NewPages had the honor of attending Modern Language Association convention in Chicago this past weekend (December 27-30). I love Chicago - even in the dead middle of winter. It is a friendly, easy-to-get-around-in city. Anytime we found ourselves a bit lost, we only needed to stop and ask anyone for directions. People are, as my brother says, "Midwesterners," and that is enough explanation for why they are so curteous and helpful.
I attended MLA in Chicago eight years ago, and it was a flashback to be walking the Hyatt halls again, surrounded by English folk (you know who you are). The conference is one of the best organized and tightly run events I have attended. There isn't a hall or corner without a person there to help attendees, which is essential for a convention spread across the river in two hotels.
The exhibitor floor was spacious and well organized. There were no major gaps from absent participants and plenty of room to enter in bookseller areas or stand in the aisleway without getting bumped. There was very little representation of small presses. I don't dare say "independent" presses, because as I was corrected by one publisher, many university presses are "independent." I'm still thinking about that one. I'm sure some non-univeristy affliated independents would be better posistioned to call these U presses brethren or not.
It's evident that larger presses, as we've known for some time, are delving more into the market of alternative titles, translations and speciality publications. Given as they have the money to enter such ventures with less of a loss to their overall budget should the return be moderate to even negative, this is not surprising to see. Nor is it cheap for them to attend the MLA - with exhibiting costs in the thousands, they really are hoping for several academic sales from this conference. I can see how it would make it difficult for small presses/publications to be well represented here, if at all. This is something NewPages is talking about being able to provide for next year's MLA, so interested presses/publications, contact Casey (new.pages-at-live.com).
There was also the individual sale aspect happening in this area, as writers pitched their book ideas to publishers, and publishers had signs on their tables with "calls for proposals." Another area the small presses might want to consider, given the type of acadmic authors in attendance.
Of the sessions we attended, while interesting, they really are geared toward their specific academic areas of interest and research. I was disappointed to sit through several more "paper lectures" than actual talks or discussions. I realize presenters need to present, but given the repeated cut-offs for Q&As, there is more conversation that begs for time. And that's really what this kind of convention is mostly about: like-minded and interested people being able to gather and have critcally thoughtful conversations that they might otherwise never have the opportunity to enjoy. I mean, how many people in one college department are interested in really talking about Wolfgan Iser or Margaret Fuller? It takes joining cross-national panelists who then gather a cross-national group of interested attendees to create exactly the kind of community necessary for these engagements.
The sessions were all extremely well attended - though we weren't there the last day to see the usual gotta-catch-a-plane drop off. For a conference that begins two days after a major holiday and in some pretty crappy weather for travel, numbers were great, and the experience enjoyable overall. Next year, though, MLA 2008 will be in San Francisco. I won't be complaining about the time of year to travel west for a little bit of sun and warmth!