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Trolling between the lines: Collecting titles at Publishers’ BookExpo

by Tom Teicholz

June 12, 2008 | 2:33 pm

BookExpo, the annual convention of booksellers and book publishers that took place in Los Angeles one recent weekend, is the book industry's annual get-together, alternating among the publishing hub of New York and various other cities, such as Miami, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

Perhaps it's the state of the book industry, the economy or just the cost of gas, but this year's convention was not as well attended as in past years. The last time BookExpo was in Los Angeles, the convention floor was constantly, overwhelmingly crowded, with so many booths that the author autographing section had to be relegated to a basement hall.

This time, many editors did not even make the trip, and some publishers or imprints decided not to pay for a stand. For example, I was surprised that Bloomsbury USA didn't have one, given that they represent several Los Angeles authors with just-published or forthcoming books, including Seth Greenland ("Shining City"), Rachel Resnick ("Love Junkie") and Mark Sarvas ("Harry, Revised"). Still, the smaller turnout really didn't put a damper on the excitement, the conviviality and the parties, which seemed to take over Los Angeles from downtown to West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Santa Monica.

At BookExpo, publishers were not only showcasing current titles, they also were trying to create excitement for books that will come out this summer and fall. Translation: Free books were given out.

Among the those I sought while trolling the aisles were the highly anticipated Salman Rushdie novel, "The Enchantress of Florence" (which is already receiving decidedly mixed reviews), Oscar Hijuelos's "Dark Dude" (Atheneum) and Andre Dubus III's "The Garden of Last Days," which is shaping up to be a novel of major importance.

Among the stacks of desired new books were John LeCarre's "A Most Wanted Man" (Knopf), Dennis Lehane's "The Given Day" (Morrow), Michael Connolly's "The Brass Verdict" (Hachette) and Wally Lamb's "The Hour I First Believed" (HarperCollins). Harper is also pushing Alafair Burke's "Angel's Tip" -- if the name seems familiar, it's because Burke's father, James Lee Burke, writes the Dave Robicheaux series.

Just as from small acorns grow large oak trees, small presses sometimes deliver great novels. Steerforth Press, which published Karoly Pap's "Azarel," an undiscovered gem of a novel of pre-war Hungary, was at the convention with Benjamin Taylor's "The Book of Getting Even," which Philip Roth has already hailed as: "Among the most original novels I have read in recent years."

This September, Algonquin books will publish Ariel Sabar's "My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq." Sabar is a political reporter for the Christian Science Monitor covering this year's presidential campaign. His father, Yona Sabar, is a UCLA professor. The book tells of their father-and-son journey to today's postwar Iraq to visit Yona's birthplace and to reconcile past and present.

Speaking of fathers and sons, Adam Nimoy, son of you-can-guess-who, has written "My Incredibly Wonderful, Miserable Life," which Simon and Schuster has dubbed a "hilarious anti-memoir" about facing life "as a newly divorced father, a fortysomething in the L.A. dating scene, a recovering user and a former lawyer turned director turned substitute teacher ... in search of his true self."

Among the grand dames signing books were Jackie Collins (I passed) and Barbara Walters (I waited in a long line to get a signed copy of "Audition" [Knopf]).

No one likes the expression "chick lit," but what should we call light reads targeted at the "Sex and the City" audience? Female-driven entertainment? Part of the problem is that this grab-bag term encompasses quasi-literary fiction ("Bridget Jones"), commercial fiction ("The Starter Wife") and a sort of gossipy insider's revenge book ("The Devil Wears Prada").

Call them what you like, but buy them you will. Some female-friendly titles you may spot this summer or in early fall include former E! hostess Jules Asner's "Whacked" (Weinstein Books), Julie Buxbaum's "The Opposite of Love" (Dial Press), Claire Lazebnik's "The Smart One and The Pretty One" (5 Spot), subtitled: "A Novel about Sisters" -- (I happen to know one of the sisters, Nell Scovell, but I'm not saying which one I think she is) -- and Jodi Wing's "The Art of Social War" (HarperCollins), which has already been sold to the movies.

Speaking of politics -- and who isn't these days? -- Public Affairs, a division of Perseus Group, is the publisher of Scott McLellan's book, and it has had no problems getting publicity for the book. It also has a book forthcoming about censorship that should generate some debate called, "Obscene in the Extreme," an account of the burning and banning of John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath." It's by Rick Wartzman, a senior Irvine Fellow of the New America Foundation and a former Los Angeles Times Magazine editor.

Public Affairs was launched in 1997 by Peter Osnos, my former editor at Times Books, and I was very happy to run into him, looking dapper as ever, at the Hotel Bel Air, where he was hosting a BookExpo party.

That same night, the New York Review of Books also hosted a party at the Bel Air, and it's worth commending it not only for its party-giving skills, but for its publishing program. Recently, the NYRB Classics have brought back into print editions of Vassily Grossman's masterpiece, "Life and Fate," and the Yiddish classic, "The Family Mashber" by Der Nister.

Most recently, it published new editions of Stefan Zweig's final novel, "Chess Game," and his earlier novella, "The Post Office Girl." Zweig, who committed suicide in 1940, was one of the most-published authors of the first half of the 20th century. The NYRB editions are getting rave reviews and returning Zweig to the popular consciousness.

One of the most interesting and companiable hours I spent at the BookExpo was speaking to Nicolas Neumann, a Paris-based art house publisher. Our meeting occurred because, as I was wandering past his booth, I heard him speaking French.When I looked up to see the name of his booth, Somogyi, I had to stop.

Eva Somogyi was my mother's stage name in Budapest, so I turned to Neumann and asked point blank: Hungarian or French? The answer, not surprisingly, was both -- the original founder, Somogyi, was of Hungarian parentage, but the publishing house is French. Somogyi turns out to be one of the largest publishers of museum exhibition catalogs in France.

Upon learning that my column appears in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Neumann immediately directed my attention to two of his English-language books. One of them is "Human Expressionism: The Human Figure and the Jewish Experience," the companion book to an exhibition this spring at the Musee Tavet-Delacour in Pontoise, a suburb of Paris. The book illustrates a fantastic and very thought-provoking exhibition featuring works by Soutine, Modigliani, Pissaro, Mane-Katz, Lasar Segall, Kitaj and Serge Strosberg, with a wonderful essay by Eliane Strosberg.

Neumann also showed me a book of the death camp drawings of Shelomo Selinger -- really remarkable, haunting work that deserves an American exhibition (Skirball people, are you listening?).

Speaking of art, but on a definitely lighter note, I was happy to run into the folks from BukAmerica -- Gary Kornblau and Lisa Lyons, whose Hollywood-based publishing house creates $1.49 pamphlets that run the gamut from reprints to original works, from a translation of Baudelaire, to the U.S. Constitution, from Ruth Reichl's "The Queen of Mold" to Richard Grossman's "Glossary of Every Humorous Word in the English Language." (Example: "agnify: to dress up as a sheep.")

Also from the local scene was Ammo, an L.A.-based publisher started by Steve Crist, who does very hip books like "Gonzo," about Hunter Thompson, and a series of books by the designer Todd Oldham, including one about John Waters with an essay by Cindy Sherman.

And if you like local, there's Angel City Press, where Paddy Calisto continues to publish fine volumes on Los Angeles' history and culture. I even met Gidget herself, Kathy Zuckerman, at the Santa Monica Press booth, where she and Dominic Priore were signing posters for "Pop Surf Culture: Music, Design, Film and Fashion from the Bohemian Surf Boom," available in September.

Children's books occupied a fair amount of real estate at BookExpo. One title that particularly appealed to me was "My Name is Gabito (Me Llamo Gabito") an English- and Spanish-language children's book about the life of Gabriel Garcia Marquez by Monica Brown, who asked me, "And how many Latina Jews do you know?" (More than you think, mi amiga).

And as long as we are taking a walk on the Semitic side of the street, I was pleased to stumble on Lerner Publishing Group. It recently acquired Kar-Ben Publishing, "a growing Jewish library for children," which includes everything from Yale Strom's first children's book, "The Wedding That Saved a Town," to biographies, books about Israel, books about Jewish holidays and books about families and friends that encompass many religions.

Meanwhile, over at Matzoh Ball Books (that is their name!), Anne-Marie Baila Asner has just published "Klutzy Boy" (prior titles include "Kvetchy Boy," "Schmutzy Girl," "Noshy Boy" and "Schluffy Girl"). Let the imagination run wild.

Now, if having your child learn a foreign language grabs you, Slangman Publishing has a series for ages 3 and up, where familiar fairy tales, such as "Cinderella," are retold with foreign words to build up a child's vocabulary in a foreign language (there's an audio CD included, as well). Languages include Chinese, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Italian and Japanese.

Perhaps this is a good time to talk about "Mo's Nose." My daughter's homework folder has recently been covered with stickers about a dog named Mo. I now know why.

Turns out one of my daughter's classmates is the son of Margaret Hyde, the author of children's books such as "Dreadilocks and the Three Slugs" and the "Great Art for Kids" series ("Picasso for Kids," "Matisse for Kids"). Hyde has now launched "Mo's Nose," a series of books for children about a dog named Mo and how although he doesn't see in color, he can smell colors. The books, illustrated by Amanda Giacomini, have an innovative, safe, nontoxic scratch-and-sniff feature.

"Mo Smells Red," the first book in the series, has Mo smelling strawberries, roses and love itself. Cute in the extreme. A portion of the proceeds from the books go to help rescue animals find homes. Mo is going to be a star. Be ready for the appearance of Mo T-shirts in your children's lives.

Graphic novels were another big trend at BookExpo. As I learned, graphic novels are often neither graphic nor novel -- they are adult versions of what we used to call comic books. NBM books was at the convention, along with local author David Seidman, who told me that Los Angeles has become fertile ground for the graphic novel, thanks to the abundance of animators and writers raised on comic books.

These days, comics range from humorous work to art of fantasy and the imagination, from children's comics to illustrated renderings of Proust and Kafka, from political cartooning to subversive alternative lit, from goth to Japanese manga.

Some of the most interesting books these days are being published by university presses, such as the university presses of Indiana, Nebraska, Michigan, Mississippi, Chicago, MIT, Harvard, Princeton and Yale, which publish everything from the hyperlocal, to the serious academic, to the just plain fun from all over the country. As just one example, Yale University is doing a series called American icons with titles such as Joseph Epstein writing about Fred Astaire.

BookExpo, however, was not just about free books. There were also speeches and panels (about books). The New York Times' Thomas Friedman spoke about how "green is the new red, white and blue," which not coincidentally is the title of Friedman's next book. There were author breakfasts with Philippa Gregory, Alec Baldwin, Chris Buckley and Magic Johnson.There were also panels about film rights, bookselling and climate change, about Google and digital rights and digital editions, social networking, graphic novels, libraries, censorship, the Chinese market and the Chinese audience, the Latino audience and the panel I attended about -- no surprise here -- the Jewish audience.

A panel about the reading habits of Jewish Americans featured Stuart Matlins of Jewish Lights publishing house, Daisy Maryles of Publisher's Weekly and Ruth Ellenson of the best-selling anthology, "The Modern Jewish Girls' Guide to Guilt."

Panelists spoke of the importance of the Jewish Book Council run by Carolyn Starman Hessel, book clubs and synagogue book clubs. Matlins suggested that in his guesstimation, 70 percent of readers and more than 70 percent of book club attendees are women.

Ellenson, who has written for The Jewish Journal and whose book features an essay by Jewish Journal Religion Editor Amy Klein, told many humorous anecdotes about the pressures she faced to make her book less "Jewish." However, what Ellenson discovered was that what perhaps threatened to keep her from a mainstream audience helped her find a very loyal niche audience, Jewish readers who have supported her book in steady numbers since its publication.

No one who was in the room will ever forget when Ellenson told us the more "edgy title" one editor suggested for her book: "Burning Bushes."

At one point, Carla Cohen, owner of Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., bemoaned the fact that there is not a contemporary version of "The Jewish Catalogue." Several audience members then volunteered that they were the authors of soon-to-be-published books hoping to fill the gap, among them "Cool Jew" by Lisa Alcalay Klug (Andrews McNeil).

There was some question of if, and why, Jews buy a disproportionate number of books. Is it just a matter of education?

In some sense, this begged a question that nagged at the whole BookExpo: Whither books?

Is the book industry going the way of the music industry? Or the newspaper industry? Is digital the future? What percentage of the population will read books on their Kindle or other electronic devices or even on their Blackberry? If most nonfiction titles sell only 6,000 copies, how can such small sales support writers, editors, publishing companies?

The answer is, of course, no one knows, but stay tuned -- or more to the point, keep reading.

Matlins had the best precis of the current marketplace: "The people who buy books," he opined, "are the people who buy books."





Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward.



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