Optimism Among Book Publishers at BookExpo America

An industry in upheaval steadies itself.
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Reading in the 21st century (Flickr/langalex)

For an industry that has been so focused lately on the impact of disruptive upheavals in technology and retailing, last week's BookExpo America--the annual publishing fete at New York's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center--was notably mellow, even upbeat by the standards of recent years. Publishers Weekly's front page headline captured the mood: "Stability Brings Hope at BEA." And with 20,000 book people on hand, there was enough activity in the aisles, booths, and autograph areas to engage the interests of any attendee.

One highlight was the climax of publishing's first Hackathon--a 36-hour competition in which roughly two hundred individuals independently or in teams submitted projects to help connect readers with the books that interest them, whether through better library data systems, reading platforms, etc. Among the finalists, the winning project at BookExpo was Evoke, which revolved around the idea of an app organizing characters by "'types'/similarities" into "trees," helping "users find new characters and books they might love." 

The Hackathon was only one of a multitude of well-attended events at the convention including author appearances, panels on a range of issues devoted, one way or another, to publishing's future and non-stop schmoozing. The biggest crowd I saw on the floor was for Jim Carrey who is self- publishing a children's book next fall and was signing brochures.   But there were a host of other celebrity authors on hand from publishers large and small  including Doris Kearns Goodwin,  Elizabeth Gilbert, Wally Lamb, Chris Mathews and many more, supporting the notion that books are streaming forth to audiences  reading them on a variety of print and digital platforms with an increase, albeit  modest, in total sales.

Julie Bosman of the New York Times also caught the spirit of the occasion in her wrap-up:

E-book sales are no longer growing at a nerve-rattling pace. The unpleasant and expensive price-fixing law suit last year, pitting the Justice Department against five major publishers has been settled. Independent booksellers added 65 stories to their ranks in 2012, according to their trade association, despite competition from Amazon.

After a few turbulent years in the book business, there was a feeling there was a feeling at Book Expo America . . . that the disruption might have calmed.

"I'm hearing this gigantic sigh of relief everywhere I go," said Michael Pietsch, the new chief executive of the Hachette Book Group, which includes the Little Brown and Grand Central imprints.

John Sargent, chief executive of MacMillan, another of the publishers that had been sued by Justice, called Attorney General Eric Holder "incompetent" for pressing the antitrust lawsuit. While the publishers have settled, Apple, the only defendant that has refused to do so, goes on trial in federal court this week. Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook is adamant in explaining why Apple hasn't settled. "We've done nothing wrong there, and so we're taking a very principled position on this," he said last week, according to the Wall Street Journal. "We were asked to sign something that says we did something we didn't do. And so we're going to fight."

Sargent's general view of the industry, reflecting the broader mood, was that it has entered a period of comparative stability. But that is a relative assessment, given the big changes in the works. There is the forthcoming merger of Random and Penguin to consider, and rumors of a merger between Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins. "I was much more pessimistic a year and a half ago than I am now," he told an audience of booksellers. But the reality is that whenever the publishing industry gathers, there always tends to be a blend of some good news and considerable concern. The arc of the digital era is still taking shape. Traditional brick and mortar booksellers say they are holding their own, but still account for a very small portion of the e-book and tablet market--which currently amounts to about 20 percent of total book sales, mainly through Amazon (now the largest of the country's retailers) and other online sellers. The Barnes & Noble chain has its Nook devices, but overall, as I have written before, this once-undisputed behemoth of the retailing industry is struggling to maintain its market share.

Book Expo America is another year's affirmation that books and readers remain embedded in our national life. And one of the features certainly worth watching is what happens to innovators like those featured in the Hackathon: New aspects of the industry like the e-book market are here to stay, and the more publishing can respond with its own innovation, the better.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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