Are These Books Worth the Trees? Junk Food for the Mind Dominates Biggest Publisher Booths at BEA 2011

If you judged America’s reading habits by looking at the posters lining the booth walls of many of the largest publishers exhibiting at Book Expo America 2011 (held at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City, May 24-26), you might think the American public mostly reads vampire books, celebrity kiss-and-tells, and cookbooks/home decorating books. All of these publishers have better books than this-books that expand the mind-but it’s hard to know this by looking at what they choose to display on the wall.

There were occasional exceptions; both Michael Moore’s and Bill O’Reilly’s new books were featured on posters from their mainstream publishers, for instance, as was a new Freakonomics book. However, it seemed that progressive authors and books like Moore and Freakonomics were surprisingly rare amid a disturbing tilt to the right, with lots of conservative books about the economic collapse and the rise of the Tea Party movement. Interestingly, Moore (like fellow progressive Barbara Kingsolver) is published by Harper, which is owned by Fox owner Rupert Murdoch’s rightist empire.

The show is definitely smaller than it’s been in previous years, and like last year, compressed into a single hall (with another hall devoted to the small-but-interesting Blogworld show running concurrently). Attendance was modest but respectable, with small but consistent presence throughout the three days. And many of the big-publisher in-booth celebrity-author booksignings drew huge crowds. Still, it does seem that that part of the industry has lost a lot of vitality lately. For the most part, the thinner crowds made it remarkably easy to walk around, and it was easy to get the attention of booth staff.

Normally, the press room is stuffed full of press kits, freebie books, and stand-alone literature. This year, companies who put materials in the pressroom numbered in the dozens, not the hundreds, and most of it was stand-alone: a few stapled pages or even a one-sheet, instead of the traditional big bulky folder jammed with stuff. While there still were a few traditional press kits, the vast majority of exhibitors are apparently switching to electronic.

One hybrid example was from the literary agency Pinder Lane & Garon-Brooke, which wrapped book covers around a couple of pages of content (far less than a blad), and bundled a CD with complete text.

In the booths of publishers who are not household names, there’s a lot of excitement, and plenty of books exploring deeper aspects of our psyche. Yet even here, the politics books that were so common a couple of years ago were harder to find. And if there were any new books on the great liberal awakening following the 2008 election (which were much in evidence last year), they were awfully scarce this year

More obvious at the IBPA’s (Independent Book Publishers Association) pre-show conference and Ben Franklin Awards Dinner is that it must be easier than in the past for small publishers to produce a large-format coffee-table book. Quite a few have made the leap, dong gorgeous books with lavish full-color photography, rich paper stocks, and large formats. One that stood out in particular was Light Fading: Reflections on the Imperiled Everglades, by Joel Curzon (Peter E. Randall Publisher), which won three Franklins.

Both at the Franklins and at the show, there were also some oddities in the category, such as The Sacred Geometry of the Great Pyramid, by Ernest F. Pecci, M.D. (Pavior Publishing), which is basically a very lavish book on the mathematical arcana of the famous Egyptian landmark-and the self-explanatory Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story by Paul Shaw (MIT Press).

Another trend: Environmental books for kids (and environmental books in general) remain strong even on a display floor with noticeably fewer kid books than last year, though it seems publishers in all genres are going for simpler covers.

Making homecraft easy seems to be a theme this year. For example, Tuttle has several ethnic cookbooks featuring quick meals, including: My Indian Kitchen: Preparing Delicious Indian Meals Without Fear or Fuss, by Hari Nayak, The Korean Table: From Barbecue to Bibimbap: 100 Easy-To-Prepare Recipes, Entice With Spice: Easy Indian Recipes for Busy People, and similar titles for Arabian, Filipino, and Japanese cuisine.

Yet for the most part, this year’s trends are less about what types of books are being published, and more about the formats. More than ever, e-publishing is capturing buzz, and two entire aisles were devoted to the digital world (not even counting the 60 or so exhibitors downstairs at Blogworld). Many of these were not straight e-book publishers but service providers in an ever-expanding and ever-more-niched digital publishing world.

It was also noticeable how many business cards and sell sheets now list Twitter contacts or request Likes that go back to Facebook.

Want to know about some of these offerings? Please click here to visit the related article, “Electronic Innovation is turning the Publishing world Inside-Out: Cutting-Edge Business Products at Book Expo America.”

More articles from Book Expo America 2011:

* Electronic Innovation is turning the Publishing World Inside-Out: Cutting-Edge Business Products at Book Expo America

* Penguin Unveils Social Network for Genre Fiction at Book Expo ’11

Shel Horowitz’s two most recent books (both award-winners) are Grassroots Marketing for Authors and Publishers and Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green: Winning Strategies to Improve Your Profits and Your Planet. He writes the monthly Green And Profitable and Green And Practical columns.