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Publishers, Writers Assess the Digital Frontier of the Written Word

May 27, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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From podcasts to digital tablets, technology is reshaping the way Americans read. As the 2010 Book Expo wraps up in New York, Jeffrey Brown takes a look at emerging technologies and the future of the book.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: new gadgets, new habits, and the ancient craft of storytelling.

Last year, electronic, or e-book, sales increased by more than 175 percent compared to 2008. By March of this year, they accounted for roughly 6 percent of all book sales. At the same time, Americans are reading less for pleasure, according to the most recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts.

This week, writers, publishers and booksellers all gathered in New York for the annual BookExpo America trade show, and the future of the book was a big topic.

We gather three attendees for our own discussion now: best-selling author Scott Turow, who is currently serving as president of the Authors Guild. His new novel is titled “Innocent.” Jonathan Galassi is president of the publishing house Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, which publishes Mr. Turow. He led a panel at BookExpo titled “The Value of a Book.” And Cathy Langer is lead buyer for Tattered Cover Book Stores in Colorado and a member of the board of the American Booksellers Association.

Scott Turow, I know you just left the trade show today. What was the mood for writers? Is it a good time to be an author, an anxious time? How would you describe it?

SCOTT TUROW, Author, “Innocent”: It’s definitely an anxious time for authors. They see the possible consequences for authors of the digital revolution as not being good, with book piracy being probably the biggest concern and threats to compensation for authors being the next.

JEFFREY BROWN: Threats — well, threats to compensation, that means you don’t get paid as much if your book — in the digital world, or potentially you don’t?

SCOTT TUROW: Well, right now, the payment on a digital book is not the same as on a paper book. The Authors Guild obviously thinks that e-book royalties have to go up.

But it’s also — it’s a world in which we all know publishers are hard-pressed, and there’s more competition from other media. And, you know, Jonathan Galassi was the one on Monday who aired, I thought very honestly, the concern about authors compensation.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, hard-pressed publisher Jonathan Galassi, come into this.

JEFFREY BROWN: You said at that panel — quote — “The book industry is in the first wave of a technological revolution, with the depth and force we haven’t experienced since the invention of movable type.”

So, that puts it in big historical context. What do you mean?

JONATHAN GALASSI, President, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: Well, those are grand words, but what I mean is that, all of a sudden, the — the revolution that we have seen in the music business has arrived in the book world.

And people are experiencing yet another broadening of the range of opportunities they have for consuming culture. Music, films, books now are all available virtually on the same instrument, if you want to read that way.

And I think what Scott’s referring to is that the drive to compete for a slice of that market has led certain retailers to push the price of the e-book down where it’s more or less the same as the price of a movie on that kind of machine.

So, the — from the commodity standpoint, the book is competitive, but, from the production standpoint, i.e., the author and publisher working together to create a new artwork, that — that is — that is being left behind on the consumption side.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

And, Cathy Langer, you’re — you’re taking these products and trying to put them in — directly into the hands of consumers. So, where do you fit into this anxious new world?

CATHY LANGER, Lead Buyer, Tattered Cover Book Store: Well, I think we fit well into this new world. And I’m not so anxious. I’m curious to see, actually, where it lands.

But, as an independent bookseller, we’re certainly staying in the conversation. And if 10 percent or 8 percent of the books are e-books, that’s fine. There are still a lot of other books to sell, and we will — we will be selling both e-books through our Web sites and in our stores, and also we will be selling lots and lots of what I’m calling physical books, because that’s really where the market still is the strongest.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, staying with you, I mean, what kind of dent so far — can you tell yet what kind of dent e-books or change the e-books bring? Does that mean fewer physical books, or does it mean more of everything?

CATHY LANGER: I think it’s hard to say yet. It’s really hard to measure what impact it’s had on — on the overall sales of physical books.

I am, again, an eternal optimist. And I think it might even expand the market. We know that people are buying the physical book and the e-book. There’s talk about bundling, which means you can buy both at the same time. And, at this point, I really wouldn’t be able to say that it’s — it’s hurt us too deeply on the physical book side.

There’s been many other factors recently that we’re — we have been dealing wit, and e-books are just one of them.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Scott Turow, come back to the — the author’s view here. Now, you’re well-established. A new book of yours comes out, and it gets a lot of marketing, and then you have a lot of readers eager for them.

But what do — you put on your Authors Guild hat here. What do you tell writers nowadays? What kind of strategies do they have to have? Do they have to think of themselves as entrepreneurs, as well as writers? How does it work?

SCOTT TUROW: Well, first of all, you’re right. The complaint isn’t for bestselling authors like myself.

But authors are feeling squeezed in terms of publishers’ efforts to promote their books. They need to do more self-promotion by way of blogging, by way of arranging their own publicity events, contacting bookstores directly, because the so-called mid-list author, who doesn’t garner the same kinds of profits for publishers, has been a threatened creature for quite some time.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, how do they do that?

SCOTT TUROW: They — they do exactly what I said. Some of them even have to hire their own publicists.

They blog. They get online. You know, the — the Internet is a powerful tool. And there are, obviously, huge communities of readers out there who are reading on their computer screens. And there are books like “The Help,” which is a very popular novel now, which was really, in part, created by online acclaim.

So — but authors are trying to get into that world with less assistance from their publishers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. That’s what I was wondering, because Jonathan Galassi brought up the record business. And I remember looking into that a few years ago for this program. And you have a lot of musicians going to the Internet, the online world, as a kind of opportunity.

Now, do you see that working? You’re saying authors have to go there. Do you look at it as an opportunity or a kind of last resort?

SCOTT TUROW: Well, you know, obviously, the barriers to entry to becoming an author are much lower. Self-publishing on the Internet is now a real possibility.

We’re yet, though, to see the sort of underground novel burst off of one of those self-publishing sites into widespread — into widespread readership. But I don’t think that that’s impossible. But I do think that what Jonathan would say, that a publisher serves a very useful function in both, you know, shaping a manuscript and focusing attention on it, is definitely true.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Jonathan Galassi, you can pick up on that, but are we already seeing an impact on the number of books published or the types of books published? How does — give me some examples of how it affects your world.

JONATHAN GALASSI: Well, I don’t think we have seen any diminution of the number of books published. In fact, as Scott suggests, it may be that the number — I think the number of books available is exploding.

For one thing, the whole catalog of every book that’s ever been published is or will soon be available to everyone, which is a wonderful thing. But it also creates a kind of long, long, long tale that has to have some kind of an impact on readership.

But I think what we’re — what we’re all watching very carefully is whether there’s going to be so-called cannibalization of the sale of hardcover books through e-book sales. And I think that it has been noted on very commercial books that there is some of that, that some readers are moving over to e-book format, and — and forsaking print for that.

And I think the real question in our business is how far that’s going to go. I think Cathy is taking the optimistic view that there’s going to be room for everyone at the table. And I certainly hope that’s true. I do think we’re always going to have print books. The question is how big a piece of the pie that’s going to be five, 10, 15 years down the road.

And my own sense, based on just the experience of how — how technology goes, is that it’s going to take a bigger and bigger piece of the action. And what that does to creation of works or the…

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

JONATHAN GALASSI: … fostering is the question, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me let Cathy back here in our last minute.

You are the optimistic one here. What’s your advice to readers at this point?

CATHY LANGER: Well, I think readers should know that I think the best place for them to find the right book for them is at their bricks-and-mortar, preferably independent, bookstore.

But we are — as opposed to what happened in the record industry, we will — we serve as a showroom for the publishers. I think they appreciate that. We have their books in our stores. We know their books. We know the publishers. And we can — we can hand-sell to readers and help them make the right decisions for important reading decisions.

And, so, I say — I say we serve a very important place and will in the long run.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will have to leave it there.

Cathy Langer, Jonathan Galassi, and Scott Turow, thanks very much.

SCOTT TUROW: Thank you.

JONATHAN GALASSI: Thank you.