BOOKS IN LA-LA LAND: THE TIMES AND THE GLORY
by Lionel Rolfe
American Reporter Correspondent
Los Angeles, Calif.
LOS ANGELES -- For many of the 27,143 attendees at the American Bookseller's Association's BookExpo America 2003 at the Los Angeles Convention Center here, it was an unsettling affair. There were more self-conscious attempts to link the book business and Hollywood than ever before, but what everyone noticed was that the local newspaper didn't even mention it, and how few people were attending. Everyone was talking cutbacks - from publishers to booksellers.
Book publishers are trying to reduce prices; chains are ordering less of each title, and independent bookstores are returning books they could sell because they need credit to get the newer, faster moving "product" on their shelves. There are only about 1,000 bookstores in the country today - half the number of a decade ago. The number of bookstore members of the ABA has declined from 2,097 last April to 1908 in April 2003, and the organization is running an $800,000 deficit.
ABA chief operating officer Oren Teicher attributed lower attendance to the fact that last year's show was held in the epicenter of world publishing and was promoted as a way to restore faith in the nation's greatest city.
"For many reasons the New York show was a special case -- given the large number of booksellers in the region, and that it was the first show in New York City in over 10 years. However, recognizing how difficult business has been for many booksellers for the first months of 2003, we are enormously gratified that so many ABA member bookstores see the show as an important resource for their businesses," he told the ABA's online newsletter, Bookselling This Week. Teicher also noted an upsurge in the number of independent booksellers attending.
The latest major casualty is Wilkie's Bookstore & Cafe, the oldest bookstore in Ohio, that is closing its successful operation after more than a century of bookselling so that the Dayton school board can expand its offices. That news came just a few days after the convention, which ran from May 28 to June 1.
But observers most noted the absence of customers in the aisles - and especially of buyers representing booksellers, although there were 6,807 of those. In some ways that was nice. Normally America's book conventions are too crowded; that was not the case here.
And despite the push by some of the big publishers to do more right-wing books, most of the book people talked about President George W. Bush as a barbarian who has to be removed from office for the sake of freedom of expression - and the publishing business. Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the lone independent in the U.S. House of Representatives, told booksellers that "What's going on in Washington is not a battle, it's a rout.
The Far Right has practically no opposition. The House is not run by conservatives, but by the extreme right... . I know you think [President] George Bush is dumb, but [he is not dumb]... . We've got the problems, not him. He might be the most extreme right wing president in history." Of his opponents in the House, Sanders said, "These are tough guys, and not nice guys... . That is the world we live in." His closing comments won warm applause: "I believe we can fight terrorism without undermining the Constitution," he said.
Yet it still was a book convention, and for three days people from all over the world had taken over the Los Angeles Convention Center, seizing it from the tens of thousands who visit car, gun, New Age and computer shows that come here.
But not everyone found cause for despair. SCB, an independent book distributor in Southern California, had a large booth - rivaling those of some of the bigger guys. (I have done business with them for more than a decade and have seen SCB grow.) Aaron and Molly Silverman, the firm's proprietors, were in top spirits. Business for the books they distribute was good.
In some ways better was better than ever, they said.
It was sort of nice, in fact, to see the corporate trade show hoopla for formulaic, soulless "products" awkwardly trying to fit in amid real literary folk, people with leather on their elbows or tie-dyed skirts, pipes and pencils in their mouths, and, if male - many are not - beards.
Time Warner, Simon & Schuster and other schlockmeisters were there, but so were the journalists, the agents, the writers and poets, the small literary presses, the foreign presses and the academic presses, who are about the only ones publishing anything of value anymore.
BookExpo America 2003 was still a circus, though, a wonderful, fascinating, rich and exciting confluence of personalities that can only be engendered by the printed page. It's always been that way, whether it was held in Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans or San Francisco (it goes to Chicago in 2004). For better or worse, this is the American version of the great Frankfurt and London book fairs that are international events.
It seems greatly out of place in La-La Land. If conventions here never quite rival those of other places, perhaps because the place isn't congenial enough, convention business has been so bad in general since 9/11 that the developer of the downtown Staples Arena suggested the convention center might have to close.
And it might not be entirely accidental that last time BookExpo America was in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times hardly found space to mention it; this time they had just one perfunctory story at the end.
The Times so zealously guards its own "Festival of Books" that no mention of BookExpo America 2003 was found even in an advanced search of its own archives, although a community newspaper published by the Times mentioned the "Book Expo of America" (sic) in the tenth paragraph of a story on a local woman's diet book, noting that it is "an annual event that is the nation's largest book expo." And that's better press than the Times gave the City of West Hollywood's first annual Book Fair last October. The paper dismissed that event in one line of agate type.
The current editor of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review, Steve Wasserman, has been on the scene since 1997. The book festival was just an infant when he first arrived here from Manhattan.
For many, the obvious success of the Times' annual book fair - which draws more than 100,000 people to the UCLA campus in good weather - is meant to but may not reflect the paper's Sunday Book Review.
Aaron Silverman becomes quite animated when he talks about the section.
As far as the festival is concerned, he says he can't complain about "something which gets that many people out to enjoy the sun and look at books," although it in no way compares with the excitement of BookExpo America.
He has no such ambivalence about Wasserman's book section.
"It's miserable," Silverman said. "No publisher thinks it's worthwhile to advertise in. Nobody reads it. It has no individuality, no nothing. That guy [Wasserman] is running it into the ground. It's obvious nobody around the paper cares about it." [Wasserman was not asked to comment on this article.]
Part of the reason Silverman feels this way is the fact that his distribution company in Gardena is the locus of independent publishing in Southern California.
He says that Wasserman's section mostly reviews books from big New York publishers, but rarely "look at other things. They only review the obvious."
In comparing L.A.'s book climate to San Francisco's, where a thriving and concentrated local book publishing scene has been well reflected in the San Francisco Chronicle's book review for years, Silverman says that the Southern California publishing scene is not as cliquish as in the San Francisco Bay Area. It's all over the landscape. But there is a lot of variety of publishing going on here.
But you'd never know it from the Sunday Book Review, Silverman says.
"If they review a book by a local publisher, it's entirely by accident," he says. While he supposes it's good that the Times management keeps pouring millions of dollars down the book review sinkhole, if only because it implies some interest in books and reading, he also suspects they really have little enthusiasm for it. Otherwise, they would make it better.
"It was much better when it was edited by Digby Diehl," Silverman notes. Diehl started the book review as a separate section in the Times in 1969.
Diehl, who lives in Pasadena these days, shares some if not most of Silverman's views.
After a decade at the Times, Digby went to New York to head up Harry Abrams, a large arts publisher owned by Times-Mirror, its corporate parent at the time. Later, he was the book editor of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, and then Playboy's book editor. He even did a stint as an entertainment reporter on L.A.'s CBS affiliate.
With obvious disdain, Diehl noted that the week of the Times' Festival of Books, "there had been as much coverage of that event as there was of the Iraq war. It's incredible overkill to promote their own event."
And he notes that in the past, when the BEA came to Los Angeles, there was no real coverage of it. "Yet, he says, "it's an important national event that rarely comes to Los Angeles." The booksellers convention waslast here in 1999.
Diehl says that despite his belief that the book review section appears to him to be run to curry the favor of "East Coast professors, and that "Wasserman's power base is in the East," he thinks the book section has improved since the the paper was bought by the Chicago Tribune's owners.
He notes that the book review has recently resurrected a Westword column written by his old friend Jonathan Kirsch, son of Robert Kirsch, the Times' late lamented literary critic who especially championed western writing and publishing.
"I don't know where the pressure is coming from. For years, you didn't see the name of a West Coast writer. Now they are doing better, but it's still not sufficient, he says.
His impression is that Wasserman is producing a "very dull book section, with only a few exciting pieces now and then. It has some very intelligent people writing very academic articles that are sometimes fascinating enough from an academic standpoint. But it's rarely informative enough about what goes on with the books people are reading or the West Coast literary scene."
Diehl says that a newspaper shouldn't necessarily be a booster of the local book scene, "but it has to support achievement. The paper certainly does it for the Lakers.
"There are plenty of people out here doing wonderful things. There's a big book buying market and it simply hasn't been recognizing it," he said.
Diehl says that the way he built up advertising when he edited the book section was by recognizing that the West Coast was actually a bigger book market than the East Coast. Not only does it have more readers, but many of the country's best writers as well.
Now he says he doesn't blame the book review's pitiful advertising support entirely on Wasserman.
"It has to do with the conglomeration of the book chains. If you ask the chains why they no longer support local papers, they tell you they get better results advertising in large national media.
He notes that the Sunday Book Review of the New York Times, which Wasserman reportedly thought he could equal when he took on his present post, is not considered a local but rather a national book review.
Like Silverman, Diehl gives credit to the paper for continuing to support its book section "even though it is probably losing a great deal of money. I think they have supported it because they believe in the importance of books, and it is prestigious. No paper can have aspirations for national recognition without having a book section. That's why the Tribune purchased the Times. Do you think they really were interested in coming into the Los Angeles market?" he asked.
Diehl is not recommending that every time somebody stands up and reads poetry in Venice it has to be covered by the Los Angeles Times. "But you do have a bully pulpit and it should be used for something other than self promotion," he says.
Under his editorship, Diehl said,"[We] kept hammering away at the focus of local writing. That gave local people a reason to read the book review. We gave coverage if not support to local folks involved in books and publishing."
Digby moved to Pasadena 13 years ago because his wife owned a house here "and we're still living in it. I love the community." He praises Pasadena's great academic community. And most particularly he loves Vroman's bookstore, a Pasadena landmark that has tenaciously changed with the times. He believes it is a model for independent booksellers who want to successfully compete against the chains.
That begins with the authors it promotes.
Joel Sheldon, the bookstore's main owner, agrees that the bookstore has sought diversity throughout its 110-year history - which is why not long ago it even invited in Howard Stern, who drew thousands of customers Vroman's doesn't usually get. In the 1930's an appearance by Langston Hughes, the great black poet who later became a disillusioned ex-communist, drew anger as well as applause and had to be whisked out the back door.
Sheldon admits that he is not personally immersed in a local literary scene. But he's sure running a newspaper is as difficult as running a bookstore, so he's not so quick to weigh in against Wasserman.
The bookstore owner is basically sanguine about his industry. He thinks that despite the fact that California children scored the lowest in the nation on a standardized national reading exam this year, and all the problems in American education, people are still reading and writing as well as they ever did. He even suspects there are really great writers around who have not been published yet.
Certainly, he says, there are many more books published today than there ever were.
While Diehl compliments his former employer for promoting a book festival, he doesn't give much quarter to the review itself.
"I just thinking they are giving space to the wrong stuff," he says. He notes that few people ever really say good things about the section in private.
Part of the reason is that Wasserman, if nothing else, is an effective power politician with a swollen ego hom few people - especially those whose books have been treated well - will admit the emperor is wearing no clothes.
Ray Bradbury, perhaps the best living writer in Los Angeles, withdrew some very harsh judgments of Wasserman's section after the paper took great efforts to befriend him, Diehl notes. [Bradbury was not contacted for comment.]
Another Wasserman supporter is Los Angeles Times contributor Carolyn See, who was a Digby discovery. She now writes regularly for the Washington Post's Book World and occasionally for the Times, but insists that Wasserman "is doing a wonderful job."
David Kipen of the San Francisco Chronicle defends Wasserman by saying "he has become a much better book editor in Los Angeles than when he first arrived. He was not originally from Los Angeles.
Kipen, who originally worked at the Los Angeles Daily News, said when he first moved to San Francisco to edit the Chronicle Book Review, he was regarded "as that carpetbagger from Los Angeles."
And for a while, that was not an unfair description, he said. He grew into the job.
Kipen, who is now the paper's literary critic instead of its book section editor, thinks Wasserman has also grown into the job.
"Recently, he has even gone a little native," Kipen says. "If you pick up any copy of the [Times] book review from last year and compare it to what Steve was doing when he first came on the job, it's the difference between night and day. That's just a consequence of having moved here from New York. He's grown to be interested in the place."
Kipen appeared with Wasserman at a panel at the BookExpo America considering the future of book reviews in major newspapers.
Diehl had expected this year's convention to be a bit downbeat, he said, "since books, like every other retail business, are down. We are in quite a scary situation." Only one of the seven major "American" publishers is actually American-owned, Diehl points out.
Perhaps the Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review is appropriate to its day and age. This week's edition included reviews of books from lesser-known publishers including The Ecco Press, Phaidon Press, Da Capo Books and Broadway Books, but the two main selections and one other were from major publishers - Simon & Schuster, Farrar, Straus & Giroux and W.W. Norton. One still might wish it could help a new, better and more grounded vision of the written word prevail.
Lionel Rolfe owns California Classics Books, and just published his two books on Frank Zappa, "My Brother Was A Mother," by Candy Zappa and "Being Frank," by Nigey Lennon. He is also the author of "Literary L.A.", "Fat Man on the Left" and "Death and Redemption in London and L.A."