Let it be recorded that Friday, May 29, at 8:59 a.m., a bookseller complained on Twitter about the meager food selection at the BEA Book and Author Breakfast, thus fulfilling one of my prophecies from last week's column, Seen & Heard at BEA: The Preview Edition. I wasn't keeping score during the rest of the weekend, but I suspect that, at one time or another, most of the predictions had their moments, too.
I feel like I've read a zillion words this week about BookExpo America 2009. When combined with my own observations and conversations there, I come away with decidedly mixed impressions about the show and the future of the book trade. A trio of disparate visual images partly sums up my reaction:
- A cartoon of a man in a flowing robe on a city street (in New York, let's say), holding a sign that reads, "The end of the book is near."
- An ostrich with a book clutched under one flightless wing and head planted firmly in the sand.
- A not-so-young action hero holding hands with an emerging young actress as they run just beyond the reach of the consuming fireball from an explosion, escaping into what promises to be an exciting and glamorous, socially-networked future.
Perhaps I should add one more because, in retrospect, it now seems like a distant relative of the general air of uncertainty. On Thursday morning--as I walked from my hotel toward the 34th St. crosstown bus stop near Sixth Ave.--I saw a guy panhandling. He was shaking a plastic change bucket with one hand and talking on his cell phone with the other. At the time I thought it was just a bad marketing decision. Now I wonder if it has deeper meaning.
Fortunately, these images weren't my primary takeaway from BEA 2009. In fact, I headed home Sunday in a good mood because, appropriately enough, I was thinking about . . . words.
Words got us here in the first place, and words will get us to wherever we're headed next, regardless of the vehicle we choose for their transport.
Words strung in 140-character tweets over a couple of months turned into one of the hottest parties of the weekend. The BEAtweetup event at the Greenhouse club Friday night attracted a crowd of about 400 book people through word-of-mouth (word-of-tweet?) alone.
We've always known words can draw a crowd.
In conversations on the show floor, at panels and seminars, certain words were used again and again. Since I'm a writer, reader and bookseller, words are what matter most, so it's probably no surprise that I seem to be clutching a few of them in my hand, like Jack's magic beans, as I recall moments from this year's BEA.
Words like storytelling, authentic, content, listening.
Words that book people already know and love, but whose meanings are evolving on what sometimes seems like an hourly basis.
Old words that stay fiercely relevant, even as the pages upon which they reside transform in ways we've just begun to explore.
Hear the words:
"Things that go viral are about content," said Bill Wasik, senior editor for Harper's magazine, at a viral marketing session. "At the end of the day, viral stuff is all about stories and storytelling. It's about the way we tell stories about ourselves and about our cultures."
"We have to be more authentic because it's all there to be seen," said social media consultant Chris Brogan on a social networking panel. Erik Qualman, online marketing v-p for EF Education, was on the same panel and added, "It's all about who's the best listener. It's about listening first."
"Every company has the ability to pump out content. Content will always win," said Wine Library TV guru Gary Vaynerchuk, noting enthusiastically that he is "obsessed with storytelling."
"With very little money and with people who are authentic, you can go a long way," suggested David Singleton of AARP, on a panel about marketing online to Baby Boomers.
I heard variations on this refrain, using the prime vocabulary, all weekend long, in conversations both private and public. Whatever may be happening to the world of books--whatever our hopes and fears--words still mattered most at BEA.
I'll have more words tomorrow about where some this intersects with booksellers.