I Can't Keep Writing Posts about Cutting You Up

So the last time I went to BookExpo America, I ended up writing a five-part series that was basically about how everything sucked, the publishing industry was imploding, BEA’s focus was fuzzy at best, etc., etc.

Well, last week BEA took place in the fairly dysfunctional Jacob Javits Center in NY and the mood was . . . optimistic. That’s the word that Publishers Weekly used in one of their first pieces—an interview with stylish show director, Steve Rosato—and came up a few times in discussions with other publishers and booksellers.

Which seems pretty weird. It’s not like the publishing world is in much better shape than it was in 2009. Sure, as Tina Jordan, VP at the Association of American Publishers, will scream at you, “the industry is growing,” but $.99 ebooks are jacking the revenue streams for traditional “Big Five” publishers, bookstores are still in a fight for their lives, and the show itself is still loaded with walking infomercials like this guy.

That said, there was a very different vibe to BEA 2011 than there was just two short years ago. “Optimistic” might be overstating it, but publishers and booksellers alike seem to have come to terms with things. With ebooks and even smaller profit margins. With the fragmentation of audiences and the ways of reaching them. All of that.

Sure bookstores are still fighting for their lives, and things aren’t 100% copacetic, but at least it didn’t seem like BEA was about to end with an industry-wide suicide pact.

And not that I don’t have complaints (seriously, what would Three Percent be without a few jabs?), my main one being the lack of books in the exhibition area. Sure, all the indie and university and small press stands were rife with actual books, but the Big Five (Random, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, HarperCollins, MacMillan), looked like showrooms brought to you by Apple. Instead of actual books, there were huge posters and touch screens and other advertising devices that involved blown up covers, pretty author photos, and as few words as possible. Granted, the whole galley and giveaway scene got way out of hand a few years back, with every bookseller, publisher, and blogger ravenously snatching whatever bound object they passed by (and then selling them on eBay), so I understand the hesitation to make too many free copies available. But for christ’s sake, we’re in the publishing industry. We, as a group, tend to process information via the handling of actual books. For all the apps in our lives, it sure would’ve been nice to spend a few days touching real objects.

That point aside, I thought this was the best BEA in years. So instead of my usual posts of harsh criticism and bad jokes, here’s a list of things I liked about BEA (in no clear order):

1) Ramy Habeeb’s Graphic Novel on the Egyptian Revolution: Ramy’s one of my favorite book conference friends. I met him a few years ago in Abu Dhabi, and run into him at any and all e-future related book conferences. He’s hysterical. He also has created (with his illustrator friend) a graphic novel about the Egyptian Revolution that’s going to be huge. I only had a chance to glance at a few pages, but damn, I’m willing to bet that this is all over NPR in a few months. (BTW, I’m listing Ramy as #1 because he told me that I looked really buff compared to when I saw him in January. Flattery will never die.)

2) The Panels: In the past, I would leave my schedule wide open to allow time to wander the floor, bounce around from conversation to conversation, and to have those random meetings that make BEA (or any networking event) worthwhile. This year I decided to attend (and speak on) a number of panels and was pretty impressed with all the programming. Italy was the “Market Focus” for this year and their day of events was well-organized and very interesting. As was the National Book Critics Circle panel on online book reviewing. (With the exception that when asked about which online review sources they paid attention to, the four panelists named things like The New Yorker and Bookforum and NPR and other publications that everyone already knows about.) I do have a minor panel complaint though: by the very nature of these, if you’re familiar with the topic, the panels are redundant; if you don’t already know the basics, they can be a bit technical. Maybe in the future BEA could have two tracks on certain things—a beginner piece on ebooks and whatnot, and an advanced event where those in the know can really get into a more elevated discussion. Just a suggestion.

3) Focus on Discovery: We’ve mentioned this before in relation to DiscoverReads and Bookish, but publishers (and industry professionals) are starting to focus (and spend money on) on recommending the right book to the right reader at the right time. This is a big sea change for the industry (one that I’ll write more about later), and one that starts to get into the fundamental issue of the 21st-century: now that distribution isn’t an issue (anyone can get anything anywhere at anytime), it’s all about sorting demand. Furthermore, sites like Cursor and BookCountry are interesting in the way that they enable writers to work with other writers and to discover new works. Again, more on this in a much longer post.

4) Partying like It’s the 90s: I heard three people use this phrase at BEA. After the third, I asked what exactly he meant by this. “You know, lavish spreads, free drinks, and everyone pretending that the publishing industry wasn’t screwed.” Yes.

5) Russia: Next year Russia will be the Market Focus country, and they’ve already started planning . . . Not only do they want to bring 50+ authors to the States for BEA, they want to tour them to universities beforehand and have them participate in the PEN World Voices Festival. And they want to bring a lot of publishing people to Moscow for the Book Fair. I approve.

6) Book Jokes: In reference to the forthcoming Robopocalypse, the latest in the zombies/vampires/werewolves are going to kill us all genre: “Remember when books were just about people killing people?”

7) Bookseller Data: I’m not sure this is good exactly, but I was able to attend the ABACUS Data discussion featuring financial data from a wide range of bookstores. I could go on and on about this (again, longer post later), but basically, this study broke down how much bookstores spend on Cost of Good Sold, Advertising, Salaries, etc., as a way of providing benchmarks and trying to puzzle out what things made some bookstores more successful than others. Bottom line: the profit margin for the top 30% of bookstores was 4.7%, the “profit” margin for the middle 40% was 1.6%, and it was -15.3% for the bottom 30%. This is all terrible, but it’s nice to see real numbers-in part so I can use these in my “Intro to Literary Publishing” class, and in part because we need to be as realistic as possible.

8) Indie Booksellers Choice Awards Party: I only caught the end of this, but David Rees was a very funny host (as expected), and I was able to see Johnny Temple of Akashic accept the award for Nina Revoyr’s Wingshooters. (Here’s the complete list of winners.) Great award, great party, and great turnout. Only disappointment is that I think Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House is still pissed at me for the Amazon kerfuffle of last fall. That sucks, since I respect what he’s done and love MHP books. But, well, not everyone is going to like you for everything. This was a sort of recurring motto at a place I used to work at, so I should be used to it by now.

9) Meeting Patti Smith at the New Directions party. That’s overall just pretty damn cool.

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