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How I Tackle Book Expo (2018)

Photo credit: Sandrine Sahakians at
There's something for writers and readers of all kinds of books at BookExpo, but what excites me the most is seeing new books that will be for sale months from now. At the Adult Editors' Buzz Panel, editors who rarely appear in public will pitch six books selected by American Booksellers Association judges as groundbreaking titles for the coming year, usually by new authors and some published by small presses. The editors pitch to an audience mostly of booksellers but I've talked to people from all segments of the industry. Unlike authors who appear in bookstores or on Book TV, who can be dull, their editors are prepared. They're pitching one book that represents their
Photo credit: Steve Kagan, Publishers Weekly
company and the quality of their list. A lot is riding on their performance. Each editor gives a five-minute pitch for the book they acquired and edited, a kind of live query letter of the book's story and author's background delivered with emotion and dramatic storytelling. Editors can see the effect of their pitches by the mad rush for galleys at the end. 
Some in the audience start making their way to the tables before the panel is finished afraid they'll run out. It's a rib-crushing crowd. The pushier they are, the more I gotta have those hard-to-get books!

Photo credit: Emma Wenner, Publishers Weekly
Next I'll make my way to the main floor of exhibits. In the past when I picked up my badge the day before, the convention space was like an aircraft hangar, dark and nearly empty of people, except for uniformed workers and the occasional beeping of a forklift moving pieces of booths into place. A few hours later when the show opened there were stadium-sized banners, a cheerful red or royal blue carpet, and rows and rows of publisher booths. It's a magical transformation to book lover heaven.

Here publishers pitch their bestseller bets to bookstore buyers and libraries. They pull you in with author autographing sessions, larger-than-life backlit displays of famous authors' faces and book covers that will sell by their clever titles and topics. It's an amazing show that gives me an idea of each publisher's list, company by company. I ask myself Why did the publisher publish this book? How is the topic presented as a book experience? If I catch an editor or sales rep at the right time, I can ask a question or two.

There's so much here. Many times I find myself wanting to be in two places at once. I get there early and stay the entire day. Chance encounters and conversations as I wait in line for author autographs, in open theaters for events and in Javits Center restaurants are enjoyable and insightful.  We are the devoted ones who show up and swap discoveries of good reads, the main thing we care about. 

Bookstores' Secrets to Lively Events

"Because of the competition in New York City, we want to offer something experiential," says Kaylen Higgins, Events Director at Strand Book Store. "We want programming that's more dynamic than authors having a conversation." (Facebook photo: crowd for Dog Medicine by Julie Barton)

G. Brown (Red Rocks: The Concert Years) at Tattered Cover
Daniel George of Tattered Cover in Denver says, "Our most successful talks are the extremely prevalent and well-known authors on the national level, including bestsellers, genre writers or those heavily invest in social media." For authors of business books  "or businessmen and women who write a book about their work or their career or simply their approach to success, we can have 100 to 150 in attendance and sell around 70%."

BookCourt event space looking out from the speaker's spot
BookCourt in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, is "one of the premiere bookstores in the country with one of the biggest event spaces of any bookstore in the city," Andrew Unger says. (Facebook photo) "We can hold as many as 400 people in our space. Ethan Hawke has made a habit of launching his books here. The energy of the space when it's full is terrific." He advises authors to understand the capabilities of the space. "When a local author makes us the third or fourth stop in the city, it hurts us a lot. Come prepared for a big celebration. James McBride brought his band to help him celebrate. We can do a lot and we like it when we can do a lot!Authors who take advantage of that fact always sell the most books."

But books are usually sold for list price at events. How do stores motivate readers to pay full price for a book?  

"The best way is to give them an unforgettable experience," said Daniel of Tattered Cover. "A signed book only means so much to me, but if you felt like the presentation made you learn something about yourself, it solidifies an experience that could only be had at the Tattered Cover."

While most, if not all, author events at bookstores are free, Strand Book Store requires purchase of a $10-15 store gift card or purchase of the author's book. Charging admission hasn't really increased book sales, Kaylen says, but the store's third floor rare book room attracts a higher caliber of authors who offer an experience. "We've had stand-up comedians, podcasts and talks with slideshow components." (Facebook photo: Harry Potter coloring bar in the are book room)

BookCourt customers look for something unique and often literary. "Authors should present their book in a unique and compelling way," Andrew says. "I don't think anyone has truly figured out 'readings' yet. Word bookstore is doing a heck of a job. Book People in Austin is doing some excellent programming, too. I like to think that in some small way I might also be turning some heads. One of my favorite events was Robert Coover's conversation with Garth Risk Hallberg about his monster of a novel The Brunist Day of Wrath. There was a modest crowd, but I consider it one of our great successes. In terms of numbers we've hosted some hugely successful celebrity events. Elvis Costello sat and signed books here for almost three hours one night, meeting all his local fans. Anthony Bourdain read here with the artist of his graphic novels. Stephen King and Peter Straub talked with their kids Owen King and Emma Straub about growing up in a family of writers. Our customers look for something unique and often literary. The formula for captivating audiences en masse is still a mystery, though. Authors should know that beforehand. Invite everyone on earth you've ever talked to. Publicize yourself endlessly and tirelessly. Get people out! Don't be afraid to think of something you can do that will make your event a true Event, make it stand out. And authors will win innumerable handsells from booksellers."

First posted on 9/19/2016 on public speaking blog

On Authors and (Dull) Book Talks

Living in the hub of America's book publishing capital, I see firsthand new books churned through New York's publicity machine of readings and TV talk shows. Every new book competes for a slot in bookstores, libraries, bars and colleges. It's great having the selection of famous and emerging authors in fiction and nonfiction.
But with so many events happening at once, I often have to make the difficult choice of choosing one book over another. You would think my appetite would be sated, but really, most of the time I'm disappointed. Or bored.

Same old, same old. The author reads an excerpt, making mistakes as if they've never read it before. They talk too fast, or choke, or apologize for not being better prepared because of a crisis at home that day.

Then they take questions, which are uninspired, because the author has set the standard. Even a generous offering of wine and hors d'oeuvres, which are nice, won't persuade me to buy a book. If the author is a drone, I won't feel obligated.

Why are authors casual in the presentation of their books? Do they prepare? Are they nervous? The point of author appearances is to entice readers to buy the book.

Acting teacher Stella Adler said that if actors insist on becoming casual, they will become uncaring. Acting students in Russia stand up when a teacher enters a room. They preserve a formality about themselves, dictated by tradition. When introduced to you, they bow over your hand. "When the visitor is singled out and made to feel special, the special nature of the theater is once again affirmed."

In The Art of Acting she offers advice on how to prepare for a role. Actors, too, must cope with stage fright. Adler says actors prepare by building a relationship with the set; they imagine preparing the stage as a garden or they become familiar with the objects as though the set was their own bedroom. Props, too, are part of an actor's character. Like hats.

The person who wears a high hat has to know how it lives. The high hat lives in a box, and that box gives you its nature and its value. Do you know how to brush this hat or put it down? Do you know you have to use both hands to put it on? It's made to be worn straight. The person who wears it has a controlled speech, a controlled walk, a controlled mind. You must not bring your own out-of-control culture into the wearing of the hat. In the society of that hat, the human being as well as the clothes were under strict control.

What if authors imagined themselves in hats?

Post first published on 7/22/2016 on public speaking blog

A Lucky Pen

If you're on your way to a lecture at The New School or Pratt, you might stop in Stevdan Pen & Stationers for a pen or notebook. I'll be taking another Robert McKee seminar in a couple weeks, and it's my ritual to pick up a couple new pens and notebook.

Vick in front of the Great Wall of Pens
I can't take notes with used equipment. For a fresh start, and to rise to the occasion of Mr. McKee's seminars which always leave me inspired with renewed insight, I hope that a new pen will bring forth new ideas.

I pick out two kinds of pens I haven't bought before. Why use the same pens again when the store has so many! It's worth stopping in (6th Avenue at 12th Street). I ask the owner if he sells lucky pens.

"Why? You think a pen will bring you good luck?"

"Well, no. I need inspiration. I want a pen that will make me write something brilliant!"

He smiles as he swipes my credit card.

"I had a guy who bought a lucky pen. He came back two weeks later and said he sold his building for fifty million."


Owner Ejaz Chaudhry & his case of Mont Blanc pens
"It wasn't one of these," he said, pointing to mine. "It was a Mont Blanc. It cost $2,000." He pointed to the display case. "His grandmother had give him an imitation. He told himself when he become successful, he would buy the real thing. I think it cost $1,900. On sale. It's discontinued. After he bought it he came back and said, 'I sold my building for fifty million.' He signed the contract with that pen. There's one left." (See the gold pen to the far right on the second shelf.) 

If I owned a building, I'd buy a Mont Blanc, too. For now, I'm going to stick with the cheaper pens from the Great Wall of Pens. They tested nicely on the scrap paper by the register. As long as a pen glides across the page, I can think big and those brilliant ideas will come.

(April 8, 2016)