BEA: Impressions and Reportage from Thursday

Please note that I will probably be misspelling a good deal of names and, for this, I apologize. Because of wireless limitations, I will correct all such typographical errors upon my return home.

A few quick thanks are in order: one to Harper Collins, who was kind enough to offer wireless access for BEA’s many participants (several photos of congregating litbloggers hunched over their laptops in the galleria have made the rounds), and the other to Tina Jordan, who was kind enough to offer us all press credentials. I fully expect the reports to interlap. So I’ve been roaming Jacob Javits’ floors with a portable minidisc recorder and digital camera. The sounds will be edited and posted here upon my return to San Francisco.

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I have a few initial observations. First off, I should point out that BookExpo America is a trade show, meaning that people here view and approach books as a business first and foremost. I’ve talked with publicists and exhibitors about what they hope to get out of BEA. Outside of educational seminars, like most trade shows, they hope to find the shortest path to profit — a not uncommon practice here in the crowded and unforgiving blocks of Manhattan. In some cases, that means stumbling into panels (such as yesterday’s litblog panel) for the “next big thing.”

But even this “education” sometimes leads publishers and publicists pining for a vote of confidence. Arthur Fournier of Guilford Publications confessed to me that he was relieved to see his conclusions confirmed by the big editors attending the morning’s Publishing and Electronic Media seminar. Likewise, Kevin Smith of Kuna, Inc., a publisher that specialized in materials written for credit unions, told me that he was particularly interested in the digital mediums being pushed, but expressed his surprise with how other publishers weren’t very forward-thinking in embracing these new conduits. He compared it to an army “fighting the last war to figure out what’s coming up.” Smith clearly didn’t want to follow this model. But when I asked him how he might convince others how to hop on the bandwagon, he felt that “thinking outside the box” himself and perhaps convincing others to do likewise might be a start.

If there is a problem with this approach, sometimes lofty intentions, or even modest goals of profitability commingled with artistic gain, get left in the dust. I talked with a cheerfully cynical man named Andrew Porter, who had a badge that read “Too Many ABAs.” Three years after selling his Hugo-award winning magazine venture, the Science Fiction Chronicle, to another publisher and getting, in his words, “screwed from the new publisher,” Porter told me that this was his “final convention in the book field.” He had attended every single convention since 1976 and handed me an impressive leaflet that listed some of the highlights. He called this BEA “his farewell tour” and had conceded this as an opportunity to catch up with friends.

Then there are the misconceptions about what these new technologies and conduits mean. For instance, if you ask a publisher what a “blog” is (as I tried to explain what this site was all about), this is when the confusion (and perplexed reactions about the technical and logistical fundamentals) kicks in.

Some folks, like Publishers Lunch‘s Michael Cader, understand that a blog operates as a conduit between reader and publisher and optimize their services to reflect this without compromising the credibility for either side. But if a publisher doesn’t know how a blog works, if they, as one publicist expressed to me Thursday night, don’t have the demographics at their fingertips, there’s a fundamental problem in the co-opting process. Because these are the hard stats that industry people look for. They have specific ways of conducting their business and, like any businessman, they want to turn a profit. So the real question isn’t “Are blogs viable in today’s literary marketplace?” (I would argue, based on the rise in sales of Sam Lipsyte?s Home Land and Kate Atkinson?s Case Histories, that they are; but to what degree, nobody truly knows) but “Are publishers flexible to refocusing some of their business strategies to this separate and independent force?” Or does it all boil down for the big Dan Brown kill?

My conversations so far have suggested that the cleanup is the thing but, at this point, I’m almost tempted to apply William Goldman’s infamous maxim about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.” I was unable to get into the “Capturing the Elusive 18 to 34 Year Old Reader” panel moderated by Jessa Crispin. It was SRO, but many people privately expressed their disappointment with me about the lack of ideas articulated. It struck me as a sad irony that such a palpable frustration would go down the day before the exhibitor floor opened.

I would again argue that pointing to a sales factor is a start, but delving into it and daring to think beyond the existing sales strategy might be a more successful way to meet this problem head-on. But shifting away from a perception (such as the idea that only people over 50 are interested in World War II) involves not only rampant persuasion among a publishing house?s staff (extending from the top down), but a dramatic (some might say revolutionary) shift with how people go about buying and reading books.

To be fair to the publishers, with the book industry left with sales that are sometimes tenuous even for carefully researched successes, it’s little wonder that shifting their strategies in the digital age remains an impossibility, particularly with so many unspoken issues concerning literary blog accreditation. Hoopla alone isn’t necessarily going to cut it for the book consumer. And sending an author out on a book tour, only to see the author greeted by a handful of people and crickets (none of whom buy the book, including the crickets, who are sentient and endowed with the ability to slide a credit card) is as equally risky as considering the digital conversational domain.

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Email access is highly limited. So if you’ve sent anything, I haven’t yet received it.

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For what it’s worth (and to clarify a minor rumor floating around), I’m not stalking Sam Tanenhaus. I just want to give the man an opportunity to respond to the criticisms hurled his way on these pages. So if you’re a friend of Sam’s, please tell him that I’m not a lunatic and that I’m just a persistent guy who wants to talk with him.

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The LBC party at the Slipper Room was packed beyond anyone’s predictions with the very 18-34 crowd (or those hoping to market to it) in question. About a hundred people packed this bar on the Bowery. There is an audience for this stuff.

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Liz Dubelman of Vidlit has a novel idea that she’s managed to parlay: humorous Flash-based “trailer” presentations of books for the Web. Think Jibjab meets books. Dubelman showed me “Yiddish with Dick and Jane” on her Powerbook. The short merged a Yiddish language lesson with the famous children’s primers. However, the short got Dubleman and several related publishers in trouble. It seems that the people who owned Pearson, who holds the rights to Dick & Jane, didn’t know whether “Yiddish” was a parody or something which infringed upon their rights. On a Thursday evening before a holiday weekend, armed with a bouquet of flowers, a process server served Vidlit (along with all the publishers that Vidlit had contracted with). Dubelman told me that she’s not sure what happened with the lawsuit, but that she believes it was settled through Time Warner. Vidlit has also produced shorts for Random House, Warner Books, and Little Brown. There are also shorts in the works for Scholastic and Harper Collins Children’s.

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Compilations are a hot commodity these days. Paul Slansky didn’t have a problem finding a publisher for a new book due to be published by Bluesberry in January 2006 (co-authored with Arlene Sorkin) called I’m Sorry: The Apology Anthology. Slansky scoured databases with the keyword “apology,” only to unearth a vast deposit of insincere apologies, many of whom were delivered by politicians. But Slansky also included a speech from a former President that he found remarkably sincere. “Clinton had this unbelievable apology being delivered at a national prayer breakfast for the whole Lewinsky thing,” said Slansky. “It was breathtaking. It was like a preacher talking. And it seemed more sincere than any other politican I’ve heard.” The best apologies, Slansky said, were the ones that atoned for racial epithets, which involved “construing” the spoken faux pas. But one of Slansky’s favorite apologies involved four Los Angeles television stations apologizing for broadcasting a man’s suicide live.

One Comment

  1. Some folks, like Publishers Lunchs Michael Cader, understand that a blog operates as a conduit between reader and publisher and optimize their services to reflect this without compromising the credibility for either side. But if a publisher doesnt know how a blog works, if they, as one publicist expressed to me Thursday night, dont have the demographics at their fingertips, theres a fundamental problem in the co-opting process.
    I was unable to get into the Capturing the Elusive 18 to 34 Year Old Reader panel moderated by Jessa Crispin. It was SRO, but many people privately expressed their disappointment with me about the lack of ideas articulated.”

    Two thoughts you put together beautifully. Publishers not knowing what blogs are and not knowing how to connect with 18-34 YOs!

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