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Bill Clinton ready to invade BookExpo

Former president makes his first official stop on to promote 'My Life' in what his literary representative has billed 'the mother and father of all roll outs.'
/ Source: The Associated Press

The book world’s annual national convention, BookExpo America, should mark the convergence of publishing, politics and star power.

At least on opening night.

Bill Clinton, former president and future best-selling memoirist, makes his first official stop on what his literary representative, attorney Robert Barnett, has billed “the mother and father of all roll outs.” Clinton’s memoir, “My Life,” is scheduled for release on June 22 with a first printing of 1.5 million. His keynote speech Thursday at BookExpo is the convention’s biggest event in recent memory.

“I can’t remember anything at BookExpo that compares to this. I’ve never seen such anticipation,” said Mitchell Kaplan, the longtime owner of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla., and the incoming president of the American Booksellers Association, which represents the country’s independent bookstore owners.

BookExpo America, a three-day gathering to be held at Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center, ends Sunday, June 6.

Other ex-presidents have attended the booksellers convention, but not all have felt as welcome as Clinton, a Democrat beloved among the politically liberal publishing community. When former President Nixon appeared in 1979, it was hardly an appearance. He was guest of honor at a private dinner — no press allowed. Only later did reporters extract such tidbits as Nixon expounding on nuclear arms during the Eisenhower administration and later tossing his baby granddaughter into the air.

Book industry in need of boostClinton should boost spirits at a time when the industry is still recovering from last year’s slump. Purchases fell by 23 million from the year before, down to 2.22 billion, even as a record 175,000 books came out, with big increases in religion and history titles.

“The growth in adult non-fiction categories, first seen in the months following 9/11, accelerated in 2003,” Andrew Grabois, senior director of publisher relations and content development for R.R. Bowker, which compiles publishing statistics, said in a recent statement.

“For now, publishers will try to produce new products to satisfy a market caught up in the drama of war, partisan politics and the cultural divide.”

Clinton’s book will likely get most of the early attention, but BEA is also where the “buzz” books of the fall get buzzed. In recent years, novels such as Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” and Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake” were established as pick hits thanks to word of mouth at BookExpo. A “buzz” forum will feature executives from Random House, Simon & Schuster and other publishing houses promoting their top upcoming releases.

The convention also will have a couple of new features that mark changes in the industry. Graphic novels and books by and about blacks will now have their own special sections on the convention floor, and a full day of conferences will be devoted to religious publishing. This year also marks a big jump in attendance by librarians, with preregistration at 1,500, double the total in 2003.

“Publishers didn’t pay attention to librarians in the past, but that’s changed a great deal. They really see it as an important market,” Francine Fialkoff, editor of the trade publication Library Journal, said.

Politics will not end with Clinton’s speech. Booksellers and publishers have been leading opponents of the Patriot Act, which permits secret warrants for business records of “books, records, papers, documents and other items” — language widely seen as covering bookstores and libraries. An update on attempts to revise the legislation will be hosted by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.

Luncheon panel of liberalsMeanwhile, a year after Al Franken and Bill O’Reilly famously faced off at BookExpo, the convention will feature another luncheon panel of liberals (campaign strategist Donna Brazile and author Ron Suskind) against conservatives (author-humorist P.J. O’Rourke and commentator Linda Chavez).

Brian Lamb, host of C-Span’s “Book Notes,” will serve as the panel’s moderator, and, perhaps, voice of moderation.

“Moderators can do one of two things: They can just step back and let people slug it out or they can act like a nanny, or a ninny, if you will,” Lamb said.

“But I don’t expect anything like the Franken-O’Reilly debate this year. These are four people who are professionals in politics, not in the business of high-stakes personality book publishing.”

In the pre-digital age, the booksellers convention was essentially a time to make deals. Now, BookExpo is as multifaceted as the industry itself, a forum for educational programs, entertainment (George Carlin will perform Saturday night), technology (like last year, there will be a small e-book section) and even literature, with Tom Wolfe, Gish Jen, Amy Tan and David Sedaris among the featured authors.

“I think the primary function of BookExpo is to remind ourselves that we are an industry of many arms, many tentacles and that we’re all gathered together,” Dan Menaker, executive editor-in-chief of the Random House Publishing Group, said.

“You still need that interaction, despite the availability of e-mail and instant messaging and data bases. We still seem to have a need to get together, physically, in the same place. So there’s a ceremonial aspect to BookExpo.”