BEA 2010: The CEO Panel (“The Value of a Book”)

Moderator: Jonathan Galassi (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Participants: Bob Miller (Workman), Esther Newberg (ICM), Skip Prichard (Ingram), David Shanks (Penguin), Oren Telcher (ABA), Scott Turow (Authors Guild)

It didn’t take long for Tuesday morning’s CEO panel to dredge up the same tired tropes about eBooks, which is just as nauseating whether you hear it from the tech-oriented libertarians or the old codgers who continue to pretend that the Kindle never came out. Moderator Jonathan Galassi, failing to provide a sufficient balance between these two extremes, opted to pretend that eBooks didn’t exist. “The title was supposed to be ‘The Value of a Book,” said Galassi, referring to the print variety twenty minutes into the panel, and hoping to steer the conversation into variables more applicable to the Carter Administration. Alas, with the exception of Scott Turow (nearly as as ill-informed as Galassi), the other panelists very much wanted to discuss reality.

It didn’t make much sense for the panel to escape these hard questions. After all, as ABA President Michael Tucker announced during the panel’s introduction, speaking in a lifeless and sleep-inducing tone, “In a fast-changing digital world, there is extraordinary value in an event like BookExpo.” I’m not sure if Tucker believed it. Certainly I didn’t. I had worn my Night of the Living Dead T-shirt to Javits for a reason. But if I were an FSG author, I would be very concerned indeed about Galassi’s present understanding of the industry.

Galassi, growing visibly flustered as the other panelists politely informed him about present market conditions (with limited comprehension on Galassi’s end), not only maintained the old warhorse position that hardcovers would still be desired by 100% of book purchasers, but clung to such feeble driftwood as “We’re always going to need warehouses” and, on the position of enhanced books, “Who has time for the enhancement?” He also claimed that no author is going to want to publish his work online for free. Obviously, Galassi hasn’t heard of the Huffington Post.

More preposterous than these pronouncements was the chestnut Galassi lodged midway through the panel. Shortly after Galassi declared, “I feel that there’s something radically wrong about the way a market has been determined.” Well, that’s fine. But it’s the customers who determine the market, not Galassi. Galassi then seriously suggested that Scott Turow had the right to a career. “People should be willing to pay $4 million,” Galassi said of Turow, shortly after offering a declaration that Turow had paid his dues.

Turow may very well have paid his dues. But if the customers don’t want to buy his books, then perhaps he shouldn’t be entitled to the staggering advances that most authors can only dream about. Ingram’s Skip Prichard then politely explained to Galassi the realities of the free market: “We’re in a competitive market. Scott’s not in a vacuum. You have to look at the options.” And after this high school economics supply and demand lesson, Galassi stayed quiet for a good share of the panel. This allowed Prichard to point to how libraries had reinvented themselves over the past ten years, digitizing their archives and adding coffee bars and seats. Bookstores, indicated Prichard, were also going to change.

Brian O’Leary and Authors Guild members will be interested to learn that Turow claimed that piracy was the biggest risk to the books industry. Never mind that present indicators suggest that piracy isn’t particularly ubiquitous and that the stakes remain relatively small.

At least Penguin’s David Shanks understood that the eBooks market remained quite small, understanding that less than 10% of the total books market could hardly be called a mass market. After all, purchasing a reading device was a sizable investment for the average Joe. “The mass audience is not right now buying those reading devices,” said Shanks. The time would come later for serious adoption “as the publishers start to get better information,” said Shanks, “and realize the efficiencies of not printing.”

Prichard also pointed out that tomorrow’s readers “will not want to have their next book on a single device.” While he didn’t offer any immediate remedies on how to make this happen, he was forward-thinking enough to observe that tomorrow’s books are “not going to be about the device.”

At one point, Turow asked, “Why did publishers ever agree for the eBook to be available at the same time as the hardcover?” To which one can sufficiently reply, why hasn’t Scott Turow ever paid attention to what the customers want? If he hasn’t tracked the omnipresent fury over this issue, then is he really qualified to serve as Authors Guild President?

The ABA’s Brad Telcher thankfully made a case for the inclusive middle ground. Observing that physical and digital space need not be separated into a binary value, he stated that booksellers needed to be focused on the content and that the books industry needed to meet any and all customer needs. “We should be format neutral,” said Telcher.

Bob Miller, having recently departed from the imprint HarperStudio for Workman, was perhaps the most austere eBook evangelist on the panel. He noted quite rightly that customers wouldn’t want to wait for the eBook edition, but seemed to exude an off-putting Dunning-Kruger vibe when he boasted of attending eBook conferences from ten years before. “I was at those conferences,” he said. “We were really excited.”

I much preferred the quieter and more easygoing Telcher (along with the zinger-spouting Esther Newberg), the panel’s best advocate for unity. “What we do,” said Telcher, “is put the right book in the hand of the appropriate customer. We believe that there are a significant number of consumers who want to come to a place.” He pointed to the importance of preserving the showrooms, noting that declining record stores had taken away much of the community within the music business. Telcher wasn’t naive enough to dismiss the idea of selling eBooks within physical spaces.

Indeed, Turow proved both uninformed and somewhat condescending towards those who enjoy eBooks — presumably because it cuts into his million dollar advances. “A lot of those people are buying more books,” said Turow, “and they enjoy playing with their toy.” He insisted that most users of “reading machines” were part of “the flying class.”

As these men began huffing about various format limitations, the heel-wagging Newberg, who served almost as a second-string moderator after Galassi’s eyes seemed to glaze over permanently, asked how a physical book can compete when book tours have been cut back and when newspapers have cut back. She pointed to online word of mouth, and also noted that physical books needed to be beautiful in order to matter. She pointed to a forthcoming Steve Martin book constructed of vellum paper.

Prichard would have none of this. “There’s going to be a niche that cares about that.” He pointed to the enormous pressure from the digital market, but concluded that “the vast majority of readers don’t care.”

“We are a niche,” replied Newberg. “We’re not a giant business.”

Miller, to his credit, did observe that a book’s look and feel was important. But I looked to Prichard and wondered if he was going to blow a gasket.

“You’re making it sound like choices,” interceded Telcher. “Consumers are different too.”

My notes indicate that Prichard used the word “choices” five times in less than a minute. I thought immediately of Rod Steiger’s over-the-top general in Mars Attacks and I wasn’t alone. I noticed that the gentleman sitting to my left, the veins in his neck popping out with apparent outrage, was talking back to the panel. “You’re not a creator!” he seethed in response to Prichard. I wondered if he needed a hug. Perhaps more than Galassi.

At this point, the panel then more or less rehashed the same arguments and my notes became less frequent. Perhaps the panel’s truest sentiment came from Newberg, who remarked that one of the nice things about getting old was not having to worry about the resolution of all these arguments. I can’t say that I blame her. If many of these executives won’t pay attention to contemporary realities, then we may have to wait for some of these pigheaded types to die off before a cooperative fusion between authors, publishers, agents, and customers will keep this industry alive. Maybe then we’ll get some of that “extraordinary value” that Tucker was sleep-talking about.