Marcia Clark signs copies of her new book, Blood Defense. Credit: courtesy BEA

At first, Book Expo America, the largest annual book-industry event/circus in North America, which opened at McCormick Place Wednesday, seemed like a wonderful dream. I walked into the exhibit hall and saw an enormous banner that read “Harry Potter: It’s Magic”; beneath it, nice people from Scholastic publishing were handing out short, bound excerpts of the new illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I walked a little further into the Hachette booth where publicists stood by handing out free books like they were candy—they also handed out tote bags to hold the free books. It was like Halloween, if you are like me and, when given a choice, will almost always choose a new book over candy. (The candy has to be pretty damned extraordinary.)

It took me a few hours to realize that there is a strategy for approaching BEA, similar to the one for Halloween trick or treating. You can’t just accept every book blindly, otherwise you’ll get bogged down by your tote bags filled with books and, if you didn’t bother to search for a quality bag, the one you have will start to rip, and you’ll wonder how the hell you’ll ever get home. Instead, you need to do a little reconnaissance to find out who’s giving out which book when, and, equally important, who is handing out quality canvas tote bags.

Colson Whitehead, Sebastian Junger, Faith Salle, and Louise Penny toast at the end of their author breakfast on Thursday morning.Credit: courtesy BEA

This is the first year since 2004 that BEA has been in Chicago, and veterans say that it’s smaller and quieter than the New York edition. Many publishers sent smaller contingents than usual, and some didn’t even bother to send anybody. For a first-timer, though, it was big enough—which is another way of saying “slightly overwhelming.” There was a daily expo newsletter that was thicker than most regular newspapers, and the BEA smartphone app had its own little maps section to help expo-goers find their way around.

Nearly 700 exhibitors had set up booths. Not all of them were book publishers—some were digital companies, some were literary publications, some sold book-related accessories like T-shirts and posters, and some were especially determined self-published authors. And not everyone was there in blind pursuit of galleys and autographs, though there were plenty of fangirls and -boys waiting patiently in very long lines.

BEA is, above all, a trade fair. Those lines snaked past secluded meeting areas where people in suits sat at tables and chairs talking about subsidiary and foreign rights and going over the contents of their seasonal catalogs with bookstore owners and librarians. Aside from the galley frenzy, though, a lot of those tables sat empty, even within the special partitioned-off Penguin Random House deal-making area.

In the ballroom, across the main concourse from the exhibition hall, book people gathered for panel discussions about various aspects of the business, authors stood up to promote their books in five minutes or less, and editors listed the upcoming titles they were most excited about.

The exhibition floor officially opened at 1 PM on Wednesday. The hottest galley of the afternoon was Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel, his first in 11 years. It’s about a pair of crises, one within a family, the other in the Middle East. Foer sat at a table in the Macmillan booth, signing copy after copy; I saw one woman stroke hers lovingly as she walked away.

Had I acted quickly enough, I could have nabbed an autographed copy of Nicholas Sparks’s new book, See Me, for a colleague’s mom. Alas, I did not. I also missed out on How to Bake Pie by Eugenia Chang. And Shannon Hale and Dean Hale’s middle-grade-novel-based-on-the-comic, Squirrel Girl, which also came with a squirrel headband that I later saw adults actually wearing. I did grab copies of new books by Jennifer Close, Margot Livesey, and Emma Donoghue, as well as The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. (“This would be perfect for the Reader,” the publicist said, eyeing my badge.) And I gave a pat to George, the surfing Newfoundland who inspired his human, Colin Campbell, to rediscover the joy in life and write a book about it.

Unfortunately, I only had time for one afternoon at BEA. So I missed out on meeting Jay McInerney, Marcia Clark, Chris Cleave, Jodi Picoult, Colson Whitehead, Dav Pilkey, Mary Kubica, Amor Towles, Kristi Yamaguchi, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Connelly, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jeffrey Brown, Richard Russo, Veronica Roth, Christine Sneed, Candice Millard, Sylvia Day, and Richard Peck, all of whom have books coming out. I have no idea what any of these books are about. I don’t think too many BEA attendees were too bothered about it. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but a free book is a free book.