhouse Five” seem like literary and spiritual cousins.

I also see Myers’ work in a line of connection with the contemporary English writer of landscape and wild places, Robert Macfarlane, whose The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot I loved so much. I read much of the latter aloud to my wife, as we both delighted in the sound of Macfarlane’s words and place names that evoke the chalk cliffs of England, the windy Hebrides, and desert Palestine. Myers’ work would also be great to hear voiced, with his rich vocabulary and kinetic vernacular. Hmm, makes me wonder if there are audio book editions of his work yet. 

Myers is gaining recognition in the UK. His 2014 novel, Beastings, was awarded the Manchester, England public library’s Portico Prize, after Pig Iron had earlier won the Gordon Burn award, named in honor of a Newcastle, England novelist. I learned about Myers through this profile in the Guardian’s book pages by Alison Flood, then bought Pig Iron online from a UK bookseller. Its publisher is Bluemoose Books of West Yorkshire, England. This is Myers’ website. He hasn’t had much exposure yet in the US, and I hope this post of mine draws some attention to his work. He deserves to be read by fans of the writers mentioned above, as well as readers who enjoy Cormac McCarthy and Kent Haruf. I look forward to next reading Beastings, again set in a rural area, about an adolescent girl who’s a runaway from a coercive family she’d been indentured to work for.