To BEA or Not to BEA?

To BEA or not to BEA? For many authors, that is -- or perhaps should be -- the question.

Earlier this month, thousands of booksellers and publishing professionals gathered at the Javits Center in New York City for Book Expo America--our annual convention. I've lost count of how many of these things I've been to -- enough to lose count, I guess -- but in the past year I've started acquiring titles for publication in addition to my usual role promoting them, and consequently this BEA I noticed something I hadn't really noticed before: authors.

Authors have, of course, always attended these things. But until now, I've mostly just noticed the big ones -- the ones being published by major presses. They go to the show to give breakfast talks or serve on panels -- the kind that draw hundreds and are broadcast on C-Span. They also go to sign copies of their book in their publisher's (usually spacious) booth, perhaps accompanied by their literary agent (for surely they have one). Either way, they're there for legitimate reasons -- which makes sense since they're legitimate authors.

But now that I occasionally don an editor's cap, I'm also noticing the other kinds of authors who attend this event -- namely, the authors who aren't yet authors. I'm talking about folks who have written a manuscript for which they're seeking a publisher. They head to BEA to shop their book around, and this is unfortunate for a couple of reasons.

For starters (and though it sounds counterintuitive), for someone employed by a publishing house there are few things worse than being approached by a writer with a book idea at BEA. We're there on behalf of the books we've already acquired -- especially the ones that will hit stores in the fall (publishing's foremost season). We're really quite focused on them -- and we need to be, for we have a lot riding on the titles that we've chosen. At the risk of sounding horribly elitist (or even just plain rude), the truth is there's nothing more frustrating than being caught in a conversation with someone with whom we don't need to speak while there, on the other side of the booth, is a key media contact or a VIP bookseller who we really need to talk with.

Even if their book idea were a good one, I'm not sure I'd be in the right frame of mind to talk with a prospective author at BEA. Most of the time I'm hungry, exhausted, and in a pair of murderously high heels that, yes, I was stupid enough to wear...but still. And even if the book sounds excellent, there's the matter of the writing. Not everyone can make a character come to life or a plot juicy enough to sustain a reader's interest, and not everyone can make words sing. At BEA, I'm in no position to assess someone's ability to write.

And then there's the matter of the awkwardness that's associated with having to say "no, thank you" to someone face-to-face -- someone who has probably (hopefully) worked long and hard on their manuscript; someone who has, perhaps, even gone so far as to self-publish it. The awkwardness factor is one of the reasons editors rely on literary agents to bring book ideas their way. It saves both parties -- author and editor -- a bit of embarrassment if the book and the house are not a good fit.

Which brings me to my second main point: the shopping of wares at BEA is as frustrating for writers as it is for publishers. At this stage in their career, writers need encouragement, not discouragement. It's a tough thing, putting your thoughts and ideas on paper for the world to see and judge -- and when it's judged quickly and dismissively it hurts a little extra.

What I'm trying to say is this: when it comes to getting published, there's a process in place and people who want to write books should respect it. But that means they should also be given the opportunity to learn it -- via writer's workshops, literary festivals, and other events that are less potentially soul-crushing than BEA.

So I'm going to do my part -- going to keep speaking at venues like the New Hampshire Writers' Project's "Writers' Day" and the Virginia Festival of the Book, where they invite literary agents and editors to explain how best to approach them (and when, and where). And I urge my colleagues in the industry to do the same -- to volunteer their time and share their knowledge generously. An educated author pool benefits us all.

Stepping down off my soapbox now...and into a pair of slippers.