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Center of the book world

For the four days of BookExpo America, L.A. is where it's at, literarily speaking.

June 02, 2008|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

As the four-day BookExpo America wound down at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Sunday, there was no easy consensus about a "big book" of the event, which alternates each year between New York and a rotating roster of other cities.

The mood, many said, was more subdued than usual, given the flat numbers facing the publishing industry. Some said the slumping economy had meant more conservative travel budgets and hence fewer members in each publishing house's delegation.

Still, L.A. is always a draw, and the convention's parties were thick with spirited revelers from around the country. At the Random House cocktail party Friday night at Sona, Salman Rushdie stood off to the side chatting easily with booksellers and well-wishers about his new novel, "The Enchantress of Florence." He reflected on L.A and West Hollywood, where he lived on Kings Road for several years early in the decade.

"So this used to be my playground," he said. "Since I had absolutely nothing to do with the movie industry, it was a wonderful place to live." He might never have shopped around a spec script, but he appreciated the beauty of his surroundings. "The vegetation is very reminiscent of the city where I grew up, Bombay," he said.

At the Knopf cocktail party down the street at Comme Ca, Joseph O'Neill, author of "Netherland," a cricket tale shaping up as one of the year's big novels, was excited to be in the city where his wife, Vogue editor Sally Singer, grew up dining at Canter's deli, he said. On the other side of the room, an impromptu huddle among Barbara Walters, Knopf editor Sonny Mehta, Arianna Huffington and Markus Dohle, Random House's new chief executive, drew flashbulbs and rubbernecking from other attendees, who were mostly booksellers, media and Knopf authors, including Jim Crace and debut fiction writer Nam Le.

For Angelenos in the book world, used to working thousands of miles from the center of gravity, it was a chance to show off their bookstores, authors and city.

"Part of the reason BookExpo moves around is to give people in different regions a chance to really make their case," said Kim Dower, an L.A.-based publicist who was running industry panels and hosting a Friday luncheon for British historical novelist Philippa Gregory.

Jeff Seroy, Farrar, Straus & Giroux senior vice president for publicity, seemed grateful to have a break from the every-other-year New York BookExpos, which he described as "overload -- a tsunami" of activity. "People in New York don't like when BookExpo is in New York," said Dower. "They're distracted, tempted to run back to work."

West Coast publishers enjoyed their time in the sun.

"Some people say this isn't New York, this isn't the center of the publishing world," said Elaine Katzenberger, City Lights' executive director, at a Thursday night party the publisher threw at Skylight Books in Los Feliz. "But I'm very interested in the West Coast. And I love coming to L.A."

Publishers from other regions came too, including Gavin Grant, who runs the small, horror-and-genre-bending Small Beer Press in western Massachusetts. "We came to this one because a lot of the West Coast booksellers and the West Coast media don't come to BEA in New York," Grant said. "For us the West Coast is very important," he said.

There was both interest and excitement about the growing importance of digital books. On Friday, Simon & Schuster announced that it was making 5,000 books -- double its existing offerings -- available on Amazon Kindle, the digital reader that may be the industry's future. Some, though, remained skeptical that the paper-and-ink book was in mortal peril: How, for instance, to do art books, which depend on the concrete quality of the pages and their images, digitally?

Others said they were happy for the event's proximity to Hollywood and talked about taking meetings with film and television executives to discuss literary adaptations. The event also had, as usual, appearances by a handful of celebrity authors, this time around including William Shatner, Ernest Borgnine and George Hamilton.

Steve Crist of L.A.-based art/design publisher Ammo Books said the Scott McClellan memoir on the Bush White House, "What Happened," which dropped right at the beginning of the conference, had stolen some of the thunder from upcoming releases. The whole production "feels a little lighter this year, a little less intense," he said.

A few books did draw consistent interest, including two due in September: Marilynne Robinson's "Home," set in the same world as her acclaimed "Gilead," and "Mystic River" author Dennis Lehane's "The Given Day." There was also talk about the latest wave of children's books by nonchildren's authors, including Oscar Hijuelos and Susan Orlean.

"BookExpo has been getting less important," said City Lights' Katzenberger, explaining that the rise of the Internet and other innovations over the last 15 years or so had begun to eclipse personal meetings and the physical showing of upcoming books, which is a primary purpose of BEA. "Nobody's really sure what it is now. But people keep coming," she said.

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scott.timberg@latimes.com

Times staff writer Lynell George contributed to this report.

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