- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2009

NEW YORK — This weekend’s BookExpo America will be a good time for promoting, predicting, mingling — and worrying.

Except for e-books, sales are down throughout the publishing industry, and the numbers for audiobooks have fallen ever more steeply. The Association of American Publishers has seen a 47 percent drop in audio revenue this year: Just 14 publishers reported, but they include Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and virtually all the major New York companies.

According to Nielsen BookScan, which covers about 75 percent of sales (although not audio downloads), the number of audiobooks sold is down 20 percent this year from 2008. Data compiled by the Institute for Publishing Research projects a 4.7 percent fall in revenue in 2009.

Anthony Goff, president of the Audio Publishers Association, says he doesn’t know the exact figures (his association is assembling its own statistics), but he is sure they aren’t good.

“We know all too well what’s happening in the marketplace,” says Mr. Goff, publisher and director of audiobooks at the Hachette Book Group USA, which also provided sales information to the Association of American Publishers.

Mr. Goff and others cite a few reasons for audio’s troubles. Sales of physical audiobooks, dropping for years, have been especially poor, and the relatively steady, but still emerging, digital audio market has yet to compensate.

The shrinking economy has had a direct impact. The fewer people who work, the fewer who drive to work. Many audio customers - more than half - listen in their cars, according to Chris Lynch, executive vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Audio, which just released “America’s March to Socialism,” an audio-only book by Glenn Beck.

“We got hit pretty badly last summer when gasoline prices were so high,” Mr. Lynch says. “And then the stock market crashed in the fall, and we got hit again.”

Audiobooks also tend to cost more. The audio download for the country’s hottest title, Mark R. Levin’s “Liberty and Tyranny,” has a list price of $29.99, nearly $5 higher than for the hardcover.

“There is a sense that audiobooks are a luxury item. The gut feeling is that, ‘OK, sales are down and the price points are of concern.’ Publishers are trying to bring it down, but the cost of audiobook production is so expensive, it’s hard to bring the cost down very far,” says Mr. Goff, who estimates the cost can run as high as $40,000 to $50,000, especially if a celebrity has been signed as the reader.

The state of audiobooks will be among the countless topics - from Google to Arab publishing - at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, where about 25,000 publishers, booksellers, agents and writers are expected.

Like the industry itself, this year’s booksellers convention will be smaller, more economical and more committed to a digital future.

Booths on the show floor likely will cover 20 percent to 25 percent less space than last year, with several publishers either not exhibiting or using smaller booths. The savings will continue after-hours, when cocktails, rather than dinners, will be the standard for parties.

E-books, sidelined for years from the convention floor, will be showcased centrally at a New Media Zone, which will feature Amazon.com’s Kindle and other e-book devices and provide space for bloggers. Also at the Javits Center, the Perseus Books Group plans to assemble and publish a book within 48 hours.

“We’re attempting to shine a light on the Internet and digital content,” says BookExpo show manager Lance Fensterman. “And we see BEA as becoming increasingly interactive.”

Featured authors include Pat Conroy, David Baldacci and Richard Russo, along with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, actresses Julie Andrews and Julianne Moore, and the country’s favorite airline pilot, Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger. Tina Brown will host a CEO Roundtable with executives from four publishing houses.

There won’t be many major celebrities but a good number of minor ones: Kathie Lee Gifford and Mary Jo Buttafuoco, Oliver North, the Amazing Kreskin, Emeril Lagasse and “Sneaky Chef” Missy Chase Lapine.

Endlessly criticized as expensive and even irrelevant, the booksellers convention remains the industry’s best chance to meet in person, although some may prefer to be kept apart.

Among those attending will be Laurie Friedman, a picture-book author who will be signing copies of a release planned for fall, “Thanksgiving Rules.” Her previous works include the popular “Mallory” series and “Angel Girl,” based on Holocaust survivor Herman Rosenblat’s story of meeting his wife at a concentration camp.

When Mr. Rosenblat acknowledged over the winter that his account was false, his planned memoir was canceled. Miss Friedman’s book was withdrawn soon afterward, and she stated at the time that Mr. Rosenblat and his wife, Roma, had misled her, reviewing her manuscript before publication and assuring her of its accuracy.

If she still wants to talk about it, she can tell Mr. Rosenblat himself. He is scheduled to appear at the Javits Center to discuss “The Apple,” published by the obscure York House Press. The book includes Mr. Rosenblat’s memoir and, in collaboration with Penelope Holt, a look into how, and why, he turned his life into fiction.

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