Buzzing At BEA
Monday 9th May 2016 was the beginning of a week of firsts. My first time in Chicago. My first time in America for almost 20 years. The first time I’d met anyone from my American publisher. And my first BookExpo America.
For anyone as unfamiliar with BEA as I was, it’s the biggest book event in the American publishing calendar.
The biggest gathering of booksellers, librarians, publishers and authors.
It’s a Really Big Deal.
And Little Deaths was one of this year’s BEA Buzz Books. I was one of only two Brits on the list, and mine was the only novel by a non-American author that made it.
When Little Deaths was first nominated, my lovely editor and publicist were both at pains to point out that the chances of me getting on the list were small.
“Are you free in May?” they said, back in November 2015. “Just in case.”
“You probably won’t have to go.”
“It’s a really small chance, but you never know.”
“Can you book the time off work? Just in case.”
When I got the call from my editor late one March night, I didn’t believe him at first. “Are you sure? Really? OH. MY. GOD. Are you really REALLY sure?” Then we whooped at one another: me in the street, on the way home from work, him in his office in New York. I hung up and tap-danced home, singing all the way and wondering how I’d keep it to myself until it was officially announced.
It was one of the most exciting things that had ever happened to me…but you can’t stay that excited 24/7. I had a job to go to each day, and a book to edit.
Life moved on. And then suddenly I looked up and it was the end of April. Panic set in.
I began getting emails about flights and itineraries. I discovered that one needs a visa to travel to the US now. I HAD NOTHING TO WEAR.
The final days flew by in a disorganised flurry of late nights at the office, small-hours-panic, and that slow creep of thrilling elation. That BUZZ.
And then it was May 9th, and I was at Gatwick at some unholy hour of the morning. I sat on the plane, too excited to read, grinning like an idiot at my fellow passengers.
The girl next to me asked, “Are you going to Chicago for a holiday?”
I grinned more widely. “For work.”
“Oh, what do you do?”
“I’m a writer.” I beamed ecstatically at her until she put her headphones on and avoided eye contact for the rest of the flight.
The first thing I realised about BEA is that it isn’t just a big deal, it’s physically big. The hall in McCormick Place where it was held this year has 460,000 square feet of space. More than 17,000 people were expected to attend and by the afternoon of the first day, it felt like they were all there. Most of them queuing for coffee.
People asked me if I was nervous. Strangely – for someone who gets nervous phoning my bank – I wasn’t: everyone there was attending because they love books. I was with my people.
I got lost several times – and eventually I decided to embrace getting lost, and just wander. I looked at what various publishers were promoting (what stood out to me was genre fiction and YA), I picked up free books, free tote bags, free doughnuts – and I kept drifting back to my publisher’s booth to check on the progress of our Tower of Power.
At the end of the first afternoon, the Hachette team and I went to watch my editor talk about me at the Editors’ Buzz Panel, along with the editors of this year’s other buzz books. It’s a surreal experience, listening to the other side of the publishing story of your own book, in a room full of almost-strangers.
The next morning it was my turn: along with the other authors, I was interviewed by Carol Fitzgerald, co-founder and President of The Book Report Network, in front of a live audience. It was terrifying, exhilarating, and over too quickly.
Afterwards I had lunch with my wonderful American agent, Deborah Schneider. Deborah has been in the business of discovering writers and helping them get published for a long time. She knows everyone. She looks like a healthier version of Debbie Harry, only cooler. She told me how she became an agent; I told her how I came to write Little Deaths. Lunch was peppered with literary anecdotes (Deborah), stories about true crimes (me), and speculation about the American election (both of us). (It was coming up to the end of the Democrat primaries. We were optimistic. BIG SIGH.)
Later that afternoon, I signed autographs. Actual autographs. On the front pages of uncorrected proofs and for people who’d just picked up a copy of Little Deaths and therefore hadn’t read it yet – but still…AUTOGRAPHS.
And then, suddenly, it was all over. Hours later, I was on another flight, heading back across the Atlantic. I can’t sleep on planes, so asked the stewardess if I could move to an empty row so that I could put the light on, spread out my notes and do some work. The final draft of Little Deaths was due with my editors ten days later.
“Your employer must be a real slavedriver!” she said, helping me carry my bags over to the other side of the aircraft. “What do you do?”
“I’m a writer,” I told her. Then I grinned at her, thanked her, and got on with my job.