The Serious Business of the Literary Party
Last month, while mingling in a crowded (and very air-conditioned) room, Nan Graham, the senior vice president and publisher of Scribner, relayed an anecdote she’d heard at a recent memorial service: “In the olden days, you could never buy dinner from Labor Day until Memorial Day because there were so many publishing parties.”Posted — Updated
Last month, while mingling in a crowded (and very air-conditioned) room, Nan Graham, the senior vice president and publisher of Scribner, relayed an anecdote she’d heard at a recent memorial service: “In the olden days, you could never buy dinner from Labor Day until Memorial Day because there were so many publishing parties.”
Scribner is an imprint of Simon & Schuster, one of the “big five” book publishers and one of many institutions that hosted a party during Book Expo America, a major trade gathering that drew publishers, distributors and other players in the industry to New York at the end of May.
Because of corporate consolidation and slimmer margins, the social calendar is no longer as crowded, but it’s still the case that in publishing, parties are business. A publisher choosing to fete authors during Book Expo — introducing them to the news media, readers and, most important, booksellers who attend the show — is a signal that the house is betting big on them. And for nonprofits both large and small, Instagram-ready parties are the best way to raise awareness as well as money. Here’s a look at the recently concluded party season.
The magazine’s party, Thursday, May 31, to mark Book Expo America, was crowded with the celebrities who write books (Martha Stewart, D.L. Hughley, Taye Diggs, Martina McBride) as well as the writers who, against all odds, have become celebrities by writing books (Michael Wolff, Amor Towles, Jodi Picoult). The music was very loud.
True to its name, this literary magazine, founded in 2002, publishes just one piece of short fiction in every issue. On Friday, May 4, it held its annual fundraiser (benefiting from ticket sales and an auction of manuscript pages from the likes of Ann Patchett and Colson Whitehead), which is also an occasion to toast alumnae who have, in the last calendar year, published their first book. Thus, it’s a debutante ball.
“You can dress up or you can wear whatever you want, everyone talks about books, then eats finger sandwiches and gets drunk, and then dances to Lil Jon,” said novelist Angelica Baker, who was a One Story debutante in 2017. “It’s the perfect party.”
Amazon hosted a reception Wednesday, May 30, to celebrate Book Expo America. The rooftop venue afforded a beautiful view, though as the sun vanished, the evening grew quite cold.
Stepping into the midtown French restaurant where this imprint of Penguin Random House celebrated Book Expo America was like being transported to the days when John Cheever supported a family by publishing short stories and chat shows were eager to book Truman Capote. Editor-in-chief and Chairman Sonny Mehta lingered outside, perhaps in deference to the city’s smoking laws. There were so many hors d’oeuvres that by the time the petit fours came out, no one was eating. Novelist Tara Isabella Burton took off her heels and padded around the restaurant in bare feet.
During Book Expo America, the publisher hosted its stalwarts and stars, like Mary Higgins Clark, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Susan Orlean, as well as debut writers like actress Ellie Kemper, whose book, “My Squirrel Days,” will be published in October. Asked how a New York publishing party compared with a Hollywood party, Kemper was thoughtful (and jokey). “How does anything compare to a Hollywood party? I haven’t been to a lot of Hollywood parties. I’m not a party person. Even tonight, I said, ‘OK, it’s a big night, you’ve got an event that starts at six o’clock.’ I’ll be home by 8:30. It won’t be too wild.”
This prize celebrates an American writer under the age of 35. The ceremony inside the New York Public Library’s Celeste Bartos Forum featured actors (Miriam Shor, Hugh Dancy and others) reading selections from nominated works; the celebration afterward was upstairs, the DJ’s music echoing in the grand marbled halls. The prize was awarded to Lesley Nneka Arimah, author of the story collection “What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky.” In her remarks, Arimah spoke about moving to the United States from Nigeria when she was 13. “We were left to our own devices, and for my sister and I, being left to our own devices meant going to the library with my father’s duffel bag and stuffing them with the maximum amount of volumes we could take out, which was 15. I’d read my 15, she’d read her 15, then we’d trade and read each other’s 15, then take them back to the library and do it over and over again.”
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