By David Nilsen
Wednesday, May 11, 7:10 a.m. – It’s Day One of Book Expo America, the largest publishing event in the United States, taking place this year in Chicago. I’m here at the behest (and on the dime) of Greenville Public Library (Fourth & Sycamore’s home), and since my wife is from Chicago, she came along too, though she won’t be attending the event. She has work to do and grown up stuff like that. The event is at McCormick Place, and the PR firm my wife works for runs an event here every year, so fortunately I’m somewhat familiar with McCormick’s unfathomably large layout (about the floor space of 10 Super Walmarts). I’ve got my backpack ready to go, comfy shoes on, and I can’t find my deodorant. Let’s do this.
7:14 a.m. – Seriously, where the hell is my deodorant.
7:18 a.m. – Deodorant has been found.
7:25 a.m. – So my first day at BEA will be mostly taken up by the associated Bloggers Conference. I’m not actually a blogger–my personal site is technically a blog but is mostly just a home base for my published writing, and Fourth & Sycamore is a lit journal with many dozens of writers contributing–but I figure there will be some useful information anyway. Conferences can be awesome and helpful, but are finely engineered to be nightmares for strong introverts like me, especially the ones with social anxiety issues, again like me. My time at conferences is usually balanced between gathering useful information and wondering how long it will be till I can drink alone in my room once it’s over, all while trying to avoid anything resembling mingling and small talk. Let’s see how this goes. I’m arriving as soon as registration opens at 8, because apparently the lines get crazy.
8:02 a.m. – Ahem. Well. I’m registered, I have the dorky lanyard thingy around my neck, and now I have an hour to wait.
8:05 a.m. – I’m heading to the room for the Bloggers Conference. Normally, I would never willingly enter a room in which “networking” and “connecting” are happening until the last possible minute, but there’s a free continental breakfast and my Airbnb didn’t have coffee. Half of these bloggers look like Zooey Deschanel impersonators.
8:13 a.m. – yay anxiety whee!
8:25 a.m. – I’m brainstorming a title for my conference about how to cope with anxiety at conferences. It will actually just be an essay everyone will agree to read at the same time in the solitude of their own homes, and no networking will be involved. There will be no associated giveaways, cocktail receptions, or awesome opportunities to make exciting connections.
8:36 a.m. – I am sitting in the corner doing an impersonation of Geoffrey Rush mouthing F-bombs during the climactic broadcast in The King’s Speech.
8:56 a.m. – Oh thank god we’re starting. The keynote speaker is Erin Loechner, a blogger who has parlayed her blog into a book deal with Zondervan, and previously managed to convince HGTV.com to create a show about her home renovation project. She has a toddler. A couple years ago Erin took a hiking trip in the Andes. Her presentation revolves around this trip as a metaphor for blogging. As she talks, I have the rising suspicion she took the hiking trip in the Andes specifically to use later as a metaphor for blogging.
9:13 a.m. – Exact quote, while trying to explain there are many different ways to blog successfully: “There is no wrong way to hike the Andes.” I feel pretty confident in saying that’s not true. Other gems from the Andes trip that are definitely, 100% not true: “We went rogue.” “You can always just hike back down.”
Somewhere in South America sits a tour guide who hates American bloggers.
Erin is earnest and, I have no doubt, talented, but I have trouble seeing anything she’s saying here being of much practical use to struggling bloggers. Most of it is general inspirational truisms about being ourselves, having curiosity and resourcefulness, and working hard. At one point she had the luck of eating french fries with the guy who founded Pinterest, but before he actually founded Pinterest, in which he showed her the site that would become Pinterest. That doesn’t seem like something a lot of us are likely to stumble into if we just be ourselves and have curiosity. Maybe I’m wrong. I tried to like Erin, I did.
10:00 a.m. – I head to my first breakout session: “Growing Your Social Media Presence.” A panel of book bloggers with large social media presences answer questions and give advice. Some of it is useful, but most of it is general knowledge. What was most of impressive is that one of the bloggers, who traveled here from Sri Lanka to be on the panel–Mishma Nixon–is only 17. When this is explained about halfway through the session, everyone in the room feels like a failure. Or at least I do.
11:00 a.m. – My second session is about how bloggers can utilize Youtube and Instagram, and how bloggers, booktubers, and bookstagrammers can work together. Some interesting ideas are shared. I’ve long considered adding a video or audio component to Fourth & Sycamore, but if I’m honest, it probably won’t ever rise to the level of priority unless someone else wants to run it. Too much time involved. But the ideas are good.
11:55 a.m. – We are given vouchers for the food court, which is as crowded as an elementary cafeteria. We are supposed to carry our food back down to the conference room to network with our fellow bloggers. If I’m going to survive this day, that’s not going to happen. I need some time alone to rest. I tell myself it’s what Erin Loechner would want. I find a corner somewhere and sit on the floor near an outlet to charge my laptop. Also, navigating a packed convention center with a tray full of food is not for the faint of heart, but you know what they say: there’s no wrong way to fall down an escalator while carrying Polish sausage.
1:45 p.m. – The last session of the day passed uneventfully and I decide to check out the main exhibit hall, which is incomprehensibly large. I want to orient myself and get a feel for the layout and how everything works so when I spend the full day on the floor tomorrow and Friday, I’m as relaxed as it’s possible to be when I’m being approached by total strangers who talk to total strangers for a living. I get my badge scanned and step onto the floor.
1:55 p.m. – Books! So, so many books, all of them beautiful. Publishers put a ton of money into BEA (a 10’x10′ booth is close to $10,000 for 3 days, and many of the larger publishers get much larger booths than that), and it shows. The glossy beauty of it all is glorious. Publishers use BEA as a way of letting people in the media and people who purchase for libraries and bookstores know about their current and upcoming titles. All the displays have books displayed, but I realize I’m not sure if these are for giveaways, for sale, or just for display. I ask someone I think works at the booth I’m in and find out she’s a confused attendee just like me. Finally, I ask a real employee, who generously explains the books are mostly just for display unless they’re ARCs, which are usually free for the taking. Good to know.
2:00 p.m. – I queue up at Sourcebooks to get a copy of Unicorns Are Jerks, an adult coloring book for those of us who feel stabby when we see adult coloring books. This was one of the few giveaway titles I wrote down in advance of the show to be sure I grabbed, so successfully getting one feels like a good omen.
2:15 p.m. – A young woman working at Blue Star Coloring offers me markers and asks if I want to color a segment of a wall-sized coloring page. I choose pink and color an amorphous blob. I forget to look at what the larger picture is. There’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere.
3:00 p.m. – I’ve been browsing booths for a while now. I feel like I’m getting into a groove. When booth attendants introduce themselves and ask me about what I do, I take a deep breath and respond. I meet Spencer from Talonbooks, who makes me promise to email him since I like poetry. He designed some of the artwork for their books and marketing materials, which is clean and attractive and consistently of a palette that appeals to me. I talk with a woman from Coach House, a publisher I appreciate, and she talks me through several of their titles.
3:15 p.m. – I feel like as a culture we collectively understand by now that if we need help with anything, we can feel free to ask you. You don’t have to interrupt your conversation with that nice man there to tell us.
3:23 p.m. – There’s no wrong way to accidentally knock over a high-backed stool so it hits a nice young woman facing the other direction, jump when she squeals in alarm, apologize profusely, consider harikari, and frantically scurry away to another aisle.
3:45 p.m. – And I’m done for the day. I feel good about tomorrow, when I’ll be on the floor all day. My plan is to push through the rest of the floor tomorrow, then use Friday as a chance to revisit my favorite publishers. I’ve survived my first day at BEA.