Galley Girl at Book Expo 2013: The First Night

What really goes on after hours at the book industry's annual convention

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Galley Girl
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A warm May evening in New York City was a pleasant setting for the first night of Book Expo revelry; in the space of four hours, I had made it to three parties, and I’m still standing.  Each party was its own little mysterious world, with adifferent language and rules, depending on the publishing house and its roster of authors. This Girl was determined to crack the code.

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“It’s a heart-palpitating read!” David Drake, the deputy publisher of the Crown Group, made that blurb-worthy assessment of one of his house’s fall books. He was standing in the doorway of Schiller’s Liquor Bar, a popular restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where his company was celebrating their upcoming lineup. The book receiving Drake’s praise was Five Days at Memorial (September), a Katrina-era hospital expose by Pulitzer-Prize winner Sheri Fink. His genuine enthusiasm for the home team was shared by almost every publishing personage I encountered.

Also at the Crown shindig, Harvard law school professor Alan Dershowitz, author of Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law (October), was holding court in the center of the room. “People are going to be very surprised at who I am when they read this,” he said. The book, his 30th, begins with his birth and ends with a letter to the editor criticizing his (imaginary) obituary. “It’s like having a baby at an old age,” he said of his latest effort.

A few feet away, CNN analyst Peter Bergen was celebrating his just-announced deal with Crown for a book about homegrown terrorism. He shared his thoughts with us about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger brother in the Boston Marathon bombings. Bergen wondered whether there “might have been an intervention” to turn Dzhokhar, the less radical of the two brothers, away from his deadly mission, “if the right person had talked to him.”  Said Bergen, “I don’t think it was inevitable” that “this 19-year-old kid” would commit this atrocity. “Now, he’ll be lucky if he gets life in prison without parole.”

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I left the Crown party (sliders, nachos, fried oysters and Croque-Monsieurs), and took a short ride with a grumpy cab driver to the sleek Eventi Hotel, where Howard Books was hosting a cocktail party for Tim Conway of Carol Burnett Show fame. The 79-year-old comedian, whose memoir, What’s So Funny? will be published in October, was walking around with a name tag that read BOB FELLER, presumably after the famous major league pitcher of an earlier era.

I sat down to talk with Conway, who has a modest, comfortable style. How long had it taken him to write his book? “Almost three days,” he confided. He came by his sense of humor at home, he said; his parents were “very amusing.” His father was Irish, his mother was Romanian, and “I could not understand either one.” When he was in his early teens, Conway wanted to be a jockey (“but I fell off a lot”); from there, he aspired to be a football player (“I was the only 95-pound guard on our team. I was like a little weasel—they couldn’t catch me.”)

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My next stop: a dinner party, a few blocks away at Fifth Avenue hot-spot Ilili, It was thrown by Avalon Travel, in honor of their guidebookimprint, Moon (The Cure for the Common Trip). Over scrumptious Mediterranean food (hummus, pita, lamb, sea bass and highbrow falafel) withtravel writers and “Moonies” from the Berkeley, California main office, I found out that travel writing can be a dangerous profession. One writer, who works for a competitor was “mugged and stripped naked and left on the road” while on assignment in Colombia.

I was seated across from Genevieve Belmaker, the author of Jerusalem and the Holy Land (February, 2014). In between bites of baba ganoush, Belmaker explained what it takes to be a travel writer. In order to sustain a longterm project, involving a lot of traveling, you must, she said, “have a genuine passion and love” for the place you’re writing about.” In her case, that extends to having an Israeli-born husband. Belmaker, too, had a harrowing story to tell about foreign travel: in Beijing, because of her interest in Falun Gong, a persecuted spiritual group, she was arrested, interrogated and deported.

From the publisher of Moon, Bill Newlan, I learned about the ups and downs of the travel guide industry, which has been buffeted by both the Internet (free) and ebooks (cheap). “We’ve survived and we’re thriving,” he says proudly. Newlan, who has been to 40 countries (his fave is Guatemala), describes a guidebook as “a $20 tool for a $2,000 experience.” To explore what’s being offered, Newlan will sometimes travel with a competitor’s guidebook, “road testing it.” Current guidebook hot spot: Machu Picchu.

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At 10 o’clock, realizing that a 7 a.m. business breakfast was in my near future, I pushed myself away from the table and headed home. After another pricey ride with an even surlier cab driver, our first night at Book Expo was drawing to a close.

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The First Night’s Tally

Authors’ hands shaken: 12

Hors d’ouevres ingested: 15

Calories consumed: 3,000+

Most unlikely claim by an agent about her author-client: “He’s the best natural writer I’ve ever come across.”

Best moment of modesty: When asked about his career on television, telegenic terrorism expert Peter Bergen said, “It’s easier than working.”

Truest words spoken: “The hardest thing to write is Page 1.” — Tim Conway