BEA: The Booth Ghettos

The convention floor of BEA had a definite geography to it. Like a high school cafeteria or prison yard, different areas were dominated by certain cliques. The leviathan publishers congregated in the middle of the floor. They were usually on the inside aisle, so you could step right into their swanky publishing home-away-from-home. On the other hand, the booths that were closest to the building wall, near the bathrooms and concession stands, on the edges both literally and figuratively, were peopled by self-published authors and folks hawking all kinds of odd wares.

Some of the people manning these outlying booths were cool. Others subscribed to the hyper-obsessive infomercial school of marketing. If you were within shouting distance, they worked you. I kept expecting one of them to say, “Sooo, what’s it going to take to get you into this book today?”

I made the mistake of pausing in front of one particular booth. I wasn’t looking at anything, just staring into space after hours on my feet and a bit of book overload. Before I knew it, someone was grabbing my hand and shaking. The author shoved a book into my hands and breathlessly spewed forth, “This is about white and black, and love, and racism, and hope and reconciliation, and baseball, in the 1940’s, in Chicago.” Although I had strictly limited myself to the number of galleys I was going to tote around, this guy was so earnest, I didn’t have the heart to decline.

“Sold!” I said. He seemed a little taken aback and countered, “Well, it’s not for sale.”

I smiled and explained that my exclamation was just a certain phrase, I knew they weren’t for sale. There were hundreds of thousands of free books floating around the convention. “But I’m not giving it away, either,” he said. “You can go to my website, read the first chapter and if you like it, then you can buy it.”

He seemed like a nice guy but I was confused. He had this stack of books, but he wasn’t giving them away. And if I pulled out my wallet, he wouldn’t sell one either? Metal bands used to employ dummy amplifiers at the back of the stage. What looked to the audience like a towering stack of Marshalls was really just a facade, purely for visual effect, and the music was piped directly into the PA. Maybe this guy was using the same technique.

One woman didn’t even bother to pay for a booth. She commandeered an empty table by the wall and set up shop. I originally thought she was just a convention goer resting her feet. But then I noticed how all the books on the table were the same and were artfully fanned out. She picked her nails but brightened up noticeably when I neared.

These folks on the periphery worked hard. I’ll give them that. Often dressed in outlandish costumes, using incredible props in their booths, you’d see these folks sitting down, eating a hot dog. But once you got within range of their radar, they popped up and put on the hard sell. I admire their determination and thick-skins.

These convention floor edges made the sad reality of BEA apparent. Some guy, who probably works as a software tester or maybe answers phones in a call center, spent a pile of money for his booth. He has the convention-provided folding table, a couple of chairs, and plain black curtain material. Maybe he has a cardboard cutout displaying his cover art. A few bookmarks, maybe a handful of business cards. From his seat, he can see the huge displays of the big publishers, where it’s standing room only as people crowd inside their booths. Only a few folks ever make it this far down the aisle and they’re probably heading to the john. He smiles, exerts a tremendous amount of energy, and manages to press his book into their hands. They walk on, and he collapses into his chair and thinks about his aching feet.

It’s probably a good thing that he didn’t see what I saw. I spent a fair amount of time lurking in these borderlands. And I saw those people make their way to the bathroom after passing by that eager author’s booth. And put his book on the floor by the trash can before going in to relieve themselves.

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