A Sneak Peek at Fall Books

As Book Expo America begins today, Sara Nelson previews the buzziest books—including new works from Jane Smiley, Jeannette Walls, and Lorrie Moore—and the hottest authors.

Book Expo America, which begins today at the Javits Center in Manhattan, is the book industry’s time-honored way of introducing the big fall books and authors to the bookselling world—which ultimately passes them on to readers. Newly revamped with days full of seminars and meetings—but fewer exhibitors and off-site parties and celebrations—recession-era BEA is still a destination for authors, booksellers, publishers, and those who love them. But if you can’t make it, never fear. Here are seven things you don’t even have to go to know.

  • Pat Conroy, whose long-awaited novel, South of Broad, is a big book for Doubleday, won’t be making it to the fair. He was scheduled to appear at the Book Author luncheon and on a panel, but has withdrawn after a recent surgery. Liars’ Club author Mary Karr will fill in for him at the Saturday author lunch, and Empire Falls novelist Richard Russo will appear on the Friday Literary Lions panel.
  • Every year, several publishers are asked to name and promote their “big books” of the fall. Usually it’s a big surprise and you have to attend the “Buzz Panel” to learn about them. But this year, the titles are listed on PublishersMarketplace.com. My favorite from this list, Leila Meacham’s debut novel Roses, reads like a high-end Thorn Birds; the other that’s been buzzed about, pre-Buzz, is This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper.

My favorite from this list, Leila Meacham’s debut novel Roses, reads like a high-end Thorn Birds.

  • Kids and young-adult books, which was one of the few categories that grew this year (11 percent, according to Nielsen BookScan ), will continue to be hot—thank you, Stephenie Meyer—with the most interesting offering at BEA being Stella Lennon’s The Amanda Project: Book 1, which has, yes, an interactive digital component.
  • Speaking of kids' books, BEA 2009 will be proof positive that everybody thinks they can be a children’s author these days. Galleys expected to be hot: kids or young-adult novels from Jane Smiley, Mike Lupica, and Adriana Trigiani.
  • Fewer publishers are renting the (very expensive) booths at the Javits Center, with some—like Macmillan, which encompasses Farrar, Straus & Giroux, St. Martin’s and others—preferring to rent tables in the agents’ center and spare expense. (Insiders say exhibitors are down a whopping 25 percent.) The usual big-bash HarperCollins and Knopf parties are no more, though Knopf’s has been transplanted to a cocktail gathering on Friday at the beloved Strand bookstore downtown. HarperCollins, for its part, is sponsoring a cocktail reception in tribute to the late Michael Crichton, the house’s “friend and inspiration.”
  • Though much has been made of the “scaling back” at book fairs in general and this one in particular, there are still plenty of gabfests to be had—though several seem overlapping, at best. We can’t help but wonder how dyed-in-the-wool booksellers react to the whole new section of the floor (and of the panel schedule) dedicated to “digital.”
  • As usual, the best celebrity-author spotting will be done at the author breakfasts and luncheons. Look for Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Kidder, and Glass Castle author Jeannette Walls to wake up the crowd at 8 a.m. on Friday at a panel hosted by Craig Ferguson; Lorrie Moore, whose A Gate at the Stairs may be the big lit book for fall, is worth staying until Sunday for. (She’s on the breakfast panel.) No predicting if or when we can hope for a lively dust-up like the one that took place between Al Franken and Bill O’Reilly a couple of years ago. And, of course, then there’s hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who will make a special appearance at 3 p.m. on Saturday.

The one thing you can count on: much muttering and worrying and discussing the fate of next year’s BEA—now moved permanently back to New York after years of alternating between L.A. and Chicago—and of the book business in general. Expect to hear lots of reminiscing about the good old days, when no one worried that books were dead, only authors’ careers...

Sara Nelson is a critic for The Daily Beast and the former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. She is the author of the bestselling So Many Books, So Little Time.