Independent Presses Showcase a Full Spectrum of Titles at BEA

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In the competitive world of publishing, independent presses, as always, face a number of challenges. At this year’s BookExpo America, held May 1-5 at the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York City, many indies acknowledged this reality, yet were quick to point out the benefits of being independent. Sporting a cheery yellow shirt and tie, and a smile to match, Ten Speed Press CEO Philip Wood noted, "It’s a difficult time, but also a good time, to start and have an independent press. The new technology has democratized the business…. A really good book is really all you need."

And good books from independent publishers were certainly in evidence at this year’s BEA. At Norton, the nation’s largest indie, Director of Publicity Louise Brockett was optimistic about its acquisition -- only a few days earlier -- of Porno, the latest novel from British author Irvine Welsh. "It deals with the making of a porno film and picks up characters from Trainspotting and Glue," said Brockett, while a bunch of live birds, strangely enough, soared over Norton’s booth. "And those characters are in worse shape than ever!"

Among the titles joining Welsh’s on Norton’s September list is Militant Islam Reaches America by Daniel Pipes, director of Middle East Forum. "I think it’s a book people will pay a lot of attention to," Brockett continued. "Pipes has anticipated acts of terrorism that have come to pass."

She then spoke about the city that hosted 2002’s BEA: "I think the traffic has been particularly good because it’s in New York. There’s certainly major media here, and our foreign rights person has had a full schedule."

Considering the catastrophic events of September 11, one couldn’t help feel emotional while walking the floor. And, one couldn’t help notice a bevy of titles dealing with the attack and collapse of the World Trade Center. One of The New Press’ important recent books, according to Publicity Manager Julie McCarroll, is Fallout: The Environmental Consequences of the World Trade Center Collapse by journalist Juan Gonzalez, a book revealing what officials failed to say about New York’s post-September 11 air quality.

"And since September, it’s turned out to be a good time to publish books on political events, current affairs, and to publish on the left, too," added Tom Hallock, director of sales and marketing for Beacon Press. "We’re having success with Robert Reich’s I’ll Be Short, an instant book we did that articulated his public policy." Reich, who served as Secretary of Labor in the first Clinton administration, is currently running for the Democratic nomination for governor in Massachusetts.

BTW also caught up with a number of distributors of independent presses at the show. At Consortium Books Sales & Distribution, Sales and Marketing Director Jim Nichols spoke about You Are Being Lied To: The Disinformation Guide to Media Distortion, Historical Whitewashes, and Cultural Myths (The Disinformation Company), a book that provides an alternative to mainstream reporting. Consortium also does "really well" with drama, namely books from Theater Communications Group (TCG). One reason is Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, which received the Pulitzer Prize for drama this year. (Just days after the show ended, Random House announced that it had signed a two-book deal with Parks, for her first novel, Getting Mother’s Body, scheduled for a summer 2003 publication.)

Other distributors included Independent Publishers Group, whose marketing manager, Jason Maynard, enjoyed discussing Snake Hips: Belly Dancing and How I Found True Love by Anne Thomas Soffee (Chicago Review Press). "She’s a true-life Bridget Jones who’s trying to find love while using belly dancing as an analogy for life. People in our office were reading the manuscript before we got the galleys out." He also cited Sharing the Dream (Hill Street Press), a memoir by Dora McDonald, who was the personal secretary of Dr. Martin Luther King. "She had to give Dr. King’s wife the news that he had been assassinated," Maynard explained. "She was viewed as a member of their family."

Titles from cutting-edge independents Distributed Art Publishers Inc. (D.A.P.) and Last Gasp of San Francisco were also impressive.

As you might expect, all this independent publishing had many booksellers salivating. "We try to carry the presses that get lost," said Ken Kral, assistant manager of Pickwick Bookshop in Nyack, New York. However, Meredith Arthur of Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Washington, admitted a dilemma, yet one she feels is conquerable: "It’s a challenge to have ‘edgy’ independent press books, because we have a suburban store.

Late in the show, BTW caught up with Thom Chambliss, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, who said that for the past two years, independent presses have been expressing a great deal of interest in the organization’s holiday catalog.

As BEA proved, travel titles are a crucial segment of independent publishing. At Lonely Planet Press, Publicity Manager Cindy Cohen said many travelers are heading to destinations "they perceive to be safe" and those, of course, include places in the U.S. "We have some wonderfully timed U.S. titles on the way -- activity guides like Hiking in the Sierras." Meanwhile, Roger Rapoport, publisher of RDR Books, which publishes in travel (including "trouble traveling") and other genres, said, "This has been the best show I’ve ever had; it’s had the best cross-section of attendees." Getting plenty of attention at RDR’s booth was Skating on Thin Ice, written by the publisher’s 91-year-old cousin, Anatol Rapoport. The book is a coming-of-age story recounting the author’s amazing ice-skating odyssey out of Russia.

For years, literary presses have been a beacon for independent publishing, and, at BEA, distinguished houses like Graywolf Press (which will be distributed by Farrar, Straus & Giroux starting in June), Coffee House Press, City Lights Publishers, The Feminist Press, Four Walls Eight Windows, and others showcased impressive lists.

At Graywolf, Marketing Director Janna Rademacher described The House on Eccles Road, in which author Judith Kitchen "pays structural homage" to Joyce’s Ulysses by not only putting Molly Bloom center stage but in a contemporary suburban-America setting. Continuing the conversation was Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae, who provided insight into the ambitious poetry collection Blind Huber by Nick Flynn. "It’s based around a character from the 18th century who studied bees for 50 years and who was completely blind."

A day on the trade floor at BEA is time enough to convince you that independent presses offer every facet of book publishing imaginable. Running Press was showcasing an intriguing business-related title, Everything I Know About Business I Learned Playing Monopoly® by Alan Axelrod. "The premise is that by age 10, you’ve already done business with this board game, and the book looks at how its rules apply to the rules of [real] business," said Samuel Caggiula, director of publicity.

Nearby, Prometheus Books had Dr. Henry C. Lee’s Cracking Cases: The Science of Solving Crimes on hand. "Popular science is a growing category for us," explained Jill Maxick, Prometheus’s publicity director. And the music and counter-culture books of British-based Plexus Publishing, including Ramones: The Complete Twisted History and Goth Chic: A Connoisseur’s Guide to Dark Culture, certainly caught the eye. All in all, the independent presses at BEA had something for everyone. --Jeff Perlah