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At Book Expo, publishers and authors confront changing industry

June 6, 2014 at 6:18 PM EST
The online revolution has disrupted the traditional bookselling business over time. From the publishing industry’s annual trade show, Jeffrey Brown reports on how authors and publishers are adapting to new platforms, small startups are pushing their titles and independent bookstores have learned to survive.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn to one particular business that’s experienced change from technology, consolidation and other factors: the world of books.

Jeffrey Brown was there for the publishing industry’s annual trade show that wrapped up this past weekend.

Here’s his report.

JEFFREY BROWN: Publishers large and small, booksellers from far and wide, agents, editors, publicists and, yes, authors. The annual Book Expo America at the Javits Center in New York is the industry’s largest trade fair, a place to sell your wares, make new connections and bask in the glory of the written word.

JAMES PATTERSON, Best-selling Author: For a bookstore junkie, this is heaven.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: James Patterson is a rock star at BEA, a publishing titan with dozens of bestsellers. For him, all would seem well, but he sees a continuing crisis in the world of books today, and he’s donating a million dollars to independent booksellers around the country to help them raise awareness of their plight.

JAMES PATTERSON: This is a period of evolution, revolution, whatever you want to call it, big shift into e-books, and I just think we just have to slow down and make sure it’s an orderly transition. People need to understand that what is at risk here is American literature.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s been a long-running thought plotline in this industry in the age of e-books and Amazon. More on it later.

But, this year, we found a more upbeat story as well.

DOMINIQUE RACCAH, Sourcebooks, Inc: We’re in the middle of another big disruption in our industry, and that’s been the impetus for another kind of rethinking of our business.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dominique Raccah, for example, founded Sourcebooks, which has grown from a small startup outside Chicago into a large publisher of both print and e-books, from genres from children’s, to romance, to nonfiction.

A former statistician, she looks hard at the numbers.

DOMINIQUE RACCAH: What’s interesting is, at the beginning of this conversation, I think people believed that digital was going to — we were going to have a 100 percent conversion rate. Right? It was going to be, are you buying a p-book or an e-book? It was going to be an or conversation.

I think we now know the conversation is an “and” conversation, right, so that the bulk of buyers actually buy both. The bulk of users actually use them.

JEFFREY BROWN: E-books, she says, are bringing in more readers because keep people can sample more. The trick is to understand which books to vest where, especially since it’s harder than ever to break through, with thousands of titles published in print and electronically, not to mention the world of other readily available entertainment, so what’s a young author to do?

AMY EWING, Author, “The Jewel”: My role is essentially I think just to talk about the book as much as I can, to get it out there, to talk to the readers.

JEFFREY BROWN: One genre going gangbusters these days is Y.A., young adult. And Amy Ewing wants to be a part of it. This was her first time at the expo, touting and signing her first book, “The Jewel,” fantasy fiction she hopes will appeal to young people and all those adults who have likely increased readership for the likes of “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games,” and she’s willing to reach out to each and every one of them.

AMY EWING: What I love about Twitter is that you can really talk to people who are reading the books. And to see people who are not my mom or my friends reading these books and saying, you know, I can’t believe that ending, like, I can’t wait for the next book, and I get to say, oh, my God, I can’t believe that ending either. I know I’m awful.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, you’re responding to everybody individually?

AMY EWING: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

AMY EWING: Yes. For now, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: For now.

AMY EWING: Yes, we will see how that goes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Until there’s millions of readers.

AMY EWING: Oh, hopefully, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: No one’s immune. Publishing house veterans do their own version of selling new titles to earn prominent placement in bookstores and online this coming fall.

Simon & Schuster publisher Jonathan Karp has overseen numerous bestsellers, with a likely new one soon to come in Hillary Clinton’s memoir. At the expo, he was drumming up interest in a new novel titled “We Are Not Ourselves” by first-time and to this point unknown author Matthew Thomas.

JONATHAN KARP, Simon & Schuster: This is a book that explains the American middle-class experience. If Eugene O’Neill were alive today and writing fiction, this is the kind of book he would write.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you telling this to me right now?

JONATHAN KARP: I am — I am pushing. Yes, I am pushing the book.

(LAUGHTER)

JONATHAN KARP: If I can’t convey any enthusiasm about a book, why in the world would you want the buy it?

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

JONATHAN KARP: So it’s — basically, word of mouth starts with us, and then it spreads to the booksellers and then hopefully through the media, through influential people like you, and ultimately to regular readers. But we think readers need to hear about a book maybe four or five different ways.

JEFFREY BROWN: Four or five different ways?

JONATHAN KARP: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have got — and that’s — is that an actual calculation you get?

JONATHAN KARP: Yes, absolutely, well, sure, multiple impressions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

One possible last impression, of course, is at your local bookstore, if you still have one, and the news here is more positive as well. After a bloodletting amid the rise of big box stores and online shopping, the American Booksellers Association, representing smaller independent stores, says its members have actually grown to 664* this year, 250 more than five years ago.

Sarah Bagby, owner of Watermark Books in Wichita, Kansas, says success today requires a cafe, an appeal to local quality of life, and a tough head for business.

SARAH BAGBY, Owner, “Watermark Books & Café”: I think, over the years, people realize that the bookstores that are in business and thriving in today’s climate are real businesspeople.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

SARAH BAGBY: We are very strategic about the books we get behind. We buy our product at the lowest price we can, and then we do everything in the store to connect that product to our customer.

JEFFREY BROWN: So much for the romance of owning a small bookstore.

SARAH BAGBY: Oh, my gosh. But it is — it’s fun.

JEFFREY BROWN: All good then, or at least better. But then there was the elephant in the room, or, as it happens, barely in the room, Amazon, where, by some estimates, at least 40 percent of all books are purchased today and many more of those bought online.

At BEA, much behind-the-scenes talk was of a fight between Amazon and major publisher Hachette, reportedly over to split profits for e-books and print. Amazon wants more and is playing hardball to get it, delaying shipments or removing buy buttons on its site for some of the publisher’s books.

In a speech at the expo, Hachette author James Patterson expressed his displeasure at the growing power of a Amazon.

JAMES PATTERSON: But that certainly sounds like the beginning of a monopoly to me. Amazon — Amazon also, as you know, wants to control bookselling, book buying and even book publishing.

JEFFREY BROWN: With us a bit later, Patterson was slightly more reserved, spreading blame far and wide.

JAMES PATTERSON: At this point, I’m going to say this: no villains, but no heroes.

JEFFREY BROWN: No villains, but no heroes? 

JAMES PATTERSON: No heroes. Nobody’s stepping up and going, we need to look at ideas, we need to look at books, we need to look at American literature. The government isn’t dealing with it. The media really isn’t dealing with it much at all. And publishers need to be brave.

JEFFREY BROWN: Amazon didn’t respond to our request to comment at BEA, where all were aware of the high stakes of this fight and the continued churning of the industry as a whole.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch Jeff’s entire interview with novelist James Patterson. That is on our Art Beat page.

*Correction: This report incorrectly states that the membership of the American Booksellers Association rose to 664 this year. The correct number is 1,664 members, operating over 2,000 locations.