|Arts & Culture Archive|
Another in our series of conversation about the future of literature and literacy. For more, click here.
On Tuesday, a panel of publishers, book agents, authors and booksellers kicked off Book Expo America 2010 -- the major annual U.S. publishing convention and exposition held in New York each year -- by asking a fundamental, but newly challenging question confronting the changing publishing industry: What is the value of a book today?
I spoke with him by phone from his office in New York on Wednesday:
[Full transcript after the jump]
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you did a panel for the Book Expo yesterday that was called, "The Value of a Book." Now, that has several potential meanings. But why was that even an issue or a question right now in the world -- in your world. How would you frame it?
JONATHAN GALASSI: Well, I think the issue is that the publishing business is coming to terms with what I call 'digitalis' -- with the upsurge of wish, of desire, to have digital editions of books to read on devices like the Sony Reader, the Kindle, and now the iPad. So all of a sudden -- this has been coming for several years -- but now it's here. And so far this year, publishers' business is about 10 percent on e-books. And that's a big change and it has all sorts of implications for authors, for publishers, for booksellers.
JEFFREY BROWN: So give me an example of the implications for you, as publisher.
JONATHAN GALASSI: Well, the price of an e-book is a lot less than the price that we're charging for a hardcover book. It's about the same as we charge for a paperback. And that means a different revenue stream. And the question is whether the e-book purchasers are choosing to buy e-books instead of hardcovers. And if so, that means we're going to be making less on a lot of books, and that means authors will be making less. Some people feel that there's going to be so many additional sales that it won't matter -- you know, that there'll be more readers, more copies sold, and everyone will be happy. But most people are more cautious about the future than that.
JEFFREY BROWN: And where do you come down?
JONATHAN GALASSI: I feel that there is not an endlessly expandable universe of fiction readers. I think that there may be a margin of broadening that will, for a while, at least, mean that we sell more. But I'm not sure what the long-term effect will be, and I'm concerned about how authors are going to be compensated. Because if we take in less money we can offer them less money. And I think authors and agents are looking at that with alarm.
JEFFREY BROWN: So I was looking at the rundown of the session that you did yesterday of the different types of people. You had an author, you had people from various parts of your world there. What jumped out at you in terms of surprises or the tenor of the discussion. Fear? Hopes? Tell us what came out.
JONATHAN GALASSI: Well, I think there were definitely two different schools represented there, which was the aim. I think that Scott Turow, who is the new president of the Authors Guild and has the new book out, is very concerned about piracy on the Internet, and also about compensation for authors - that's his job as president of the Authors Guild. And I was expecting him to take that position. Esther Newberg of ICM -- a leading agent -- was, as usual, not satisfied with how much her authors are getting for their work. That's her job.
JEFFREY BROWN: That's her job, right. [Laughs]
JONATHAN GALASSI: And she represented that view very effectively. Skip Prichard from Ingram, on the other hand, was very up-beat about the future of the e-book and the broadening of the market. And really, I think to me, the essential dichotomy in the meeting was between people who feel that books need to compete with other forms of entertainment in this broadened media universe, and that will drive down price, and that's what should happen, and it will be a brave new world. And some of the rest of us, I think, feel that intellectual property has real value. It costs a lot to produce -- both for the author and the publisher -- and that that value should be reflected in what people are willing to pay for books. But the game right now is not going our way. And I think the implications of that are quite profound and we really need to address them. We're not going to have any answers today or tomorrow. But I think that that's a fundamental debate that's going on.
JEFFREY BROWN: You must have watched some of this go on in the music industry. I recall a few years ago going to the South by Southwest festival -- which is also a business conference -- where they were having very similar types of discussions about, you know, giving away content, and how do you maintain some control and make some money from it.
JONATHAN GALASSI: Absolutely, we look at what happened with the music business every day. You know, tne thing that happened with the music business, there are no stores anymore where you can buy music. It's all an online business now, and that's, you know -- the bookstore culture is a very vibrant part of the American experience that we're very reluctant to see go away. We want to try and keep that alive. But it's complicated. And getting people to go into bookstores today is not all that easy when you can do a one-click order from an online bookstore. So that's part of this thing, is the going-away of the interactive personal experience of talking to booksellers about books, and seeing them, touching them, feeling them -- the erotics of the book, as we like to say. It's a wonderful part of book culture.
JEFFREY BROWN: [Laughing] You don't find the e-book an erotic experience, huh?
JONATHAN GALASSI: [Laughing] No, I don't. I'm sorry. I think that they're wonderful in many ways, and the convenience factor is undeniable, and I think that they're going to be a huge part of our business. But I would be very unhappy to see the physical book culture die. And I'll tell you -- there's no author that wants to give his mother an e-book of his new book. I think he wants to present her with -- or she -- wants to present her with something beautiful that he or she created.
JEFFREY BROWN: Before I let you go, lastly, what do you tell us, what do you tell readers? What decisions do we have to make in thinking about this new world?
JONATHAN GALASSI: Well I think one thing that's happening is simultaneity, you know, multiplicity of choice for readers. They can choose to read a book online, they can choose a paperback, a hardcover. They can order a short-run print. You know, almost every book ever published is available or soon will be, and that's a fantastic thing. I think readers -- I don't want to tell them anything; I want to give them options. But I don't want to close off options for them. And it's not like there should be a campaign to get readers to go in to save bookstores. I don't think that's how these things happen. I think that readers will find the ways to have the reading experience the way they want. But I think it's up to publishers, really, to work with authors to keep those options open.
JONATHAN GALASSI: Thank you.
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