Book Expo America 2018

MONTANA AUTHOR TAKES A SMALL BITE OUT OF THE BIG APPLE

The population of my Montana home town is around 25,000—about the same number of people I encountered during six days at Book Expo America (BEA) and BookCon in New York City.

BEA is the biggest annual convention of book publishers, booksellers, distributors, librarians, and authors in North America. With 840,000 square feet of exhibit space at the Javits Center and nearly 500 exhibitors, the show is so big that Publishers Weekly covers it with daily tabloid reports of 70-100 pages each.

The event is open to industry professionals, not the public. I was fortunate to be invited to check out the inner workings of the business. What a learning experience it was!

Big names draw big crowds. Celebrities launching new books stayed busy autographing advance reading copies (ARCs). Some wait lines rivaled Splash Mountain at Disney World. This year’s stars included a couple of guys named Patterson and Clinton who co-wrote a thriller, along with Nicholas Sparks, Sally Field, Barbara Kingsolver, Trevor Noah, and more.

Debbie Burke and Hank Phillippi Ryan

 

I was delighted to meet the charming Hank Phillippi Ryan at the signing of her new book Trust Me. A few weeks before, I’d watched Hank teach a great online class sponsored by International Thriller Writers (TKZ’s own James Scott Bell also taught a segment of the webinar).

One Librarian’s Bounty

 

 

Librarians from all over the country flock to BEA to pick up bagfuls of free ARCs to help them decide what to order for the coming year. Their biggest expense must be the charge for overweight checked baggage!

Important lesson to authors: librarians are your best friends. If librarians get behind your book, their efficient network can put millions of eyes on your work. See, not all librarians are there to ruin your mood! I guess we all had that one librarian who thought they owned the place, but thinking about it now, knowing that they have way more to do than just sitting behind a desk, maybe it’s time to cut them some slack. You may want to do some research into schools like USC Marshall to get a better understanding of what the essential roles are these days of a librarian.

 

 

Not surprisingly, Amazon isn’t exactly the most popular kid on the BEA playground. The headline of one daily report read: “Amazon’s Actions Remain a Problem,” a quote by the CEO of the American Booksellers Association. The article talked about the impact of “lost jobs, stores, and uncollected taxes” due to the online giant.

The Big Five (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster) had large showy booths on main aisles. In contrast, Amazon’s booth was in a distant corner, far from the entrance.

Since Amazon’s Kindle Press had published my thriller Instrument of the Devil, I trekked all the way to the rear of the exhibit hall to visit them. But when I got there…..

Black curtains surrounded all four sides of the booth. Through the gauzy fabric, I could see people moving inside. But there was no entrance.

Hmmm.

Upon further investigation, I was told Amazon specifically requests a private booth for book publicists to meet with major media to pitch upcoming titles.

Oh.

In addition to the Big Five, scores of indie publishers had booths, representing niche markets for religious, ethnic, political and social issues, health and fitness, food and cooking, short fiction collections. No matter what off-the-wall subject you imagine, chances are someone has published a book about it that shows up at BEA.

Children’s and YA book publishers were out in force, introducing thousands of new products: print books, graphic novels, puzzles, interactive 3D devices, plus tie-in merchandising like costumes, cuddly stuffed characters, sports equipment, etc. There were even quaint retro items like pens and stationary. Could writing actual letters be making a comeback?

Waiting for autographs from their favorite authors

 

BEA runs from Wednesday through Friday for industry pros. BookCon follows on the weekend and is open to the public. Thousands of readers crowded the Javits Center on Saturday and Sunday. They pored over new releases, waited in line for autographs from favorite authors…

BookCon 2018

 

…and posed for photos dressed up as popular book characters.

Older folks (like myself) often complain about young people zombie-walking through life with bent necks, mesmerized by their smartphones. Yet at BookCon, I didn’t notice a single example of that disconnection. Kids engaged with each other and were excited about new adventures in reading. Witnessing that gave me hope.

 

 

Audio book sales continue to grow by double digits, 30+% increase in the last year alone.

A major BEA sponsor for 2018 was Blackstone Publishing. In 1987, the family-owned independent audio publisher started producing cassettes in a garage in Ashland, Oregon. They tapped into the town’s renowned Shakespeare Festival for narrating talent.

Three decades later, Blackstone has expanded into a full-service publisher of print and e-books in addition to audio, employing more than 200 people. Still headquartered in Ashland, they’ve increased their presence in NYC with acquisitions editors, audio narrators, and a sound studio that’s second to none.

Blackstone also showed me firsthand what a debut author’s dream launch should look like.

Excited debut author Susan Purvis with the banner of her new book

Last April, I wrote about cadaver dogs and mentioned Susan Purvis’s upcoming memoir, Go Find, which Blackstone is publishing. At BEA, they rolled out the red carpet for Susan, including a 10-foot-tall banner at the entrance of the Javits Center.

At their booth, lighted signs showcased new releases. Book covers were displayed on video screens. During signings, representatives guided people through the waiting line, graciously giving out swag including postcards, book bags, and ARCs.

This contrasted sharply with some author signings sponsored by bigger houses where I wondered if cattle prods might be in use!

 

Blackstone’s good treatment of authors has resulted in them picking up bestsellers like Orson Scott Card, cozy queen M.C. Beaton, and mother-daughter fantasy writers P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast.

Despite BEA’s gargantuan scope, it offered opportunities to make personal contacts.

A couple of hours into the first morning, I sank down at a vacant table, already exhausted, eyes glazing over. A woman with a similar dazed expression sat across from me and we commiserated about feeling overwhelmed. Her name was Bee Kapitan, a designer from Vancouver. She had just received an Independent Publisher Award for her interactive e-book How To Say Cheese. I showed her the proposed cover for my new book, Stalking Midas, and she graciously made suggestions. She introduced me to the burgeoning world of interactive book design. We’ll be keeping in touch.

I’m learning from Umair Kazi (l) and Francesco Grisanzio (r)

Another valuable connection occurred with the Authors Guild. I knew of their excellent advocacy for writers but hadn’t gotten around to joining. At their booth, I talked with staff attorney Umair Kazi and digital services coordinator Francesco Grisanzio about rights reversion. Their guidance helped me make a career decision I’d been putting off. Needless to say, after their assistance, I signed up to become a member.

Another service they offer to authors is contract review. Before you sign a publishing contract, AG attorneys will review it and clarify the Byzantine maze of legalese. That alone is worth the $125 annual dues.

Authors Guild has also forged a communication channel into Amazon to register author complaints. Hopefully AG’s advocacy will temper Amazon’s review policies that, to authors, often appear capricious and arbitrary.

BEA gave me amazing insight into the publishing business. If I included all the adventures and interesting people I met in the Big Apple, this post would run into next week!

I’ll stop now and turn it over to TKZers for questions and comments.

A final post script: on the trip home I was privileged to meet a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor. That story is too long to add here but it can be found on my blog.

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Once Again, The Future of Publishing

psychics-1026092_1920It happens every year or so. A bigwig from the traditional publishing world takes a look at the data—usually some sort of downturn in the industry—and writes a piece predicting the future of publishing.

Recently Michael Pietsch, CEO of Hachette, took a turn (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 2015. Link may expire). It’s always good to hear from inside the walls of the Forbidden City. Mr. Pietsch begins thus:

I’ve been hearing about the demise of book publishing since the first day I stepped through the doors of a publisher back in 1978. But here we are still, publishers like Little, Brown, with histories going back 100 and 200 years. What other American industry has companies still in existence after two centuries, evolving and modernizing but still doing much the same work? The most recent variant of the death watch: A digital revolution would cause e-books to replace printed ones, authors would overwhelmingly choose self-publishing, and publishers would follow carriage makers into oblivion.

Mr. Pietsch then notes that e-book revenue for major publishers has “topped out” (this datum has been misreported in the media as reflecting a downturn in the overall e-book market. Such is not the case).

What of the boom in self-publishing? Mr. Pietsch gives it a nod, but also notes:

But writers like to be paid, in advance, for their work. Publishers are investors and risk takers. And a publishing company with longstanding media and marketing relationships is far more capable of getting attention for a new book than a writer working alone.

This deserves a closer look. Writers like to be paid period. And they like payments to be a fair exchange. Currently, big publishing is holding firm with its contracts, the boilerplate of which hearkens back to when the industry was an oligopoly, “a state of limited competition, in which a market is shared by a small number of producers or sellers.”

Indeed, the Authors Guild has begun an initiative that seeks more equitable contract terms. But this effort is running into the merciless force field of big business, which is electrified by the need for profit. And an enterprise does not generally increase its profits by raising its own costs.

So a writer looking at a modest advance (the norm these days) must make a decision. Yes, a big publisher can get a book “attention.” But not for every book. Not even for most books. And a book that does not get the big push and doesn’t sell well means the author will probably be let go—without, by the way, retaining the rights to his work.

Still, there are writers who want to spin that Wheel of Fortune. If they win, they win big. If wheel4they lose, there is at least an alternative for them that never existed before. As indies they’ll be starting from square one (or maybe square two or three, with a bit of a readership), but at least they won’t be outside the walls of the Forbidden City, in the cold, blowing on their hands, begging to be let back in.

Mr. Pietsch insists that a publisher’s “essential work” is “identifying, investing in, nurturing, and marketing great writers.” I would ask: how much of an investment? How lasting the nurturing?

Sometimes a deal pays off and a book is a smash and the author moves to the A-list. But this doesn’t happen often. And it doesn’t happen at all for midlist authors who are dropped by their former nurturers for lack of numbers.

Yet many of these midlisters are now making good money by going indie. Some have secured rights to their backlist (though publishers are digging in their heels these days)—or they are being productive with new work on a consistent basis.

On the future of the business, Mr. Pietsch says:

Ever-larger retailers and wholesalers bring significant margin pressure, which will lead to continued conglomeration. Social media will continue to expand the writer’s ability to connect with readers; publishers will deepen their relationships with writers, but they’ll also create content of their own. As runaway books sell ever-larger numbers, publishers will earn more on their biggest sellers—which will keep driving up the advances they pay for potential hits. At the same time, publishers will need to innovate and challenge assumptions about every aspect of the business.

I would like to hear some details on how publishers can “deepen their relationships with writers.” I have a large number of professional writing friends, and for all of them the relationship with a publisher has been based, over and above all else, on the counting of beans. When the beans are flowing, the author and publisher are a regular Mike and Carol Brady. But when the beans dry up, it’s Al and Peg Bundy … usually ending in divorce.

This, by the way, is not a knock on publishers. It’s simply the way things are, and always have been, for big business. You can’t keep sinking dollars into a widget that isn’t selling. And in this day of market disruption and volatility, there is no longer the patience to hang on to a once-promising author to see if he can make a comeback.

Which is why Mr. Pietsch is correct that the only way forward for the industry is to hope for more “runaway books.” I just wonder about the assumption that they will sell in “ever-larger numbers.” And how many times a big bet can be placed on a “potential” hit.

In any event, I do think a robust, traditional publishing industry is a good thing to have around. When it scores, it brings books and authors the attention they deserve.

But the landscape is now in a permanent state of disequilibrium. Meaning, yes, that big publishers must “innovate and challenge assumptions about every aspect of the business.”

Kind of like the ever-increasing corps of authorpreneurs who have been writing and innovating for years.

So what is your take on the future of the publishing business? Can the Bigs survive in their present condition? Will self-publishing continue to provide serious revenue to enterprising and productive authors?

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Force_1

 

Speaking of the present, the first Sister J vigilante nun novelette, FORCE OF HABIT, is FREE through Thursday on Amazon. Get in on the kicks!

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