Stepping out of customs at JFK Airport, I spotted my name on a sign held by a man who looked like Kojak. I love it when people look at my luggage and say, “That’s all?” I’m stopping 24 hours in NYC for the big American booksellers’ convention.
Stepping out of the car in the canyons of Manhattan, I felt like Crocodile Dundee — actually giddy to be back in the USA and actually a bit clumsy with the whole scene. I’m out of practice with America.
News is everywhere. I’ve had no news for 60 days. Like being in a cave and suddenly stepping into the light, my mind was squinting. Noisy, stupid headlines. Paris Hilton out of jail. Bush declares he will fight climate change (but still refuses to call it global warming). 130 dead this month in Iraq…more than usual. I turned around…but the cave was gone.
At breakfast the next morning I share my take on Europe with a roomful of bookstore owners and publishers. The theme of my talk: the big news in Europe — affluence. The helpful new insight — if Italy is “the land of a thousand bell towers,” Europe has even more. As globalism takes hold, and the metabolism of Europe revs up, regionalism and local pride satisfies a deep seated hunger.
The creator of www.gather.com, who doesn’t like his site to be called “Face Book for Adults,” pitched me (quite effectively) on creating a little corner there. New York’s Javits Convention Center is bursting with clever ideas, as the American publishing industry huddles. There’s a frantic, almost desperate scrambling…a clamoring for niches: Chicken Soup for the Coffee Lover’s Soul. The new niche in guidebooks is “pocket color” — slimmed down, cheaper versions of existing city guides with color photos. It’s an easy retool and you fill a different price point. I don’t want to offer two versions of one book, asking, “Why can’t one book do it all?” My publisher explained, “We need to hit different price points.”
I dropped by Lonely Planet. And I enjoyed telling people, I had breakfast yesterday in Zagreb. Lonely Planet founder, Tony Wheeler, was there…hands on and enthusiastic as ever. While Tony flew in from farther than me — Australia, Arthur Frommer — who was in the next aisle over — lives close enough to walk to the convention center. I’m impressed by how these icons of travel writing keep working. Rather than dream up another Chicken Soup for the Greedy Soul, their niche is a God-given love and enthusiasm for smart travel.
The big travel publishers (Fodors, Frommers, Lonely Planet, and Avalon — that’s mine) met at lunch to discuss “coop-itition”…or was it “compit-oration” (the value of working together to keep traveling consumers enthusiastic about carrying their travel information around in printed books rather than dumping guidebooks for the web and “new media” alternatives).
I signed a hundred of my new Europe 101: History and Art for Travelerbooks for a line of librarians and book store owners. (The fine folks I met made me recall two conversations I’ve had with taxis: In Barcelona last month during the massive Building Construction convention one cabbie told me they bused in legions of prostitutes–“the biggest brothel anywhere.” Another, here in the USA, told me that at the massive American booksellers’ convention, prostitutes don’t even bother showing up for work.)
The guy who signed after me was Scott Ritter, the weapons inspector who courageously told a nation what it didn’t want to believe — that we bombed an Iraq without WMDs. He wanted to go to Ireland. I had been. I wanted to get on Jon Stewart. He had been. We talked.
I enjoyed meeting the CEO of Borders (the massive chain that sells roughly 20 percent of all travel books…less than Barnes & Noble…but impressive nevertheless). They seem really energized and have chosen travel to be one of their “destination” genres.
Everyone is thrilled with how Costco sold 50,000 of our new DVDs. The scary thing about a Costco venture is that publishers often get mountains of returns. With this foray into the “big box” world, they returned nothing. With a touch of Bill Gatesian megalomania, I said, “We can do better. I want a Rick Steves Europe DVD anthology — all 70 shows — on every American bookshelf.”
Right through the 1990s, this convention was an annual think tank for me. I’d systematically walk the vast floor, talking, dreaming, and scheming. As an old habit, I started to make another walk but abruptly stopped — enough ideas for now. I’m maxed out. It’s so intense. I just want to make old-fashioned guidebooks. Thankfully, my publisher knows about the price points, niches, and new platforms. Without their business savvy, I doubt anyone would be reading this blog right now. Coming to this convention reminds me of that.
Twenty-four hours after touching down at JFK, I was back at JFK taking off again.