At BookExpo, silly dress is optional. (Unless you're an unknown author)
At the largest book trade show in the US, self-promotion was the name of the game.
New York — The country's largest book trade show was spread out over five blocks in the Jacob Javits Convention Center – a meeting place so far on the western edge of Manhattan it seems about ready to topple into the Hudson River.
While by no means a buttoned-up affair, BookExpo America (BEA), which ran May 31-June 3, wasn't exactly the type of circus where you'd expect to see a woman in a firefighter's suit – complete with helmet. Or a young man with an oversize name tag plastered across his entire chest and then some. I, for one, was certainly not expecting to come across God.
But here they all were, roaming among the estimated 36,000 attendees and 2,000 exhibitors where book publishers were offering up their newest and best to ambling booksellers.
The annual convention is mostly about the business of books, though many of the transactions were social. Many of the writers in attendance tended to be of the marquee-name and celebrity variety: Ian McEwan, Khaled Hosseini, Rosie O'Donnell, Jenna Bush. Their appearances were carefully doled out by invitation or ticketed breakfasts and book signings.
The firefighters and God, not to mention a man wearing a giant name tag and a woman wearing a decorated safari hat, on the other hand, could be found more easily. They were wandering the convention center floors, past publishers' booths, and through the food courts. They were mostly here on their own dime.
In a business where just shy of 300,000 books were published last year, finding a way to be seen is essential – particularly if you are self-published or with a small press lacking deep pockets for marketing.
"In that whole pile, you have to somehow stand out or have some unique way of reaching booksellers," said Diana Guerrero, who traveled here from Fawnskin, a tiny town in California, to promote her book, "Blessing of the Animals: A Guide to Prayers & Ceremonies Celebrating Pets & Other Creatures" (Sterling Publishing).
I first spotted Ms. Guerrero in a crowded, stuffy room. In a sea of heads facing the dais before them where panelists were discussing how authors and publishers could more effectively use MySpace, a social-networking site, there was a safari hat decorated with plastic animal figurines, palm fronds, peacock feathers, and puffy glitter paint. Nestled in the Noah's Ark were shrunken reproductions of the "Blessing of the Animals" cover. (The hat had taken more than 12 hours to make.)
A few hours later, the firefighter crossed my path on her way to another panel discussion. Kathy Gillette was bubbly and warm, explaining that in a traditionally male-dominated field, where only 2.5 percent of firefighters are women, she's been with the Indianapolis Fire Department for 22 years. Her self-published memoir about the experience will come out on Sept. 11.
Ms. Gillette, a first-time author, read books to figure out every aspect of the process. There was one on how to write a book, another on how to establish a company (she plans to publish other books as well as her own), and finally a book on marketing – which is where she got the idea to come to BEA.
Scott Ginsberg knows a thing or two about the art of marketing. That's his business.
He pulled his giant "Hello, I'm Scott" polyurethane name tag, worn as a sort of vest, over his head, folded it up neatly, and settled in for a massage. Self-promotion can be tiring.
Mr. Ginsberg has been wearing a normal-size name tag 24 hours a day, 7 days a week since Nov. 2, 2000. What started as a fun gimmick led to a story in the Portland Tribune. Now, almost five years later, Ginsberg runs a $300,000-a-year business as a speaker and marketing coach.
"There are 30,000 people here," he said. "Everyone wants to make a name for themselves. The challenge is how you get your name out there and be remembered."
He approved of his fellow costume-wearers.
Ginsberg was giving away copies of his latest book, "Make a Name for Yourself." It follows "How To Be That Guy" (2006), which followed "The Power of Approachability" (2005), which came after his debut "HELLO, my name is Scott" (2003) – which was all about self-publicity.
This was his first time at BEA. The book, he said, is really just an expensive marketing tool. He wasn't looking for a publisher, distributor, or bookseller. He was just hoping to be seen.
I was skeptical. Would anyone really approach a guy wearing a giant name tag? Or a woman with a plastic giraffe on her head?
But within a few minutes of sitting down to talk to Guerrero, two people stopped by to comment on the hat and take her card. One was Thomas Zinn, a bookseller with Borders in New York.
Gillette said a producer for Rosie O'Donnell's radio show approached her about being a guest.
It seemed surprisingly effective.
Last, but not least, I encountered God. God, it turned out, was actually British actor Linus Roache, who has played prominent roles in TV shows and movies, including NBC's recent "Kidnapped" series and "Batman Begins."
Mr. Roache was working the floor promoting "When God Falls Out of the Sky," a new book by his spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen. Roache was dressed in long, wavy gray locks and beard, a floor-skimming white robe, and leather sandals. He was congenial and good-humored as he discussed his get-up and the book.
"I hear God is everywhere," said a woman he'd apparently spoken to earlier as she walked by. He smiled.
I told him I was a bit surprised.
"You weren't expecting to see God?" he asked.
I really wasn't.
Here no one seemed especially put off by the costumes. At a more traditional book event, Guerrero, who wore a different, much heavier hat to BEA in 2004 to promote her first book, said she might be more hesitant. "It wouldn't really work. People would think you were a loon."