Call 2010 the Year of Publishing Upheaval. Bookstores, including the Borders in Aventura, continue to close. The market for digital books skyrocketed. The iPad, released in April, threw down the gauntlet, and the e-reader wars began in earnest. Responding to Apple’s implied “improve or die” threat, Amazon dropped the price of its Kindle, while Barnes & Noble unveiled color capabilities for its Nook.
And still, since Sunday Nov. 14, thousands of readers have been lining for the 27th edition of Miami Book Fair International, South Florida’s great champion of the good old-fashioned written word.
“It’s like going to a celebration of books,” says novelist Pat Conroy, who will appear as an “Evening with. . . .” speaker Thursday night. “I love this book fair because it seems democratic. They let in small writers, beginning writers — and big writers. It’s a glorification of reading.”
The fair opened Sunday with former President George W. Bush, who spoke about his new memoir Decision Points to the lucky souls who managed to snare tickets before the event sold out in less than 10 minutes. Fittingly, the fair ends Nov. 21 with a presentation by Jonathan Franzen, whose novel Freedom deftly chronicles the effects of the Bush years on a Minnesota family. Such symmetry blossoms all over the fair, if you know where to look. You can find hilarity with Dave Barry and MSNBC’s Willie Geist, crime served sardonic and serious with Carl Hiaasen and Scott Turow. And in what might be the oddest pairing, biologist-turned-novelist E.O. Wilson and rocker Patti Smith will appear Friday Nov. 19. They won’t share a stage, but maybe they should.
The fair features more than 350 writers over the course of its week at Miami Dade College’s downtown Wolfson Campus. And don’t think the writers have grown blasé about flying south this time of year.
“It’s Madison Square Garden South. It’s Carnegie Hall!” says Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, who appeared Tuesday night. “You’re toiling in anonymity, and your book comes out, and you hope anybody will notice it. The words you’re too afraid to say are Frankfurt, London, Oprah — and Miami.”
That famous Frankfurt Book Fair, incidentally, is pondering how to emphasize e-books; director Juergen Boos recently told Publisher’s Weekly that he hoped the fair would build a role as “a content and media fair.” That description may not stir the soul of a reader who adores Salman Rushdie’s love of language or Sebastian Junger’s incisive reporting or Jennifer Egan’s delightful, insightful deconstruction of pop culture. But Frankfurt’s mulling of its digital future makes a certain amount of sense: A recent survey by technology and market-research company Forrester predicts U.S. e-book sales will reach $1 billion by the end of the year.
But of course, e-books are only a part of book sales. Right here, right now, people still like print. Book-fair chairperson and Books & Books owner Mitchell Kaplan agrees that “we’re in the middle of a sea change” but notes that people still crave stories.
“There hasn’t ever really been a shortage of readers,” Kaplan says. “Readers still want to read books and still have very strong interest in what authors have to say. What’s happening in publishing and bookselling is that we’re undergoing a massive change in the delivery system. It’s a distribution issue more than anything else. Writers are writing great things, and readers want to read them. . . . In many ways, the book fair does it so perfectly. We’re able to attract readership by having live authors.”
Personalities, of course, are what drive the fair: screenwriters Nora Ephron and John Waters; the scores of authors in the Spanish-language program; the graphic novelists and artists highlighted in The Comix Gallery; the high-profile guys such as Walter Mosley, Gay Talese and Simon Winchester.
“What’s kind of interesting, as I’ve been looking at the pairings, is I’ve noticed there’s a generational shift,” Kaplan says. “Look at the age of fiction writers coming. You’ll see more in their 30s and 40s and even their 20s — Julie Orringer, Jennifer Gilmore. . . . The whole McSweeney’s crew and Dave Eggers, too.”
And then there are favorites such as Conroy, who laughs every time he remembers his first trip to the fair.
“I was signing with a very nice young writer named Anne Rice. We meet for the first time, she’s as nice and pretty as she can be, and she took me to some darkened theater. I couldn’t see anybody. I spoke first because I was unknown. I walked out there, and I’m trying to see the audience, and something’s odd. Weird. I go back to Anne and say, `There’s something really f—– up about this audience, and there’s something wrong with their teeth.’ She says, `Pat, those are fangs. These are my fans, not yours.’ I had no idea!”