Publication Date

February 4, 2019

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting, From the President

Historians of a certain age may remember Jackson Browne singing “Load Out,” from his album Running on Empty (1977). The song, fused with a cover of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ ethereal “Stay” (1960), is his paean to the roadies who made his concerts possible by wheeling and carrying cases, amps, and trusses: “They’re the first to come and last to leave/Working for that minimum wage.”

Browsing books in the Exhibit Hall.

Nothing beats browsing books at the annual meeting. Marc Monaghan

Late Sunday morning at the annual meeting of the AHA, in the cavernous Exhibit Hall, you can see publishers, editors, assistant editors, sales reps, and marketing staff wheeling and carrying boxes, bags, and posters. They’re the first to come and the last to leave the book exhibit, although they usually earn a bit more than the minimum wage. By Sunday, they’re running on empty. You might see the most influential editors—whose judgments help to define fields of history and govern who gets published and who doesn’t—on hands and knees with tape and scissors or insecurely upright, staggering beneath a load of cardboard boxes. If not, you’ll surely see the assistants hard at it. An enormous amount of labor goes into putting on the book exhibit—my favorite part of the annual meeting.

This year, in Chicago, over 80 exhibitors put on a show for us. They shipped tens of thousands of books to hotels, carried or rolled them to the Exhibit Hall, unpacked them, put them on display, let us browse them for four days, sold a few, and then packed them up again, rolled or carried boxes of them from the Exhibit Hall, and shipped them to the press’s warehouse or home office, or perhaps to the next conference venue.

For those who have yet to make it to an AHA annual meeting, or have made it but skipped the book exhibit, here’s what you’re missing.

For those who have yet to make it to an AHA annual meeting, or have made it but skipped the book exhibit, here’s what you’re missing. First of all, the tens of thousands of books, arranged in booths set up by each press. Most historians love books. While some of us may prefer to peruse titles online, thousands of us—to judge by the battalions of browsers at any AHA book exhibit—enjoy the look and heft of hard copies. Nowhere in the world can you browse as many new history books as efficiently as at the AHA annual meeting. Every field, every subfield, every patch of the discipline is represented somewhere in the offerings. On top of that, you can usually find someone on the staff of the press within two steps of you—someone who knows something about any book that might catch your eye.

Second, the books are for sale at reduced prices. Most of the presses allow a convention discount that lasts for several weeks after the annual meetings. So if you want to order the books after you get home rather than pay your airline for overweight baggage, you can. If you stay until Sunday morning, you can bargain as if in a Turkish bazaar, and you have leverage: the press personnel don’t want to pack up and ship any more books than they have to that afternoon. They might let you lug books home instead for dimes on the dollar. My shelves hold dozens of books acquired this way.

People in conversation in the Exhibit Hall.

What makes a good book? Editors are on hand to discuss. Marc Monaghan

Beyond the books, the Exhibit Hall contains a parliament (the collective noun for wise owls) of editors. I like to chat with them and ask what their press has that’s new in my areas of interest. They always know. I frequently learn of new books that I should read that way. I take a photo of the ones I think I might want to seek out or even buy when I get home.

The editors come to the AHA annual meeting not just to sell books. If you are browsing quietly, you are likely to overhear conversations between authors and editors, or between would-be authors and editors. Many a book deal has its origins in such informal discussions. If you want to find the right publisher for your book, one way to do it is to make your pitch to press personnel right there in the book exhibit. An editor might suggest stepping over to a table and set of chairs. You might be invited to send a prospectus or some chapters to the press. Of course, an editor might tell you, politely, that your book isn’t quite right for the press. That’s something none of us likes to hear. But within a few paces, there are many more editors and many more presses. You can take no for an answer and swiftly move on to the next possibility. Along the way, you can refine your sense of what editors think makes a good book, one they want to publish.

If you stay until Sunday morning, you can bargain as if in a Turkish bazaar, and you have leverage.

Even if you aren’t trying to pitch a book project, and your bookshelves are already overstuffed or your chances of reading anything new hovers close to zero, the Exhibit Hall might still be worth a visit. Veterans of the venue know that if your timing is good, there might be free food and drink, and there’s always an array of publisher swag—pens, tote bags, even lip balm, often useful in January. One year a publisher was giving away flash drives. (I still have mine.)

At next year’s AHA annual meeting, to be held in New York City, a smorgasbord of delights and possible opportunities awaits at the book exhibit. Dashing in and out might not fully suffice. As Jackson Browne, echoing Maurice Williams, would advise: “Stay, just a little bit longer.”

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John R. McNeill
John R. McNeill

Georgetown University