The 'Firm' Handshake of a Famous Author

A Household Name

By Jennifer Widman

Director of the Center for the Book
South Dakota Humanities Council 

Not many authors are truly household names these days, a fact which tends to disappoint book lovers like me.

John Grisham, however, is one who rises to that level. Maybe it's because of the many movies made from his books. Or maybe it's just because he tells a darn good story. At any rate, he's earned near-universal recognition.

As successful as he is, Grisham rarely tours to promote his work. In fact, he hasn't been on a traditional book tour in 25 years. But his latest thriller, "Camino Island," just happens to feature a rare books dealer, and that subject matter, along with Grisham's appreciation for the booksellers who have supported his career over the years, has inspired him to tour bookstores in several states this month.

Kicking Things Off at BookExpo

He kicked off his tour at BookExpo America, the publishing industry's annual trade show, May 31 - June 2 in New York City. There, 200 lucky readers got to meet Grisham and pick up a signed copy of "Camino Island." South Dakota Humanities Council Executive Director Sherry DeBoer and I were among them.

After waiting in line (a seemingly never-ending experience at BEA) for more than an hour, we said hello, posed for pictures, and let Grisham move on to the next patient fan. And yes, of course, we told him he has an open invitation to the South Dakota Festival of Books!

Promoting the Festival is our job at BEA, and it's a fun one. BEA is, essentially, Disneyland for bookworms. It brings together publishers, authors, booksellers and librarians – and literary event planners like Sherry and me – to learn about the hottest new titles and the latest trends in publishing.

It's hard to describe the sheer scope of BEA to someone who hasn't been there. For starters, there is action on four levels. The show floor, covering acres upon acres of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center's third level, featured 678 exhibitors this year. Among them, as always, were the "Big 5" publishing houses, along with hundreds of mid-level and small presses.

From Harlequin to Harvard University Press, there's a booth to match any interest. Most of them give away brand-new books, advanced reader copies, galley proofs or blads (partial mockups of upcoming books). Many of them host author signings. All of them hope their stock includes the next bestseller. South Dakota State Historical Society Press had a booth this year and featured Nancy Tystad Koupal signing advanced copies of the next book in the Laura Ingalls Wilder series--"Pioneer Girl Perspectives."

In addition to the in-booth activities, up to 16 authors at a time sign their books in the Autographing Area all day each day. Sherry and I stopped there to talk with Jan Brett, Marc Brown, Louise Erdrich, Dav Pilkey, Mary Higgins Clark, Nancy Tystad Koupal, Neal Patrick Harris, R.L. Stine and many, many more.

BEA also features numerous educational sessions and special events. Each day opens with author breakfast talks. This year's presenters included famed horror writer Stephen King and his son Owen, co-authors of "Sleeping Beauties," and Jennifer Weiner, who hopes to replicate her success in adult fiction with her first children's book, "Little Bigfoot, Big City."

We also met the newest book release authors in the Exhibitor Booths or at special receptions or dinners hosted by the publishers. We dined with Katherine Patterson, Rosemary Wells, Pete Hautman and a host of others. We met cookbook authors, fiction writers and young adult authors at a reception at New York institution Housing Works Bookstore Café.

Both Sherry and I were especially moved by the heartfelt words of YA author Jason Reynolds, whose work ranges from the new series "Miles Morales: Spider-Man," featuring Ultimate Marvel's second Spider-Man, a teenager of Black and Hispanic descent, to "Long Way Down," the story of two teens on a 60-second elevator ride, told entirely in verse. Reynolds compares his books to the pecan trees he sat under as a boy when he needed relief from the Southern summer sun, and he hopes they can provide the metaphorical shade that some young readers desperately need.

Spending time among thousands of others who share this belief in the transformative power of books is, for us, the best part of BEA. What a wonderful reminder of how our lives are enriched by the work of the authors we love – whether or not they ever become household names.

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