BookExpo 2014: The Future of Gender Balance and Why Conversations Need to Grow Up

It became clear on Friday morning at a BookExpo America panel devoted to “Packaging, Positioning and Reviewing in the Fiction Marketplace” that all the VIDA counting and the justifiable grandstanding is getting in the way of building on heartening truths: namely, that women have gained significant (and in many cases dominant) ground as authors, as editorial tastemakers, and as reviewers in the past year.

“I met two of my counterparts,” said New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul. “The books editor of the Chicago Tribune is a woman. The Los Angeles Times editor is a woman. USA Today is a woman. People is a woman. New York Magazine is a woman. There are more women book critics than there are men. So that’s kind of the good news, I think.”

Paul picked up a recent issue of the Review and shuffled through the table of contents. “Woman, woman, woman, man, woman.” She claimed that there was nothing deliberate in these review assignments. It was a practice that the previous editor, Sam Tanenhaus, also engaged in. So is there really gender bias?

“I agree,” said Jennifer Weiner. “A lot of it is affinity, not bias.” While commending the rise of women editors, Weiner insinuated a sinister gender bias that emerged from the top. “I think if you gave us the roster of who those women report to, it might sound different. I wonder if they answer, at the end of the day, to men. Does that matter or make an impact?”

Later in the panel, Paul was to correct Weiner, claiming that the Review had full editorial independence. “Not once did Jill [Abramson] or Bill [Keller] ever interfere with my editorial choices.” And while that may be true, it became clear during the conversation that Paul doesn’t really reflect on what her editorial choices mean. Still, I’ll take Weiner’s speculations — even when woefully wrong, such as the notion that men’s reading habits are limited because they are guided by cover design or that people are somehow shamed by what they read on the subway — as a more useful indicator of gender bias than Paul’s high-handed remarks. Because unlike Paul, Weiner was willing to use case examples to bookend her thorny ideological sentiments.

illtakeyouthereWeiner cited the wildly divergent covers for Joyce Carol Oates’s I’ll Take You There — the Ecco hardcover a striking drawing, the paperback being composed of flowers — as an example of how drastically publishers are willing to alter their covers for women audiences. And she mentioned her own battles with Target, who demanded that the cover for her new book All Fall Down be tinted blue, with the street in Philadelphia considered too gritty for audiences coveting the usual sunny hues.

“As publishers, you’re working with the availability of images,” said William Morrow Executive Editor Rachel Kahan. She pinpointed one big reason why some of the women’s fiction covers all look the same: the clip art is usually comprised of skinny white yoga models, not regular people. This may account for some of the whitewashing seen on YA book covers and why every book about Africa tends to look the same. When the images used to sell women’s books don’t resemble what’s contained between the covers, much less a reader’s real world, then it seems only natural to ask why we’re still talking about gender balance. The issue is far more complex.

There are still disheartening yet treatable statistics. Moderator Rebecca Mead looked into the gender bias of the New York Times‘s daily reviewers over the course of one year and discovered that it still skewed mostly male: Janet Maslin reviewed 42 male authors and 23 women. Dwight Garner reviewed 43 men and 21 women. Michiko Kakutani reviewed 69 men and 16 women. But the issue is largely a matter of waiting for the old boys to croak (namely, Robert Silvers) and for the VIDA pie charts to include more matching sets of semicircles. [UPDATE: Please see 6/2/14 Update below on the gender ratio numbers. Please see my independent audit reflecting troubling gender parity.]

Covers, said Paul, have never factored into the Review‘s assignments. I already knew this. So I took the liberty of asking a provocative question at the panel’s end, pointing out to a recent Facebook thread which dared to ask, “Large novels (600+ pages) by women whose dominant mode isn’t narrative realism? I can only think of two offhand: The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing and The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein.” I then cited five literary and/or risk-taking titles that The New York Times Book Review had not reviewed:

  1. Porochista Khakpour’s The Last Illusion: (publication date: May 13, link to screenshot of NYTBR search showing no results)
  2. Paula Bomer’s Inside Madeleine: (publication date: May 13, link to screenshot of NYTBR search showing no results)
  3. Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing: (publication date: April 15, link to screenshot of NYTBR search showing mere capsule)
  4. Mona Simpson’s Casebook: (publication date: April 15, a review had not been published until this afternoon and I obviously did not see it)
  5. Cynthia Bond’s Ruby: (publication date: April 29, link to screenshot of NYTBR search showing no results)

Paul claimed, “We’ve reviewed four of the five.” [UPDATE: See 6/14/14 UPDATE below.] But it’s clear from the evidence that she was either lying through her teeth or is now so hopelessly slipshod at her job that reviews of books that aren’t huge will never run on a timely basis. That would certainly fit the Review‘s abominably dilatory standards for two National Book Award winners: Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (published August 30, 2011, reviewed December 30, 2011) and Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule (published November 25, 2010, reviewed by Maslin and profiled by Chip McGrath, but never reviewed in the NYTBR). I mentioned these two names. Paul brushed it off.

I asked what could be done to encourage more wild, edgy, and ambitious literature from women? Books from outsiders. Ambitious books written by women that can be included, now that women are, thank the heavens, storming the gates. For this, I was informed later on Twitter that I was insulting. An amental agent, whose superficial sensibilities are writ large in her most recent sale (“a guidebook for those of us who can’t afford diamond encrusted pacifers or superyachts but still aspire to our own version of the glamorous life”), also misquoted and condemned me as a moron:

And the Women’s Media Group suggested that I was oppressing the room with my loud voice:

The mystery of plentiful 600 page novels written by women and not rooted in realism — one that I’d actually like to know the answer to, which is why I bothered to ask it — remains unsolved. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah was offered. (Sorry, it’s 496 pages.) And so was Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which many in the Facebook thread insisted did not count. The reason I asked the question was not to suggest that women couldn’t write ambitious novels, but to get people to consider why women aren’t allowed to. As this Wikipedia list of longest novels points out, only Ayn Rand and Madeleine de Scudéry have been permitted doorstoppers. And I’m hardly the only one ruminating on this.

But the goal is no longer to have challenging discussions, to consider opposing points of view (or even the strange exotic men who enjoy reading both Weiner and Knausgaard), or to ask uncomfortable questions. The goal of organizations like the Women’s Media Group and people like Pamela Paul is to drown out the outside voices because they’re too busy congratulating themselves over opinions and sentiments they’ve already made their minds about and have no intention of changing. But I do want to thank Rachel Kahan, who made an attempt to address my question after the stunned hush, Jennifer Weiner (who has always listened to my loud voice with respect), and Rebecca Mead, who was a good moderator. These three women understood that I was not the enemy. I’m not so sure about the other ones.

[6/2/14 UPDATE: I’ve been informed by a reader that the gender ratio numbers from the three New York Times daily book reviewers were incorrect. I have performed a full and detailed independent audit (links to all reviews and methodology are provided in article) for the period between June 1, 2013 and May 30, 2014. The breakdown is as follows: Dwight Garner — Male Authors: 45.5 (65.9%), Female Authors: 23.5 (34.1%); Michiko Kakutani — Male Authors: 37.5 (69.4%), Female Authors: 16.5 (30.6%); Janet Maslin — Male Authors: 68 (68.7%), Female Authors: 31 (31.3%).]

[6/14/14 UPDATE: Two weeks after the panel, two more reviews of the five books that I cited to Pamela Paul appeared in the June 15, 2014 edition of The New York Times Book Review: Paula Bomer’s Inside Madeleine was reviewed by Dayna Tortorici and Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing was reviewed by Malie Meloy. This brings the total up to three books, out of the “four out of five” claim Paul uttered at the panel. While I approve of these coverage decisions, this nevertheless brings up another sizable problem at the NYTBR: the tendency for reviews to run quite late after their publication dates. I will take up this issue with hard data in a future post. Pamela Paul continues to refuse to discuss these issues, as does public editor Margaret Sullivan. I stand by my “mendacious” charge until Paul produces a fourth review.]

How BookExpo America Turned Into A Ponzi Scheme for Booksellers, Exhibitors, and Readers

Imagine being forced at gunpoint to attend the world’s most useless corporate retreat without a compassionate euthanasist offering suicide capsules and you have a pretty good idea of what BookExpo America has turned into. The conference is now so cheap that the badges no longer come with lanyards, leaving one to pin the back of the badge to one’s coat using the feeblest metal imaginable. The printed schedules don’t list all the sessions, much less offer a detailed description. The website is unnavigable, leading one to use arcane Google skills to extract the most basic details. And the information offered at ABA is less helpful than the world’s most ineptly written self-help book.

In short, this trade show is now a racket. And everybody knows it. On Wednesday afternoon, John Ingram looked especially embarrassed to be spouting off such horseshit as “To me, it’s about engaging community and creating innovation” at “The Future of Bricks and Mortar Retailers” panel. And I genuinely felt sorry for him. Was there any need for Ingram’s time to be wasted like this? There was no mention of the recent Amazon-Hachette dispute, except in knowingly veiled code. And that approach seemed especially condescending given that the great and irreplaceable Maya Angelou had passed away that morning.

I couldn’t help but contrast this panel against Richard Russo’s candid and inspiring words (with much healthy vitriol directed at Amazon) to booksellers only two years before. Indeed, BookExpo now carries a bizarre prohibitionist instinct. For the first time ever, there are signs forbidding people from filming the panels, as if tired sentiments about the “either and” future of print and digital were on the level of Coronado discovering the Seven Cities of Gold. The annoyingly peppy moderator Dominique Raccah kept referencing a “pre-interview” she conducted with the five participants, as if this atoned for the vapid predictability of her questions. I had to stop myself from approaching the stage to pin a gold star on her lapel for the job well done she courted. I counted twelve disappointed souls storming out, the telltale screech of the heavy doors competing with the unfathomably soft levels of the amplification system. The crowd was half as numerous as last year.

Now I’m no stranger to complaining about BookExpo, but I’ve always found something that I could take away from it. Yet this year is easily the worst of the nine I’ve attended. It is slapdash, slipshod, motivated by a kind of naked avarice more cartoonish than The Wolf of Wall Street. It was clear from the giant posters devoted to Jodi Picoult and David Mitchell that the chief goal is to eliminate the trade element entirely and turn this into a Comic-Con for books.

How did it get like this?

Well, BookExpo went after the book trade until much of the small and midsize exhibitors could no longer afford to pay for the exorbitant booths (the pricing remains secret, but like anything in business, getting the right rates are about who you know). Then BookExpo somehow persuaded bloggers to pay for the privilege of feeling special with the Book Bloggers Convention (still happening this year, but will it be around in 2015?), fleecing these amateurs of their hard-earned pin money. But the bloggers aren’t nearly as plentiful or as influential as they used to be. BookExpo remains stuck with Jacob Javits Center through 2017. So what do you do? You turn to ordinary readers, viewing them as boobs that fit the Barnum ideal. You charge them $30 a pop, get eight thousand of them to pay, and hope that the reckless math holds out with BookCon, a new last-ditch attempt to salvage your Hindenburg by opening the show to the public on Saturday.

“I always joke that every BookCon fan should have at least six figures of student loan debt,” said BEA flack Lance Fensterman to reporter Boris Kachka. “We’re trying to find the passionate fan base.” One can’t help but ponder the perfidy of this statement. BEA isn’t about sharing the wealth or even learning from the booksellers. (At the B&M panel, Tattered Cover owner Joyce Meksis was rightly cheered for the 500 to 600 events she organizes yearly.) The strategy involves fleecing the last few dollars from the public and encouraging them to demand free books from the publishers, who will in turn have to pay for galleys that are usually offloaded to avid booksellers. And no one seems to see the disastrous conflagration ahead at the air station.

The people who make books their business are not to be blamed for this. I watched many of their spirits brighten once they emerged from the crippling Kafkesque church of Jacob Javits Center. Their minds purred upon their escape, pondering the creative accounting they’d need to exact to justify the raid on the minibar. Yet while Jacob Javits’s dull white corridors still retain their architectural power to crush robust souls, it was more empty this year, even emptier than it usually is on the first day. The publishers and booksellers are going elsewhere to do their deals. Most people know that this is not their space. BookExpo has failed to learn that you don’t just need a showroom for books. You need heart, soul, knowledge, and instinct. While Fensterman and his cronies are cynical enough to believe that people will give that all up for a pittance, I remain quite confident that this gargantuan exposition won’t last long beyond the Javits contract. Unless someone replaces the lifting gas.

BEA 2013: The Editor and the Translator

On Friday afternoon, mere minutes after the frazzled feline star of a viral video had been flown in from Morristown, Arizona and dragged against its will onto the Javits floor to receive the kind of superstar adulation that literary geniuses toiling for decades would die for a tiny piece of, three dozen people met in the rank underbelly of a cold corporate convention center to contend with issues of translated literature.

This was the clearest indication I have ever seen of what Chad Post has identified as the “three percent problem” — whereby a mere 3% of all published books in the United States are works in translation. The underattended panel made me hang my head in shame.

I had not known that Grumpy Cat was at BEA, nor did I care to meet the animal or wait in line upon learning of this intelligence. There were more meaningful ways to fritter away two hours of my life. Indeed, I had encountered Open Letter‘s Chad Post on the loud floor just before the panel and personally apologized for not doing enough for translated literature. He then told me about an insane man in Italy and secured my attendance.

There were several translators and foreign language enthusiasts in the crowd, including Michael A. Orthofer and Scott Esposito (both tireless proponents for literature in translation), but the panelists pointed out the paucity of editors in the audience and seized upon this absenteeism to talk freely.

“In the long view,” said Susan Bernofsky, director of literary translation for Columbia’s School of the Arts, “we want to find an English language voice for our foreign language author. In the short run, editors want very different things. Editors want books that will read well in English and that sell. The translator wants to represent what the language said.”

Bernofsky pointed to FSG’s Elisabeth Sifton as an editorial paragon. Sifton gave Bernofsky carte blanche to translate Gregor von Rezzori however she wanted. He wasn’t especially edited in German. So he had wanted his English translation to be well edited, even if it meant obliterating whole pages and paragraphs.

I was not as well-versed on translated literature as the assembled crowd, but I was surprised by how liberal the editing process was. Post described going much further on a memoir that had a plodding section set in the 1980s. The ten page section began with the sentence, “I remember nothing good from those years.” Post felt that cutting everything that followed that sentence was an improvement.

Translator Mary Ann Caws pointed out to several fraught experiences she had encountered in her years. She described working on an anthology, where her translation was taken out of her hands and given to someone else who dumbed everything down. She described battles translating André Breton’s most famous poem, “Free Union.” The first two words of the original poem is “Mon amour.” One translation of the poem’s first line reads “My wife whose hair is a brush fire.” Another reads “My woman with her forest-fire hair.” The difference between “My wife” and “My woman” is substantial because of the connotation of the relationship. But Caws pointed out that “there’s a way of doing it without her or she” with phrases like “My dear one has gone into the streets of the city.”

Caws had also suggested publishing several translations around a sonnet to demonstrate the impossibility of a perfect translation. The editor replied, “How will they know which is the right translation?”

Victoria Wilson has been an editor at Knopf for forty years. And she insisted that cutting text has little to do with saleability, but how the book reads. “A book is going to sell if it’s 150 pages shorter,” said Wilson, who was also careful to note that she had published William Gass for twenty years.

“People ascribe motives to the publisher,” continued Wilson. “We’re all just people. I bought the book. I fought for the book.”

This was all constructive chatter, but the panel’s fireworks really started when Polish crime writer Marek Krajewski began speaking with gusto through a translator.

“In my mind,” said an animated Krajewski through his translator, “the editors who work with people who have huge egos really can’t adjust and are narcissistic. These kinds of editors treat their authors as total failures. There are editors, on the other hand, who tend to do work just for the sake of doing it. To justify their presence there.” Krajewski bemoaned editors who didn’t understand his work, including one who was “basically taking out the F words.”

“Some of them tend to be shy and don’t ask that any questions,” said Krajewski of his translators. He pointed to one who couldn’t be bothered to flesh out an abbreviation. “I had the full information. And I do know she knows how to do it. Well, sometimes, it happens that the editor is very detail-oriented.”

One of Krajewski’s books concerned multiculturalism, which turned out to be a problem for the editor and the translator. “It’s not only translating language,” said Krajewski. “It’s translating cultures.”

Bernofsky noted that she had just done a new translation of Jeremias Gottheif’s The Black Spider for NYRB Classics. Because Gottheif’s work was a horror story, the editing was much different from what she had usually experienced.

“The prose is not that amazing,” said Bernofsky. “Edwin Frank did a very heavy edit on some of the prose. He was editing both me and Gottheif. He rearranged the sentences.” Bernofsky signed off on the translation, even though the reviewer comparing the original with the translation will find it inaccurate. But for prose stylists like Robert Walser, Bernofsky said that she would “fight for keeping the complexity of the sentences.”

There was a question concerning changes in publishing over the past 40 years, in which the publishers were blamed for the drop of translated fiction in bookstores. “You can’t just look at the publishers,” noted Wilson. “The chains changed everything in terms of their ordering.” In other words, it doesn’t really matter whether a corporate behemoth owns a big publisher or not. The fate of translated literature in the States is entirely dependent on what the bookstores order. And while the recent health of independent booksellers has suggested new prospects for translated fiction, without massive orders from chains, it is often difficult for these books to be published.

This reality was simply too much for Chad Post, who began talking fast and angry.

“Every book out there is shitty,” boomed Post into the mike. “Mitch Albom? What the hell? We do not need him.”

There were some faint suggestions that Post was prepared to overturn the table, fire a pistol into the air, and demand the rightful liberation of the book industry.

“Malcolm Fucking Gladwell,” shrieked Post. “I’ve never been quite disturbed by the book business than I have been in the last few days.”

I squinted to see if the veins on Chad Post’s neck had popped out. I waited for Post’s instructions to don the balaclava carefully folded in my left inner pocket. I waited for Post to announce the Occupy Javits movement.

“I would shoot myself if I had to publish most of the books out there.”

With this suicidal statement in full swing, Post’s phone began to ring on stage. Mitch Albom’s people were coming to shut the wild-eyed revolutionary from Rochester down. Post was referred to as “that angry young man” by the next questioner.

To be clear, Post was not all froth and spittle. I could relate very much to his fury. We live in strange times when Amazon Crossing is the number one American publisher for translated fiction. As Post pointed out, it isn’t easy to secure advocates for translated work when the pitch is “Here’s a great book about a woman in Latvia who is depressed.” But perhaps with more passion, we’ll work out the kinks and expand the egregious percentage.

BEA 2013: Neil Gaiman

There aren’t many authors who can make a largely female crowd gasp and swoon with every dulcet word, but Neil Gaiman is definitely one of them. Ostensibly at BEA to deliver an address on why storytelling is dangerous, Gaiman’s Saturday morning talk was more about toeing the line and promoting the Gaiman brand. He tossed off e-cards into the crowd like a guitar god cheerfully throwing picks. And he did manage to win over a few skeptics (including this reporter).

“So this morning I got here and I signed 1000 books,” said Gaiman at the start, which was followed by ribald applause. “Each of you gets two books.” One of the books was Make Good Art, which will be published in December.

He was dressed all in black and settled into his chair with a confident and carefully rehearsed ease.

“There isn’t really a Writing Author Lessons 101,” said Gaiman. “But if there was, there would be a list of dos and don’ts. I know that in the don’t column, ‘Don’t have a major novel for adults coming out in June followed by a book for kids in December’ would be high on the list.”

The YA book, which tells the tale of what happened to a father who leaves the house to get milk for the family cereal (among his adventures: being kidnapped by aliens who want to replace the Earth’s mountains with throw cushions and turn Australia into a huge decorative plate), is Fortunately, the Milk, which is illustrated by Skottie Young. Gaiman revealed that the connection came through Twitter, when Young had expressed interest in working with him. “If you need a time-traveling stegosaurus in a hot air balloon,” said Gaiman, “Skottie Young is your man.”

The adult book is The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which was partially inspired by a friend down on his luck who stole Gaiman’s famiily Mini, drove it down to the end of the lane, and committed suicide. It involves the Hempstocks, who have figured in Stardust and The Graveyard Book, but was a long time in coming.

“The problem with writing a story about the Hempstocks is that they lived at the end of my lane.”

Ocean started off as a short story, which Gaiman wrote because he missed his wife, who was in Melbourne for four months recording an album. “I wanted to write a story that’s not about my family,” said Gaiman, “but that’s very much about what it was to see the world through my eyes when I was seven.”

“I’ve heard people point to writing and say that it can be like driving by night. Writing this for me was like driving by night with one headlight out in the thick fog. You can just see far enough ahead not to drive off the road.”

Halfway through the appearance, Gaiman copped, “This has nothing to do with why fiction is dangerous.” He carried on by describing how he got into trouble as a boy by reading books and learning from them. He learned how to dye his father’s white shirts a deep purply red using a common beet root and got into trouble. He learned how to make toffee and became aware of its natural properties. “It will shatter like glass and completely cover the floor of the classroom.”

After offering these biographical exemplars, Gaiman shifted to his views about fiction.

“Fiction is dangerous, of course, because it lets you into other people’s heads. Fiction is dangerous because it gives you empathy. Fiction is dangerous because it shows you that the world doesn’t have to be like the one you live in.”

Gaiman described going to various companies (Google, where one of his sons works, Apple, and Microsoft) and asking the people who invented what they read as children. “They all said, we read science fiction. We read fantasy.”

“Getting into other people’s heads is dangerous,” continued Gaiman, “incredibly dangerous.”

At this point, the floor was open to questions and the talk about “dangerous fiction” was regrettably tabled. Gaiman was asked about the worst sentences he has ever written. He pointed to the story “Night of the Crabs.” One of the offending sentences: “He wasn’t going to leave Pat Benson alone that night, crabs or no crabs.”

He harbored fantasies as a young writer that he would be rewarded for his stories by a limo showing up at his house. “People would get out of it and say this is yours. We love your stories so much.”

As Gaiman described his early writing development, there was a curious pecuniary fixation. He had taped an inspirational Muddy Waters quote next to his typewriter: “Don’t let your mouth write no checks that your tail can’t cash.” He talked of an early teacher who had offered him ten shillings to read the entirety of Gone with the Wind.

He said that he was proudest of his kids, which caused the crowd to loosen an “Ahhhhhh!” that could have found a home on an episode of Community. When one audience member’s phone went off, followed by a cry of “Shit,” Gaiman responded, “Isn’t it embarrassing when that happens? If it’s any consolation, it’s usually up here.”

In other words, Gaiman is well-practiced at working the room.

Gaiman mentioned that the Ameican Gods TV show is still in development at HBO. He has finished a script and he’s waiting to hear back for notes. He compared the relationship to “a game of tennis,” leading this reporter to wonder if there was a dependable racket that didn’t involve thrones. Gaiman talked about introducing material that had never appeared in the book.

“The process has been more HBO going, ‘Can you make it more like the book?'”

Gaiman said he still feels doubt. “I’m a weird mixture of appalling arrogance and absolute self-doubt and humility. Like a nightmarish layer cake.”

He doesn’t write for any specific age. “There’s no such thing as a book just for kids. Because every book is going to have to be read aloud by someone your age.” Every novel is different for Gaiman. After writing American Gods, Gaiman told Gene Wolfe that he had figured out how to write a novel. “He looked at me with infinite pity and said, ‘Neil, you never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel you’re on.'”

He did talk about his affinity for Jack Benny’s old radio program. “They get good around 1942,” after Benny had gone through three sets of writers. He mentioned starting a story about Jack Benny, but, tellingly, he did not mention Fred Allen.

There wasn’t much elaboration on Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech. This was an appearance to please the crowds. But the very minute that his hour expired, he was led out the door by his handlers, walking with the pace of a rock star with a hectic schedule.

BEA 2013: All’s Fair? Book Reviews & The Missing Code of Ethics

I was fully prepared to ignore the National Book Critic Circle’s latest effort to organize a confab parroting prefab guidelines for how to review books, influence the few, and otherwise eat your own tail. But when I espied a Great Publishing Professional sitting on the floor in a secret access area that I am not at liberty to reveal, I abdicated my seat to this valiant soldier and proudly cried out to the Great Publishing Professional (and others), “You, sir, have decided my fate. I shall cover this panel so that you, good sir, have a physical seat to do your work!” It’s possible that I left the room with a spin on my heel, my arms gliding with the desire to hold an umbrella and leap into the air. But I must confess that the opportunity to ridicule that mendacious puffball Carlin Romano was also too ripe to decline.

But here’s the big surprise. While the panel got off to a lumbering start — ten minutes of introductions (Romano’s, of course, being the longest), reiteration of NBCC wonkery, business serving in lieu of sleeping pills — I was surprised by how smooth it ran. Indeed, it would have been drastically improved had Carlin Romano, a man so in love with himself that he seemed to think the panel was entirely about him, been rolled into the Hudson River, attempting to deliver his gant-inducing gasbag banter with his nose just above water. America the Philosophical indeed!

The panel sprang from the froth of an uncooked souffle concerning whether a universal code of reviewing ethics should be adopted to combat the “Wild West” feel of outlets that were online and offline, print and digital, short form or long form, missionary or doggy style, coffee or tea, and any other dichotomy that comes to mind when overthinking an insoluble problem in needlessly complicated terms. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan seemed to flail against this right out of the gate.

“Why would you want to read a review that was so flensed of bias that it was almost written by an automaton?” she said. She pointed out that the late, great critic John Leonard accompanied Toni Morrison to the Nobel Awards and that seeing how an interesting mind reacted to a book outweighed issues of partiality. “I certainly wouldn’t want to sign on to any kind of contract that required me to leave my biases at the door. My biases have made me worthwhile as a critic.”

After Carlin Romano rattled off points he had delivered in 2007 (and, as a source informed me, reportedly identical to a recent Romano appearance at a biographer’s conference and thus not particularly reportable here), New York Times Book Review editor Parul Sehgal stepped in to rescue the discussion from these unnecessary displays of narcissism. Citing Virginia Woolf’s reviews, Sehgal pointed to the idea of a critic creating a shared space for newer writers. Sehgal was not only the sharpest panelist, but she also valued criticism as a passionate place for expressive possibilities.

But The Paris Review editor Lorin Stein looked to criticism as a place for bright iconoclastic writing. He bemoaned “when a book review editor assigns a novel to a young novelist. I think that creates an impossible conflict of interest.” He stood against what he deemed “tepid, polite reviews.”

I am not entirely sure why agent Eric Simonoff was on the panel, but he did feel that readers of book reviews and blurbs were “pretty smart.” And he agreed with Stein that the “logrolling in our time” that has crept into a few recent publications needed to be avoided. Because this was precisely what a smart reader would detect. “When you feel the tepid poetry of someone who doesn’t want to give offense, you’re reading between the lines.”

Sehgal seemed surprised by much of this. She saw criticism as its own pleasure. “To miss the chance to write an interesting piece of writing for its own sake is what’s done.”

I have neglected to note the contributions of moderator Marcela Valdes, who I really wanted to hear more from. But she was obliged to read back recent responses from an NBCC survey on ethics. Two starkly different responses provided a conversational starting point. The first: “I think that even a very casual acquaintance can inspire undue generosity or vitriol.” The second: “I think the idea that there can be a permanent hermetic seal between author and reviewer is an ideal.” (To be clear, an impossible ideal.)

Addressing these points, Sehgal saw no problem with biases or connections, provided they were explicitly stated in the review.

Romano then raised his impatient finger, beckoning for attention like an impatient five-year-old talent show contestant who wanted to play his violin first.

“There’s one feeling I have after years of thinking,” said Romano. “Literary ethics don’t take place in a vacuum.” He pointed to “the very short memoir about the Sri Lanka woman who lost her family.”

“Sonali Deraniyagala’s The Wave,” cried out the more informed majority in the audience.

“How do you review a book like that if it’s bad?” asked Romano, who clearly had not considered the plentiful finesse established by countless critics over the last few decades. But Romano wanted to matter. He had played his violin. Now he hoped to inveigle the crowd with a few bluntly thrown Molotovs. This was BEA! This was Romano’s Moment!

“Any biases can be overcome by ruthless honesty,” said Romano. “A best friend could write a devastating review of a friend and lose that friend.” Thus, in Romano’s view, objectivity was not possible.

This led Maureen Corrigan, bless her heart, to push back against this hogwash.

“You’re not reviewing the Holocaust,” replied Corrigan. “You’re not reviewing the tsunami. We’re reviewing the book.”

Romano, clearly not listening to Corrigan, then tried to pull himself out of the choppy waters he had created for himself by suggesting that a reviewer might write that the author of a tsunami memoir “should have gone under the waves also.” It was telling how swiftly such blunt asininity sprang from the Great Carlin’s lips.

Lorin Stein had more interesting things to say about being provocative: in large part because his finger appeared more firmly on the pulse of recent newspaper developments. He and Simonoff both noted how outlets had declined in recent years. But Stein saw an equivalency between a blurb and a tepid review. “There are bad books that need to be shut down and that seems to me a very important service to do,” said Stein.

But I think Seghal best comprehended why a review’s identity was so important. “There are some reviewers I read,” said Seghal, “because I want to know how your mind works. I want to be in a space with you.”

Valdes then asked the panelists if there were any hard and fast rules. “You really have to read the whole book,” said Romano. Stein disagreed with this, suggesting that better reviews might be honed if the reviewer wrote about why she didn’t read the whole book. He wanted to avoid writing performed by people who clearly weren’t critics. Seghal was committed to getting the facts right. Corrigan wanted a review to consider a book on its own terms.

“Actually,” added Stein, “a black author said to me, ‘Goddammit, you have to stop reviewing bald white guys. If you keep doing that, you’re going to drive away readers.'”

“In some ways,” said Corrigan, “writing the short review is writing poetry.”

With that sentiment in mind, here is a haiku devoted to Carlin Romano:

Vested man falling
Ground below, boiler plate, ouch
Can’t repeat the past

BEA 2012: The African American Literary Marketplace

There were only six people who weren’t panelists sitting at the start of a Thursday morning discussion devoted to the African-American literary marketplace. But the spectator shortage didn’t faze the participants. “Less is always more in my world,” said moderator Vanessa J. Lloyd-Sgambati, a publishing consultant called “the literary diva” by peers. She said that there were twelve African American bookstores operating in Philadelphia when she started her business and that, today, there was one solitary merchant serving the City of Brotherly Love. As I was to learn from Troy Johnson, president of the African American Literature Book Club, magazines and websites devoted to African American books have also closed up shop in recent years. What you needed to get by was hope and grit and stamina and hard work and whatever flash you could pluck from the bottomless barrel of ingenuity.

“There may be a different way that is not book-centric to reach the African American marketplace,” said Marva Allen, CEO of Hue-Man, a bookstore in Harlem. She expressed frustrations that people don’t always know how to promote African American books. Did people really not know how to sell books to this audience?

Enter radio personality and author Michael Baisden, a bowtied Robert McKee acolyte who had a few admirers planted in the crowd as it mushroomed from two handfuls into several dozen.

“I always know there’s a purpose in what I do,” said Baisden. “You’re looking at the old school in the business.” He compared the book industry to a team sport and insisted that it needed stars to bring people on. Baisden had sold two million books because African American bookstores had supported him when other booksellers would not. “Target doesn’t value African American literature. It can’t be guaranteed that it will be in stock.” He was understandably skeptical about BEA, which he didn’t even know was going on until his manager informed him about it. “The expense of this is too much,” he said. Baisden said that African American booksellers needed their own convention and was a bit rueful over losing so many African Americans to other industries.

Baisden certainly has a point. But Nakea S. Murray of the As the Page Turns Book Club (and the Literary Consulting Group) said, “What others have to remember is that a book club is a selling opportunity.” But it’s also a place for quality discussion. As she was to elucidate later in the conversation, her book clubs “have zero drama” and Murray has adopted a “no frolic with the talent rule” to maintain the caliber of talk. This regulation came about because of unexpected entanglements between smitten women readers and the authors who arrived at their homes. “I know male authors use this to their advantage,” said Murray, who did not expand upon the nature of these mysterious hookups.

But while such peccadilloes are inevitable in any industry, some of the larger concerns offered by Troy Johnson were also quite serious. Troy Johnson noted that two thirds of independently operated African American bookstores have bitten the dust in the past five to ten years. “In 2012,” said Johnson, “there should be more competition in this space.” The books that got attention in the African American market were devoted to celebrity and scandal, with even established authors finding it difficult to nab a deal.

“The profit-driven market discourages talented writers from entering the marketplace,” said Johnson, who initially clutched some paper like a life preserver but whose offerings became looser and more vital when he stopped reading so closely from his sheet. “Readers need more than ever to critically assess and identify quality product.” But without the critical mechanisms in place (those dying review venues for African American books), this was increasingly difficult to do. “If we’re going to move forward and improve and regain what we’ve lost,” said Johnson, “we’re not going to do it in isolation.”

“You have to create an experience for that consumer,” said Allen, who cited a Tokyo bookstore that had appealed beyond its physical space. “Beyond the Americas, there is a huge audience. The geographical boundaries must be removed to reach all of our audiences.”

Baisden believed that expos had allowed African Americans to reach audiences. “You have to go where the people are,” he said. “You have to find out where the organizations are and go to where the people are. You’re looking at the ultimate hustler.”

Baisden wasn’t interested in hundreds showing up to an event. He identified himself as “a thousands guy.” He felt that taking an event on the road with only authors wasn’t going to be successful. You needed music and social activism as well. “One thing I’m going to say,” said Basiden, “and it’s going to sting. We’re not writing enough good books.”

But Baisden’s notion of “good books,” as befitting a man more keen on Robert McKee than Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing, was more about “the entertainment business.” He insisted that audiences were “not coming for your blackness or your soul or your issues. Go to a college campus and speak power to the people.”

“My bestselling books,” said Allen, “are The New Jim Crow, things like Sister Citizen and The Warmth of Other Suns.”

This led Baisden to get somewhat defensive.

“But I can’t stay on the radio if I’m not entertaining you and playing music,” he said.

“But that’s a different medium,” countered Allen. Lloyd-Sgambati pointed out that literacy was down everywhere. Getting people to read wasn’t just an African American problem.

But as one audience member observed, “If we don’t have a naked lady on the front of the book, or somebody with muscles or something, they think we know nothing but that.” But Baisden had to catch a plane for another gig. And as this entrepreneur retreated, it was not only clear that the African American literary marketplace needed to be considered by those still in bed nursing last night’s hangovers, but that it needed far more than a hour of BookExpo programming.

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to panelist Nakea Murray of As the Page Turns as “Lynda Johnson of the >Go on Girl! Book Club.” Murray replaced Johnson at the last minute. We apologize to Ms. Murray and Ms. Johnson for the error.]

BEA 2012: Science Fiction & Mainstream — Crossing Over

They congregated just before lunch at the Upstairs Stage, hoping to get some thoughts on a future weirder than ham on rye. Some of their faces were young and fleshy, and I heard a few talk about authors who sent work contained within a pizza box. Some were older bespectacled men who might have still believed in a dream cut out of the cloth of hard independent labor. Whatever their reasons for being there, this did not prohibit author John Scalzi from waving an impish toodle-oo just before this business of “crossing over,” or perhaps “passing” as genre in the mainstream, was initiated just after the stroke of noon.

The moderator was a man named Ryan Britt, his gray vest insinuating some classy authority. But his promising role waned a mite when he stated, “Everything that relates to genre fiction is extremely weird.” Plenty of us have experienced “weird” moments in our lives without having to cleave to genre. That’s the problem. How do the glories of “weird” in any form get any self-respect?

The other big question was whether Walter Mosley would attempt to rile up the crowd with an outlandish and unsubtle statement.

But before Mosley opened his mouth, Jeff VanderMeer, co-editor of a massive new anthology devoted to weird fiction called (what else?) The Weird (the other editor is his wife, Ann VanderMeer, who was also present at the panel), wisely suggested that weird fiction contributed to the 20th century in much the same way that fairy tales had bolstered the years before that.

These stories “take a look at possible futures based on what we were in the past,” added Ann VanderMeer. “It’s an exploration of the unknown.” Did looking at a “weird” future offer an explanation for the present? For that matter, why did “weird” have to be so time-sensitive?

John Scalzi, author of Redshirts and the sharpest and most vibrant contributor to the discussion, pointed out that the flip phone had emerged because some engineer at Motorola had wanted to talk like Kirk on Star Trek. And while Scalzi was wearing a red shirt undoubtedly for the sole purpose of pimping his novel, it was evident that he was making a larger point about how fiction offers cues for how we live in the real.

“My daughter was freaked up beyond measure about the dude who chewed off his face in Florida,” continued Scalzi. “And it wasn’t just her.” The government had actually issued a statement clarifying to the public that what was happening was not the zombie apocalypse. “Well, that’s what the government would say,” responded his daughter. But it was, Scalzi added, a metaphor we could all relate to.

Stories may “take place in the future or they may be written in the alternative world. But they’re being written for today.” Such a distinction was not limited to fantasy fiction, but was eminently pragmatic applied across the whole. “The idea that you take what people know and give it a twist makes absolute sense as a writer.”

Jeff VanderMeer suggested that good weird fiction was comparable to “a frog in a hot pot” or “the idea of being acclimated by something.” Mosley took this idea of tangibility with narrative further, noting that Gogol’s Dead Souls carries the notion of a man buying and selling dead people for a profit.

But Mosley wished to stir people up. So he brought up the pre-Lando installment of Star Wars. “As far as I can tell, everyone had blonde hair and blue eyes. That may be unconscious wish fulfillment.” I had hoped that the moderator would be brave enough to tell Mosley that Carrie Fisher not only had brown hair and brown eyes, but even had the temerity to put up her hair in a bun. But nobody wanted to mess with Mosley. He was doing just fine carrying on his impersonation of Hooper X from Chasing Amy, except that he didn’t have the benefit of Kevin Smith writing sharp dialogue.

“One of the things walking around this place is how many white people are. And it’s another weird moment. Maybe it’s a weird moment for me, not for other people in here.”

There wasn’t really much that people could say to this, and I didn’t see any fist pumping in response to Mosley’s remark. I did observe Jeff VanderMeer, dressed in a white suit and seated next to Mosley, sink further into his seat. Ann VanderMeer attempted to return the conversation to the human factor that Scalzi had set up so well. Jeff VanderMeer attempted to respond to Mosley by pointing out that the duo had selected stories “from Japan, from Nigeria, from all over the place.” Mosley spent much of the time after this puffing up his cheeks. (But to his credit, he was the only one up there who brought up Samuel R. Delany. Nobody mentioned the New Yorker‘s recent science fiction issue.)

Then Mosley tried to pass off Scalzi’s anecdote about the Star Trek communicator as his own. “It was the kid who was watching Star Trek and said, ‘Wow, I would want to make that!'” Hadn’t we heard a more concise version of this story only minutes earlier?

Scalzi attempted to steer the conversation back on track, pointing out that Ayn Rand and Steve Jobs were likely to be just as significant to culture ten years from now. “Technology has always been about keeping the threads of the past continuing to be in the fabric of the future,” said Scalzi, “regardless of whether the technology is a codex or the technology is a hologram of Tupac.”

To this, Jeff VanderMeer added cynical relish, “I think technology comes off as too bloodless for me.” He pointed to a story he had written about half-dead bears that devour you alive if you expect to engage in transdimensional travel. “If you want to travel, you really have to want to travel.” He praised the later iterations of steampunk for exploring these issues. “It’s great to aspire to perfection. But actually achieving it is a kind of insanity.”

Did the panel turn into a dead shark?

“I’ve been on these panels before for the last twenty years,” added VanderMeer. “I’m less optimistic that they really mean anything aside from cross-pollination.” He then added that one future pastime might be “sorting through the rubble for the remains of books that were published before the ebook revolution.”

“Jeff VanderMeer,” asked Scalzi. “Do you need a hug?”

BEA 2012: What Librarians Wish Publishers Knew

The librarians didn’t come for the muffins. But the publishers came for the librarians. And even if, during the Q&A, the publishers bolted out the door like hunters rushing to the other side of the isle with spears and a renewed lust for prancing porcine, moderator Nora Rawlinson handled the panel with a deft hand, squeezing three librarians and a Harper Collins library marketing rep into the fifty fresh minutes. It almost demanded another twenty.

Libraries are often forgotten when considering the brick and mortar part of publishing. But it became very clear during the talk that, with 9,000 library systems across America, libraries are robust places to discover and share books. Of those 9,000 systems, a good thousand have four or more branches. And according to Rawlinson, when libraries survey their public, libraries translate into books.

They are places to promote books, but they are different from bookstores. “Libraries can’t do the stack ’em high, watch ’em fly,” said Rawlinson at the panel’s start. But the big difference is that when a library accumulates tomes, they’re guaranteed to go out to the public. Libraries continue to promote specific titles on their websites. And as Michael Colford, Director of Library Services for the Boston Public Library, pointed out, the Boston Public Library website received eight million hits on its website last year.

“A library’s mission is to connect readers with books,” pointed out Colford. But the BPL puts much of its resources into midlist titles and nonfiction, rather than the sturdy bestsellers. And it is this multifaceted focus that drives readers to Boston libraries. “We’re telling them about books they’re not going to get. What we really should be saying is ‘Here are ten books you really should be reading if you like these books.'”

A library, Colford was keen to remind the audience, is also a great physical space. But the BPL has developed a fairly intricate system — including establishing an online catalog shared with the New York Public Library — to ensure that patrons can find the books in an instant. If the book isn’t there, there is the option to input a ZIP and find the nearest independent bookseller. And while the BPL wants to support independent bookstores, Colford noted, “Once you shell them off to another retailer, it’s not a library experience.”

Sari Feldman, Executive Director of the 28 branch Cuyahoga County Public Library, started off her part of the panel by pointing out that 40% of her library’s $4.5 million budget was devoted to overall materials. (There was a running pop quiz before every panelist, in which audiences were asked to shout out a figure in response to a question. And although Bob Barker is not yet dead, he apparently could not be coaxed out of retirement to aid these proceedings.) Her philosophy on purchasing bestsellers differed from Colford. She was more inclined to stock her libraries with them. “We want our customers to have the shopping experience.”

One way that Cuyahoga County has rehabilitated its library system in recent years is through an initiative called Reconnect with Reading. Noted independent booster Nancy Pearl came in and “infused her positive energy” into Cuyahoga. Over the course of a year, Pearl spent one week out of every month getting people to think about what they love to read and rethinking systems on how to connect customers to the reading experience. This included digital billboard ads, Google ads, bus ads, and considerable awareness.

But this awareness has translated into library patrons “knowing us for the authors we bring.” Feldman revealed that there were often hundreds in attendance for a debut author. And, equally interesting, Cuyahoga has used Facebook to woo readers, with librarians leading an online book discussion and suggesting three new books to read if the patron fesses three recent volumes.

Lynn Wheeler, director of the smaller Carroll County Public Library, revealed more impressive results. Carroll County is a six branch system. Yet despite serving a population of 170,000, it was able to bankroll 6,330 programs during the 2011 fiscal year. The library once purchased 73 copies of Kate Alcott’s The Dressmaker for its branches and, because the library displayed the book in all of its branches, it ended up stocking 433 copies. And because there was so much excitement for the book, local historical reenactors were tapped.

And through the simple act of pitting one book against another — an idea borrowed from neighboring Howard County — and encouraging schoolkids to vote on the book, Carroll County was able to get numerous children excited about books. In this “Battle of the Books,” the books in question were given to competing schools. There were 72,000 votes involved. Kids became experts on the books in knowledge bowl-style quizzes. (The accompanying photos during Wheeler’s presentation revealed a Little League-like excitement on the kids’ faces.) An all-boy team won.

By the time that Virginia Stanley, director of Library Marketing for Harper Collins, spoke, there was little time left in the panel. So Stanley didn’t get much to say, despite wearing a tiara telegraphing a Queen Victoria-like fickleness. She did say that she was trying to accommodate libraries by getting authors to “appear” via Skype. But given the hearty discussion about how physical space and community produced serious results for libraries big and small, why should publishers and libraries settle for anything less than face-to-face?

BEA 2012: Richard Russo at ABA

Just hours before Amazon announced that it was gobbling up independent publisher Avalon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author addressed booksellers on how they could help save the industry, reminding them why they mattered while he and his interlocutor Lynn Sheer referenced many New Yorker cartoons. Neither Richard Russo nor his audience had become a mundanely ironic punchline quite yet. But Russo knew that he wouldn’t be standing in front of the audience if independent booksellers hadn’t given his first novel, Mohawk, that essential admixture of faith and attention. Most in the room agreed that Amazon’s threat to independent bookstores was comparable to a bully, perhaps even more insidious than the paperback revolution that had made books affordable for the mass population.

The kernel for Russo’s ABA talk had come from an op-ed for The New York Times published last December. While Amazon had been good to him over the years, what pushed Russo over the edge was when Amazon encouraged its customers to go into a brick-and-mortar store and scan items with a price-check app. All Amazon shoppers had to do was scan a bar code and they would earn a 5% credit on Amazon purchases. “Is it just me,” wrote Russo, “or does it feel as if the Amazon brass decided to spend the holidays in the Caribbean and left in charge of the company a computer that’s fallen head over heels in love with its own algorithms?”

Now Russo, dressed in a black shirt, khaki pants, and a dark jacket, was before a crowd of booksellers who were loyal to him as an author and, perhaps more importantly, as a man who had their backs.

Russo’s talk went further than his op-ed piece, suggesting that Amazon was killing off what remained of humane business practice. “What really frosted me about all this,” said Russo, “was how cruel it was. They wanted to fill brick and mortar stores with people. So if you looked out, you’d see all those people out there. And you’d get the sense that commerce was taking place. The cruelty of it was so shocking, so stunning, so cold.”

It was an independent bookseller that had helped Russo garner his early reputation. “At Barbara’s Books, I remember they optimistically set up six or seven chairs,” said Russo of a vital appearance at a now defunct bookstore for Mohawk, which had then been released in a then daring paperback original format. “I got the sense that the employees at Barbara’s Books had read the book and they seemed to like it. Those people who filled those five to seven chairs, they were going to be hand selling that book. They were going to be hand selling that book and my next book and the next book after that. And as disappointed as I was, they weren’t disappointed at all strangely enough.”

This early crowd of adopters had more faith in Russo than he did. Russo pointed out that his daughter, Emily Russo Murtagh, had carried on in this proud tradition by writing a review of a Ron Rash book. Rash viewed this as one of the central tipping points of his career and has only just received his first New York Times Book Review. Russo insisted that there was a whole crop of young fiction writers worthy of recognition and wasn’t sure if a world with only Amazon would permit similar waves of face-to-face enthusiasm to help future generations of authors.

“There have been significant changes as a result of Amazon,” said Russo. “B&N is hanging by a thread. There’s nothing like Walden Bookstores. The Amazon threat is real.” Russo pointed out that Amazon has 75% roughly of the online market for both print and electronic books. “And if the Justice Department wins,” continued Russo, alluding to the recent ebook collusion suit, “Amazon will be able to go back to the practice they had before all this. And they will again be able to sell certain frontlist books for less than it costs them to buy. Because they know that they already have the backlist basically cornered.”

So how could the indie bookstore fight back against this threat? For the independent bookstores that have survived, Russo suggested that “what didn’t kill them made them stronger.” He compared indie bookstores to “curated shows” and suggested that the superstore days of yesteryear were done. “We’ve passed the point now where you’ll find everything.”

But while Russo remained opposed to the word “boutiquey” and wanted bookstores to thrive rather than merely survive, Russo had little more than instinct and accepted wisdom to uphold these views. While he copped to owning an iPad, he confessed that he didn’t really comprehend social networks (“You’re speaking to a dinosaur”) and that his love of physical books was perhaps generational (“The generations do react very differently”), noting that kids today are being trained to sit before a screen for twelve hours.

He didn’t understand why publishers simply accepted the manner in which online booksellers dictated the $9.99 price point when they offered the hardcover for $27. “Why would they have agreed to do that? It was like allowing Netflix to stream The Avengers on the weekend it comes out. Why would they have conceded the most important point?”

He received the greatest applause when he said, “What publishers need to do more than anything else is just find a spine.”

But how can independent booksellers stand up against a force when realtors (Russo’s wife is a realtor) are now encouraged to tell their clients to get rid of their books when they’re selling their homes? Or when Amazon can send an email telling people who have previously bought Richard Russo books and dramatically alter the ranking of the latest Russo volume?

Russo argued that bookstores had physicality and people as hard advantages. “You’re hoping to discover what you never knew existed,” said Russo, expressing a distaste for search engines. “When you go to the customer service desk, you’re not going to the engine.”

Russo remained cautiously optimistic about the future of publishing. But while hope made the crowd feel good, the unity he had inspired in being more explicit about Amazon suggested that these troops needed a hell of a lot more than a pep talk.

(Image: Steve Piacente)

BEA 2012: IDPF Publishers Roundtable

They were gathered young and old around round tables at the International Digital Publishing Forum. They sipped hot coffee and cold Frappucinos and didn’t really touch their breakfast remains. But they hoped to snatch a foolproof map outlining the proposed routes on a misty Monday morning.

There were a few long-haired lads in suits, mimicking Steve Jobs in look if not in attitude, and some veterans who had fled from other industries. One man had witnessed the rise of digital photography and the closing of 4,500 Fotomats and he wanted to know if something like that was happening on the books front. He didn’t really get an answer, but these things happen in cycles.

How much could anybody spill while the Department of Justice ebook collusion suit played on? It was tough for the top dogs to talk. These settled professionals and aspiring entrepreneurs were informed at the head that there would be no questions on agency model or pricing. But there was steady banter about “consumers.”

“Most consumers won’t know who is publishing the book,” said Open Road’s Jane Friedman with the calculated swagger of a recent digital convert. She would be corrected later with some subtlety by Richard Charkin, who pointed to the prominent Bloomsbury found on his front covers (that ten word name, associated with the Harry Potter books, had been one of the fine ingredients that had moved the fish and chips across the pond). Random House’s Madeline McIntosh said that her work was “less about establishing a brand name and much more about serving the author’s relationship with the consumer.”

Why didn’t these capable titans refer to readers by their rightful name? Perhaps talking about readers in human terms interfered with business operations. Freidman said, “We want to get to them quicker, more efficiently.” This would be done by “marketing extensively.” I didn’t know whether to be more alarmed by Friedman’s crude reliance on adverbs or her suggestion that passionate readers are malleable cyborgs.

Perhaps because booksellers still factored into her business plan, McIntosh expressed a more inclusive perspective. “I don’t think we add value to the author or the reader by competing with the booksellers,” she said. “They have a hard enough job making a fantastic customer service environment. Trying to compete with them is not productive.” She mentioned how booksellers were asking publishers to help them retain customer data and how passing this onto the retailers represented a “lost asset.”

Hours after McIntosh uttered these words, I got into a near violent altercation with a pushy clerk blocks away from Javits at B&H Photo Video, because he insisted on my name, my phone number, and my address if I wanted to purchase a $20 lithium ion battery charger. This was after I had stood in line for ten minutes. I thought collecting my personal information on such a trifling item was both unreasonable and time-consuming. But the bastard was uncompromising. I snapped, “Hey, buddy, do you want a sale?” He didn’t and repeated his request for customer data. So I left, and B&H lost a customer for life.

* * *

There was the suggestion that McIntosh had her authors poll her customers, getting a sense of what they liked on the cover. But was this really the case? Is every conversation between an author and a reader transactional? Or is that merely the viewpoint you see when you’re sitting top of the world, ma?

Charkin was an old school gentleman dressed in white. He was British. All he needed was a sword and John Boorman’s direction. Perhaps some of this explained why he brought up a Cricketers’ Almanack to make a point.

“I don’t think we should draw conclusions,” said Charkin. “We publish something called Wisden, which is the annual thing. It’s been going for 149 years. It comes out with statistics.” It was this annual cricket “almanack” which sells 40,000 copies in hardback and costs about $80 a pop every year. 35,000 of these books are sold to the same loyal souls. But the book trade doesn’t keep tabs.

“They don’t keep a record of who’s buying them,” said Charkin. “Essentially it’s the same people.”

It was this community of cricket enthusiasts which permitted Bloomsbury an influx of loyal regulars. Charkin made the point so eloquently that he didn’t even need to use the word “consumers.”

“But that is very promotional,” rejoined Friedman, who identified passionate communities as “people who very specifically want to look for a specific topic.” The important issue was to have passionate communities “see what they want” even if “they don’t even know they want it.”

* * *

It is an irrefutable fact that one cannot attend a publishing conference in 2012 without someone mentioning the success of Fifty Shades of Grey on a panel. It took only ten minutes for the erotic trilogy, which has sold ten million copies, to pop out of the pants.

“For those who rise up to a certain level,” said McIntosh in relation to self-published wunderkinds bumped up by the undoubtedly selfless motivations of publishers, “that’s where a scale publisher such as ourselves jumps in and makes it available in print and digital.” Five million copies of Grey had been sold through print. The other half had been purchased through digital. Print copies flooded into the market and had a positive effect on digital sales.

But there was talk about an elusive cash register effect that wasn’t available online. Again, I had to wonder why these savvy business leaders avoided mentioning the very human booksellers that, in fact, make such a “cash register effect” possible.

Unsurprisingly, Friedman disagreed with this assessment. “Discoverability comes from marketability,” said Friedman. I looked up from my note taking to see if there was an accompanying Powerpoint slide that Friedman was reading from. There wasn’t. She pointed to the success of Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember and seemed to take credit for helping Henry Holt sell its paperback version and pushing a 55-year-old book to the New York Time‘s bestseller list. There was no mention of the obvious possibility that the recent 3D reworking of James Cameron’s 194 minute tribute to spectacle and cheesy dialogue, to say nothing of the Titanic’s 100th anniversary, may have factored into the increased sales.

Charkin had a more reliable example. He pointed to a book called The Twitter Diaries. Some literary agent had persuaded Bloomsbury to publish it. It was published in ebook format. He decided to publish a print version. Piers Morgan and others spread the word on Twitter. And the book climbed up on Amazon – conveniently enough, on the very day Bloomsbury was announcing its financial returns. By 11:00 AM, it had hit #1,000. By lunchtime, it was #100. By the end of the day, it was #4. Word of mouth through the right people had made it a hit.

* * *

“Anyone who isn’t acting like a startup has a serious problem,” said Charkin in response to another question. “Actually, our industry is about nickeling and diming. We have to pay what we have to pay.”

Unfortunately, this means that Charkin, despite being a fairly charming guy on stage, is all about the bottom line. He pointed to a time in the early 1990s when the scientific publishing community was challenged by the Internet. At the time, print copies were sold to university libraries at high prices. But the industry, after investing hundreds of millions dollars into digital platforms, found ways to make scientific publishing work online. It worked. The industry’s profitability has held. “It is absolutely possible to be a publisher in the digital world and hold gross sales and digital profits.” Alas, the price of the scientific article has fallen tenfold, perhaps a hundredfold, since the halcyon days. And while a publisher can remain confident about finding new ways to keep the coffers full, it wasn’t immediately apparent how this translated into steady labor for the very scientific writers who had produced the work in the first place.

Despite the panel’s prohibition on certain strains of shop talk, this didn’t stop McIntosh from calling digital rights management a “red herring.” In her experience, DRM did not lead to an increase in piracy, but was neither pro nor con on the issue. “I don’t think our people are buying onto the Kindle because handcuffs are on them,” she said.

Friedman said that “there was more piracy on the p side than the e side in my experience.” But she didn’t cite any specific figures. Perhaps she had been recently burglarized. Expanding further, she said, “You know what? You can always put it back if you make a mistake. And if it doesn’t work, you can always put it back on.” It is my understanding that some especially pious hymns to hymenorrhaphy have a similar line of reasoning.

I figured the talk had cleared up all thoughts on DRM, but a libertarian-minded fellow paraphrased Howard Zinn during the Q&A, mentioning something about how hard it was to be indifferent on a moving train. McIntosh, to her great credit, tried to explained to the young man that most regular people (i.e., 99% of readers) were too busy mastering one device to care about how well a format transfers onto another device. If the young man didn’t have his question answered, then I’m sure the young man will probably express his concerns with similar nuance on a Slashdot comment thread sometime soon.

“I’m willing to grab any format of media that will work to expand an author’s audience, but I do need to stay pragmatic,” said McIntosh.

Friedman begged to differ. She pointed to an enhanced book of James Gleick’s Chaos. “When you talk about pendulum theory, you want to see something going like this.” From my angle, Friedman’s accompanying gesture looked very much like the beast riding the two backs. And for reasons I could not discern, any lingering desire I had to learn about pendulum theory, much less purchase a book written by James Gleick, instantly evaporated. Who needed a book, either straight or enhanced, when you could see something going like this?