Thoughts from BEA 2009

I love attending BEA. I feel reenergized about the book business each year when I attend. This year, however, had a different feeling. There were fewer exhibitors and fewer free books and book signings.

There was a new media section that was empty most of the time, but as always, the authors I took with me on our private guided tour did well. They came prepared to talk with publishers and found most to be open and interested.

The saddest part of the event for me was the publisher panel hosted by Tina Brown. The subject was the future of the publishing industry and I heard not a single new idea. There is no question that the book publishing world is changing dramatically and the major publisher CEOs could take an active and productive role in guiding those changes. Instead, they defended the necessity of taking from one to three years to get a book from contract to bookshelf as time needed to “create market demand”. But Tina Brown pushed them to talk about changing that old school approach, asking if their “crash” books, books done within month or two to meet a particular and immediate market demand were not successful. Of course they replied that yes, those books are successful, but that they do not like doing them.

All of the publishers talked about using new media, but for marketing purposes, not for the development of new delivery systems that could solve the problem of essential business model – that nine of ten books do not sell enough to cover their costs.

I do not know the answer, but I do know that the publishing industry can be an active participant in finding it, or someone else will. The recording industry found an answer that many had resisted for a long time in selling single songs as downloads, and they found a pricing model that works for buyers and sellers. Book publishers must do the same, and very soon.

It was clear to me over 10 years ago when I sold my publishing company that the model was not sustainable. What is sustainable is the efforts of authors to send important messages out to the world, to continue to bring new ideas and viewpoints to the table. There are so many vehicles besides the traditional book to do this now, but the book has been the commercial viable way for the author to get paid when sharing intellectual property. The process to get a book published was also the best way for an author to stand up to a rigorous process to be sure the ideas were tested and questioned by others and that they were communicated as well as they could be. Much of that has now changed, and the wonderful collaborative process between editor and author is not what it used to be.

I am happy things are changing for the better for readers and writers, but I do wish the people in the best place to guide those changes, the publishing executives with years of experience in helping writers find their voices as authors were actively searching for answers that do not only benefit the bottom line, but also the creative pursuit of new ideas needed to continue to build society and culture as well.

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