The thousands of publishers, booksellers and authors who bartered, bantered and partied at BookExpo America here would surely agree their industry is in transition, confronted by the shrinkage of reading time and the expansion of technology.
But ask what should be done and the arguments begin. Attendees at the three-day gathering at the Washington Convention Center, which ended yesterday, could be divided into three categories: those anxious for change, those who accept it and those who resist.
“At my age , I wish it was as simple as holding on to the older way of doing things,” says Daniel Menaker, executive editor in chief at the Random House Publishing Group. “This is a convention that is haunted by questions about the future.”
Google, the online giant, is all for change, handing out free cookies to convention-goers willing to try its book search program. Another Internet leader, Amazon.com, officially began Amazon Upgrade, allowing customers to view content online as a bonus for purchasing a traditional text.
Accepting change was Henry Holt and Co., a publisher known for literary fiction and serious nonfiction. Now, resigned to a market dominated by commercial thrillers such as “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Historian,” Holt is hoping for its own blockbuster novel, Jeb Rubenfeld’s “The Interpretation of Murder,” featuring Sigmund Freud in early 20th century New York.
“You have to expand the definition of your publishing program,” said Holt publisher John Sterling, who plans a $500,000 marketing campaign. “When you have a very big book, you have to take your efforts to new levels of investment and risk.”
BookExpo’s prime resister and audience favorite was John Updike, the white-haired man of letters who during a Saturday breakfast speech reminded booksellers that “the written word was supposed to speak for itself and sell itself,” without author promotion. Mr. Updike, who didn’t bother discussing his own upcoming novel, “Terrorist,” received the biggest applause of the day, topping the expected star attraction, Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat.
Some of those cheering surely related to Mr. Updike’s stories of Manhattan in the 1950s, when old-fashioned retailers were scattered up and down Fifth Avenue. Independent stores, competing with chains, price clubs and the Internet, are in a long decline, with core membership of the American Booksellers Association dropping by 43 over the past year, to 1,660, far below its peak in the early 1990s.
Frustrated retailers even took on the association’s chief executive officer Avin Mark Domnitz, wondering during a “town hall” meeting how he could justify a salary of more than $350,000 (plus deferred compensation) at a time when some store owners couldn’t even afford to attend the convention.
“I don’t know if we’re paid the right amount of money or the wrong amount of money,” responded an emotional Mr. Domnitz, who spoke of the 14- to 16-hour days worked by the organization’s staff. “They know how hard it is. They know how you struggle.”
Booksellers — and publishers — are much happier when talking about books, anticipating works from Mark Haddon, Richard Ford and Bob Woodward among others. Also coming this fall is Charles Frazier’s “Thirteen Moons,” his first book since the million-selling debut, “Cold Mountain,” which came out in 1997.
Publishing can be a fierce, but surprisingly friendly business. For his second book, Mr. Frazier received $8 million and left the publisher that made him rich, Grove/Atlantic, for Random House. If critics are prepared to take the author down, publishers, including Grove, are not.
“We’re still close,” said Grove/Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin, who chatted warmly with Mr. Frazier on the convention floor. Added Harcourt publisher Andre Bernard: “I loved ‘Cold Mountain’ and I want this one to be great. I always root for books. I don’t care who publishes them.”
Rivals were equally generous about “The Interpretation of Murder,” which Holt will publish this fall with an announced first printing of 300,000. “Excellent title, excellent cover,” said Jane Friedman, CEO of HarperCollins, as she looked at the book’s dark flap design, featuring a woman laid out on a divan, candles to her left, her right arm extended across her forehead.
HarperCollins has been a leader in finding new ways to market books, especially through the Internet. Mr. Updike stands for those who worry. Responding to a recent New York Times Magazine essay, which envisioned a universal online library allowing books to be “cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist urged booksellers to “hold the fort” against the “electronic anthill” growing by the day.
Mr. Updike may not care for the digital mountain, but he already has been added to it. Starting this week, BookExpo is making his speech available for download on the Internet, bringing it to the IPod like the latest hit song.
“Well, there you are,” the author told AP when he heard the news. “You just can’t hide anymore.”