Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Book Expo Blues - BEA Day 1

A few months ago I got an email from a publicist at Sleeping Bear Press asking me if I would like to attend BEA in Chicago to help promote a book I illustrated called Santa's Underwear.

"Ahhh," I coolly replied. "Let me check my schedule. Hmmmm. Yes. Yes, I think I could squeeze that in."

"Excellent. I'll send along details soon."

I raced off to tell Kerri the joyous news. "Wow! Sleeping Bear is flying me out to Chicago to go to BEA!" I cried.

"What's BEA?" Kerri asked.

"I have absolutely no idea, BUT I'M GOING!!"

I soon discovered that BEA is Book Expo America; an annual conference where book publishers unveil their upcoming titles and conference attendees stagger around, collecting as many free copies of as many books as they can carry.

I've been writing and illustrating books for over 18 years and up until this point, no publisher has ever flown me anywhere to promote a book. A few years ago, I did get sent on a book tour to a local chain of seafood restaurants to promote one book, but that idea didn't work out as well as anyone hoped it might and I still can't eat clam chowder.

In preparation for the trip, I did a lot of research about blues clubs near my hotel and places that served authentic Chicago deep dish pizza.

In retrospect, my time might have been better spent doing some research about BEA, but I stand by my decision and have no regrets.

My flight to Chicago which, if actual humans ran airlines, would have been about about an hour and a half, turned into a scenic tour of the Eastern Seaboard, including, for some inexplicable reason, a layover in Atlanta.

New Hampshire to Georgia to Illinois.

Chicago, here I come.

I'm sure that Atlanta is lovely. It's just a bit smoggy this morning.

Once in Atlanta, I had a few leisurely minutes to travel from one terminal to another, conveniently located about 150 miles away. Atlanta's airport has a train that can bring you from one terminal to another. This train car even provided some lively in-transit entertainment.

I know. I feel so sleazy for having taken this picture, but this couple was really going at it. Yikes, guys.

The Love Train arrived at my stop and I was able to escape before things got overly heated. I raced to catch my connecting flight and soon, I was in Chicago. O'Hare Airport is located 17 miles from the hotel I was staying at, but I was assured that those 17 miles would take at least an hour to drive. The hotel suggested that I use a local airport shuttle service.

The slow traffic afforded me a leisurely, scenic view of the outskirts of Chicago.

Very scenic.

As we rolled slowly along the highway, the exhaust fumes settling my jangled nerves and lulling millions of brain cells into permanent hibernation, I realized that I was running out of time. I was supposed to be signing books at the Sleeping Bear booth and I couldn't get to the hotel and then get BEA on time.

I headed directly to the convention center which, I estimate, was about the size of New England. It was a sprawling complex of buildings and after the shuttle dropped me off, I realized that I had absolutely no idea where I was supposed to be going.

One of the many, many buildings I had to choose from. Not the correct one, I soon discovered.

 I saw people wearing badges - always a good sign when seeking a conference. I followed them and soon located some signs directing me to the conference.

The signage did leave something to be desired, however. Specifically, "usefulness".

Thank you, completely useless and contradictory signs.

Eventually, by following a trail of name-badged individuals, I found the convention center! It was HUGE!

I got my own name-badge and, by virtue of some special magic it possessed, I was able to skip the line of hundreds and hundreds of attendees camped out, waiting for the gates to open. I was ushered past the line and into the glittering world of BEA.

It's so shiny!

I looked for the banners with my name on them, but didn't see them for some reason.

I also never got to meet Harry Potter. Disappointing.

Once inside, I was handed a map and spent - I am not kidding - at least 20 minutes trying to find the Sleeping Bear booth. In my dazed wanderings, I did bump into a few fun folks that I knew.

Shari, the big boss at Flashlight Press was there. We had a great chat. Then I pleaded with her to help me find the Sleeping Bear booth. She sent me off on my own into the cold, empty void of BEA.

I also ran into my buddy Ryan Higgins, who was at the Disney booth signing copies of his book, Mother Bruce. I cut to the front of the line and dropped to my knees. "Please, Ryan. I'm lost and cold and tired and hungry. WHERE IS THE SLEEPING BEAR BOOTH?!?" He pretended he didn't know me and kept signing books.

After what seemed like a few more hours of wandering, I FOUND THE BOOTH!!

They were raffling off a piece of my art, too.

I finally got to meet Heather Hughes, the publisher and Grand Poobah of Sleeping Bear Press. She is delightful and has much better hair than I do.

Sleeping Bear even made a huge 5 foot by 5 foot stand-up of Santa from one of my illustrations for the book.

Heather forced me to stand in it for hours on end as a way to attract people to the booth. My pitiful moans and whimpering may have had the reverse effect, however and she eventually released me.

I had a few minutes to wander around before it was time for my signing. I had a signing scheduled at 3:00 and another tomorrow at 10:00  am.

The signings at BEA are free. So people wander up, chat with you, and get a free signed book. It was very cool. I had a chance to chat with a LOT of people and to sign a LOT of books.

Signing this many books would prove problematic, but we didn't know that yet.

After we ran out of books, the crowds moved away to collect other free things. I spent a bit more time wandering around and eventually decided that it was time to go to the hotel and rest a bit.

It only took me two and a half hours of aimless wandering to find the hotel shuttles and then, I was off.

My first stop after the hotel was dinner. I asked at the front desk where I might get some delicious, authentic deep-dish pizza and was directed to a wonderful place that was only about a half mile away. I took the scenic route, because I had to check something on the way.

The blues club.

I had found a place called Blue Chicago and it looked like it was very close to the hotel.

It was.

I found it more easily than I found the Sleeping Bear booth.

The doors didn't open until 8:00, so I had plenty of time to get a pizza, then head back for some live blues.

At the pizza place, I ran into Gwen and Terye, who I had met at BEA. They offered to buy me a beer so we are now best friends forever.
This is what a $23 pizza looks like in Chicago. It was delicious.

After dinner, I bade my new bestest buddies farewell and headed off to Blue Chicago to hear some blues.

I sidled up to the bar and got a whiskey on ice to sip.

And then the band started playing and I was in heaven.

The table of Japanese guys was more interested in their phones than the music, however.

This lady must have been 70 years old. She got up there with the band and she totally killed it. She was amazing.

I spent a few hours hanging out and enjoying myself. I even bought myself a commemorative tourist-type hat.

 Soon, my eyes started to get heavy and I knew that it was time to walk back to the hotel and get some sleep.

I had another big signing scheduled for tomorrow morning.

If only there were some books left to sign.

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