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CONFERENCE FLASHBACK 2023: The U.S. Book Show Returns: A Gathering for Literacy at NYU
by
Posted On December 19, 2023
This NewsBreak originally ran on June 6, 2023.

The U.S. Book Show is the latest iteration of something that began as the American Booksellers Association annual conference in the late 1940s. I first attended in 1973, and in those days, librarians seemed to be merely tolerated. By the 21st century, the event had a new name, BookExpo America, and librarians were a major part of it. For the first 2 decades of the century, the gathering place was almost always the Javits Center in New York. It was a bustling 3-day convention, full of movie stars, Elvis impersonators, free-flowing wine, and, of course, actual authors. By 2018, the conference was looking noticeably leaner, and the pandemic put an end to the event in 2020. At that point, Publishers Weekly came to the rescue and created the U.S. Book Show as a replacement virtual event.

GOING HYBRID IN 2023

This year, the meeting was a 4-day hybrid program held May 22–25. The first and the last days were virtual events, and the middle two were both virtual and in person at New York University (NYU). Sadly, the exhibits room this year was only on the virtual side, but the session rooms had a selection of free galleys.

The first day was heavily oriented to libraries. The first session, Book Banning in America: What’s Driving the Nationwide Surge in Book Bans—and How Freedom-to-Read Advocates Can Win, concerned the rise in book banning in America. The panel included librarians who are in the trenches for this battle, and nobody doubted that the problem has been far worse in the past few years. They said that any library without a clear policy is a sitting duck for book-banning zealots. Social media helps people to organize and do considerable harm. One panelist explained that people feel like they are being left out, and complaining about books is a good way to feel like they are being heard. This was exacerbated during the pandemic, when the living room became the classroom. Parents used to just send their kids off to school, and they’d come back at night. The pandemic forced them to be more involved.

Libraries are particularly vulnerable because public library board meetings are open to the whole community, and they are a good place for the complainers to get their foot in the door. Several of the panelists had been subjected to smear attacks. One of them sued for defamation. The panelists urged librarians to avoid emulating the tactics of the book protesters. They were also encouraged to motivate their professional organizations to get behind the effort in meaningful ways. Remember that all of these challenges are coming from a very small minority of citizens.

The second panel was Leveraging Flexible Content Access Models and Other Tools to Engage More Readers, presented by OverDrive and featuring Kate Mutch from the Virtual Library of Wyoming and Sandra Breedlove from the Sonoma County Library in California. It was moderated by Karen Estrovich, the senior manager of public library digital success teams at OverDrive. They noted that during the pandemic, there was a great shift in demand for ebooks due to the lack of physical library access. Patrons who wanted popular new materials were facing delays of 6 months to get their book. OverDrive responded by adding new options that allowed libraries to provide a popular item to dozens of patrons at once.

The next session featured Edward Melton, executive director of the Harris County Public Library in Texas; Ellen Paul, executive director of the Connecticut Library Consortium; and Lisa Rosenblum, director of the King County Library System in Washington. All of them were involved in bringing large library systems back to normal after the pandemic. The real challenge they’re facing is to find the new balance between physical books and ebooks after COVID gave alternate book forms a huge shot in the arm. Paul explained how she is working with her state legislature to create a law that sets standards for ebook purchases. They believe they have found a way that avoids the pitfalls that took down a similar law in Maryland recently.

Other first-day highlights included a welcome to the AAPI Communities in Conversation track by Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada, the 2022–2023 president of ALA, and a closing keynote for the Libraries Are Essential track by Ibram X. Kendi, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University and the author of How to Be an Antiracist, with Nic Stone, a bestselling author who, with Kendi, adapted his antiracist book for young adults.

VISITING IN PERSON

Since the conference was during weekdays, and downtown subway service was running smoothly in New York, I had no trouble getting to the NYU auditorium housing the conference. I was registered in minutes and sent up to the fourth floor. The room was fairly packed already, but I had no trouble finding a first-row seat that would help in any picture-taking I had in mind. The conference began the adult book sessions with a couple of A-list author events. The first was distinguished novelist Meg Wolitzer in conversation with Lauren Groff, a newer but also highly distinguished author. Groff’s upcoming book, The Vaster Wilds, is the tale of a young orphan girl who escaped from a dying fort in early colonial times and is always on the run, evading animals and facing cold, starvation, and an angry native population. It sounds like the kind of story surely headed for the movies, and I have since requested an electronic galley of it.

The second session was simply an all-star gathering: authors Elizabeth Acevedo, Kiley Reid, Mitch Albom, and Alice McDermott. The moderator was writer, podcaster, and literary blogger Maris Kreizman. I did not know Albom, but I certainly knew his books, such as Tuesdays With Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven. He has now written a novel about the Holocaust called The Little Liar. It tells the story of a boy known for his unflinching truthfulness who is tricked into lying for Nazi soldiers. McDermott is a National Book Award winner who has written a novel about two wives in the early days of the Vietnam War. All of the books sounded great.

For the break hour, I went to the ninth floor of the building, which had commanding views of Washington Square and excellent food in the press room. I learned from Christi Cassidy, publicity and licensing director for Publishers Weekly, that there was no physical exhibits room this year. People who missed the nuttiness of the old BookExpo America exhibit halls would have the opportunity to travel across the street to Washington Square, where there is never a shortage of interesting diversions. On Jan. 23, 1917, Marcel Duchamp and five other artists found a hidden stairway in the Washington Square arch, went to the top, and declared the spot as “The Free and Independent Republic of Washington Square.” That spirit has not entirely left the square, so its area is a fine location for a literary event.

View of Washington Square's arch and surrounding buildings

Washington Square from the ninth floor of the NYU venue

After the break, I reclaimed my front-row seat to get a good view of newly minted editor Sarah Jessica Parker, promoting Kim Coleman Foote’s Coleman Hill, a blend of genealogy, family stories, and mythology set in the midst of the Great Migration of African Americans from the south to the northeast. Parker says that she was looking for a book that had universal appeal in promoting empathy and found it in this page-turning title. A look at Amazon shows that a number of distinguished authors agree with Parker. Those of us with large cameras were asked to hold off on taking pictures during the presentation, but afterwards, the panelists were happy to pose.

The three women pose with copies of Foote's book

Moderator Glory Edim with Kim Coleman Foote and Sarah Jessica Parker

My final session for the day was a panel of first-time authors: Alice Carrière (Everything/Nothing/Someone: A Memoir), Kelsey James (The Woman in the Castello), and Terah Shelton Harris (One Summer in Savannah). The highlight of the panel was when moderator Louisa Ermelino asked the authors about the sex scenes in their books. Carrière noted that she was in a special circumstance, having written a memoir. She then went on to answer the question in great detail and with highly explicit language. Afterwards, she exploded in laughter and hid her face.

Alice holding her hand up to her mouth and laughing

Alice Carrière realizing that she had said more than she needed to

HIGHLIGHTS FROM EDITORS’ PICKS

Day four was a virtual book buzz, as editors lined up to promote the books they find most exciting. James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential, has written a new thriller, The Enchanters, about Los Angeles in 1962, featuring Marilyn Monroe, Peter Lawford, and the Kennedy brothers. Ann Patchett has written Tom Lake, about daughters who uncover their mother’s secret past with a movie star. Andrew Yang, former presidential candidate, co-authored a political thriller about the death of democracy in 2024 called The Last Election. In memoirs, a leading trend seems to involve learning to cope with mental health issues. Comedian Maria Bamford created Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult, about succeeding in the comedy world while dealing with mental illness. Another book of note was Disillusion: Five Families and the Unraveling of American Suburbs by Benjamin Herold, detailing case studies of people reluctantly dealing with diversity.

CONCLUSION

I have given up making predictions about these things, but I see the U.S. Book Show’s move from virtual to hybrid as a welcoming sign. Cassidy told me that the overall attendance was more than 4,200 people, so I look forward to a healthy event in 2024, the dates of which have yet to be announced as of this writing.


Terry Ballard is the author of three books and more than 100 articles about library automation. In addition to several writing awards, Ballard was given the Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019 and appears in the 2020 edition of Who’s Who in America. Further information can be found at terryballard.org, and he can be reached at terryballard@gmail.com.

Email Terry Ballard

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