It is perhaps telling that I left BookExpo America 2009 with the same feeling I had in 2006. And 2008. This time, however, there is also a layer of optimism, the product, actually, of the Publishing 3.0 presentation from the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. It’s too big for a nutshell, so hang on for bit. I’m sure I’ll bring it all home.
Things that make sense in one bubble might not make sense in another.
This year’s theme was Big Ideas. I didn’t see any (unless forgoing a booth in favor of a meeting room is a Big Idea, and it just might be), but will take it as a given that some were shared. Part of the problem with Big Ideas is that you never know you have one until a few days, weeks, months, or years later. So here’s my Big Idea: let’s stop talking and start listening.
Item the first: Sherman Alexie, an author I admire, took on the role of John Updike, the fear mongerer of the 2006 show, at this year’s conference, proudly declaring:
…he refused to allow his novels to be made available in digital form. He called the expensive reading devices “elitist” and declared that when he saw a woman sitting on the plane with a Kindle on his flight to New York, “I wanted to hit her.”
Um, nice. Alexie, like many authors, declared war on something he doesn’t understand. eReading devices are a conduit, not a requirement. Most people who read digital books do so on more traditional computers, and many use outdated technology. Reading on cell phones is a growing habit for readers. Dedicated devices, something I’m still on the fence about even though I own one, are part of the digital mix.
It is elitism of the worst kind to dictate how people are to read your words. The egalitarian approach demands that every new book be made available in every practical format. You do not know the circumstances of your customers, but you can bet they lead lives as busy and hectic as yours. You want people to buy and read books? Make it easy for them.
In the CEO Roundtable, publishers repeated the “it’s 2006 all over again feeling” as they responded to questions about digital marketing and success. In a continued misuse of the “viral” marketing meme, one publisher declared it doesn’t work. I’d ask, “Did you have a call to action? Did you make it easy for the viewer of the video to move from engaged and interested to customer?” That’s what bookstores do best. Online marketing — of any kind — does not work if the customer cannot end the process with a book purchase.
Having a top video on YouTube is great and I’d surmise there were more books sold as a result than the speaker realized. The video was to build awareness, create one of the all-important seven impressions of a product. It’s part of the mix, not the solution.
Finally, as I am going to presume will be happening every year, there was the awkward book blogger panel. It’s not that the bloggers are awkward, it’s that the conversation that felt stale in 2006 (how can publishers work with bloggers) feels hallucinatory in 2009 (no really, how can publishers work with bloggers?). It’s time to start talking with each other.
Which leads me to my Big Idea (and I am not alone in having this idea). I’m not worried about the future of reading or writing. I’m not worried about the future of publishing. What worries me is the fact that publishers sit in front of audiences and declare that the $9.99 ebook price point must be killed. It cannot be sustained. No way, no how.
Yet that ship sailed over a year ago. Way out to sea. Nearing its destination. It’s not going to turn around. (No this is not another post about pricing.) It does the industry absolutely no good to have CEOs sitting in front of an audience, making declarations about how the world works, without providing appropriate counter-discussion from readers — the people who actually discover, buy, read, and talk about books.
Right now, as Yen Cheong of Penguin notes, the conversation is so critical, yet we’re not having it:
When it comes to discussing the future of publishing, publishers will admit that we’re at a crossroads but are, understandably, reluctant to issue more detailed public proclamations. It’s unfortunate because there are plenty of people interested in and knowledgeable about the publishing industry who would like to participate in these “future of publishing” discussions.
While I get the point behind Yen’s use of the word “understandably”, I’d counter with the idea that these important conversations require a bit of give and take on both sides. Things that make sense in the bubble that is a marketing meeting might not make sense in the bubble that is a reader. Or the bubble that is the bookseller.
The CEO conversation is one-way. Sherman Alexie’s proclamation about ebooks is one-way. How about asking real people about pricing? How about asking real readers, a nursing mother, for example, why she’s buying ebooks at 3 in the morning (I think Alexie would find his mind changed)? In the comments to Debbie Stier’s BEA wrap-up, there is an interesting response to the HarperCollins decision to give away egalleys (I like Debbie’s point and I like the comment, both are right):
Regarding e-galleys, a bookseller from San Diego spoke passionately about his feelings for them while we were waiting in line to see Dr. Ruth: “What good is a postcard with instructions on how to download the e-book when I’m looking for something to read on the plane ride home?” He also didn’t like that the format was incompatible with the Kindle.
The point here is that HarperCollins had a nifty idea, but maybe a little more discussion with the end customer (in this case, a bookseller) would have shifted that idea from nifty to great. While it is indeed understandable that publishers want to keep some things quiet, it’s also a good idea to open the lines of communication.
There was, getting back to the LA Times panel, a lot of conversation. I know of at least two dinners where publishing was saved. In many ways, this conversation is happening around big publishers, but — with some great exceptions — they’re not joining in as much as they should. I think there are valuable lessons to learn on both sides.
So my big takeaway, my Big Idea, from BookExpo 2009 is that the publishers who take the time to really listen to their constituency, from distributors to readers, will survive the ocean crossing into the future (and there will be some rough seas ahead!) while the publishers who don’t will be lost at sea.
Now off to see what kind of trouble Google’s started…
Note: As noted in the comments, the super fab Edward Champion interview Sherman Alexie about his comments. You can see the expanded comments here. Some points I agree with, some I don’t, and I appreciate him taking the time to respond.