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Los Angeles' Annual Book Expo America Offers A Rubber-Necking Glimpse Of The Industry's Most Cosmetic Flaws.

By Gregory McNamee

MAY 24, 1999:  TONY BENNETT IS cool. Xavier Cugat is cool. Martin Denny is cool. Even dead, Frank Sinatra is cool.

You could bury Eddie Fisher neck-deep in the Antarctic ice cap, hose him down with liquid nitrogen and maroon him on Neptune, and he still wouldn't be cool. No fashion wave on earth could make the third-tier lounge lizard even passably retro. Even those inclined to mourn the passing of Liberace and Mantovani would have trouble finding a place in their hearts for the polyester-clad crooner. Or so I thought when, without really wanting to, I caught Fisher croaking out the last gasps of a tired ballad in the upstairs bar of the chic Cicada Restaurant in downtown Los Angeles.

Fisher had been resuscitated to hype his new memoir, Been There, Done That (the unfortunate title says it all), at Book Expo America (BEA), the annual convention of thousands of book publishing professionals, booksellers, authors and celebrities major and minor (Kim Alexis, Edward James Olmos, Bill Murray and Scott Hamilton were among this year's sightings).

In his book, to be published by St. Martin's Press this summer, Fisher takes revenge on ex-wife Debbie Reynolds, who said many unkind things about him in her own memoir. "Debbie Reynolds was probably the most famous virgin in America!" he writes. "In 1954 she was one of the most popular female stars in motion pictures. She was too good to be true. Only later did I find out how accurate that impression was. As I discovered, Debbie Reynolds was indeed the girl next door. But only if you lived next door to a self-centered, totally driven, insecure, untruthful phony."

About Elizabeth Taylor, another ex, Fisher has kinder and more lurid things to say; elsewhere he brags of receiving the Monica treatment from Ann-Margaret and bedding a succession of starlets--Juliet Prowse, Edie Adams, Mia Farrow and Angie Dickinson.

It's tired and sad stuff, written with a crayon. But small matter: Fisher's party wasn't the hit for the hip crowd his publicists had hoped it would be, and his book went largely ignored as Fisher wound up performing before a gaggle of madly drunk character actors you'd recognize from TV, but not be able to name if your life depended on it. (Fisher and Reynolds' daughter, actress Carrie Fisher--who's incidentally a fine writer--made an appearance. But even she left early after surveying the desperate proceedings.)

The scenemakers instead made their way to the Playboy mansion, where the likes of Salman Rushdie and Jim Carrey rubbed shoulders in the hot tub with unclothed trailer trash, all the while, one supposes, talking literature with the giants of New York publishing. The next night, the same crew, along with a few thousand other attendants, trooped down to Hollywood to see Mickey Hart and Planet Drum play, a celebration that ended early when the free food ran out.

BEA is about more than the cocktail parties that surround it--but only a little. During the day, the partygoers work the floor. In this instance, that includes the whole of the Los Angeles Convention Center, which is roughly the square footage of 40 football fields. And that floor is a bread-and-circuses place indeed, trolled by drag queens promoting gay travel guides, women clad as Barbie promoting gothic romances, and by the aforementioned Mr. Rushdie promoting himself. (Jim Carrey, the noted memoirist, did not appear, evidently having exhausted himself the night before.) The swirl of activity, not to mention the number of books, magazines, calendars and CD-ROMs being touted, is staggering.

But even so, this year's BEA show was much like Eddie Fisher's party. "There's no buzz," one publicist from a major New York house complained to me. "They're trying to make a stir around Galileo's Daughter, but there's no one book that everyone is talking about this year. Grisham's not doing anything. Nobody's interested in the new David Guterson. And, I mean, who wants to read Henry Adams?" (The latter is a reference to Modern Library's new edition of The Education of Henry Adams, which a group of critics had just named the best nonfiction book of the 20th century.)

If there was a buzz, it was instead about a Book Industry Study Group report (issued at the convention's opening) that delivered the bad news that book sales were down for the first time in seven years. The report attributes the downward turn to several factors: readers under the age of 25 aren't interested in print ("about half the population is not going to purchase books in the course of a year," said the chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, "and so we have to concentrate on those who do"); book prices are climbing far ahead of inflation, driving customers away; the arrival of more and more publishers (the report reckons some 53,000 of them in the U.S. alone) means fragmentation and greater competition for already scarce consumer dollars; and a market glutted with celebrity workout and makeover books, novels about sensitive New Age guys, and guides to making a fortune on the internet.

Look for higher book prices, then, this fall, coupled with fewer blockbusters. But don't look for Been There, Done That. You'll only encourage Eddie Fisher to write another book.

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