29 May 2014

BEA14: What Editors' Buzz Tells Us About the Industry as a Whole

The Editors' Buzz panel at BEA is one of the most highly attended and hotly anticipated panels every year. The conference selects several forthcoming books they think are going to be hits or breakouts, and the editors responsible for those books present them to the crowd. (There are also free galleys, causing a near-stampede at the end of every panel. Surely we can fix this! But I digress.) Even though the titles are made available well ahead of the event, there's something about hearing these pitches in person. It's a very positive, upbeat event with a side of the cliches you think of when you think of book reviewing. There's always an "astonishing" debut, a family saga, a ground-breaking nonfiction book, and so on.

What struck me most about the seven chosen authors this year, though, is how many of them were presented as mid-career authors experiencing a breakout or longtime scribes finally achieving hard-won fame. I don't want to say "comeback narrative," because that would be incorrect; some had sold fairly well and been highlighted for praise before, but still hadn't yet reached the spotlight in the way they were presented at BEA. Author Eula Biss of this fall's IMMUNITY: AN INOCULATION, compared floridly to Joan Didion (calm down now), has been a working writer for several years; Emily St. John Mandel is described as breaking out with her novel STATION ELEVEN, but it's her fourth book, and I would consider her breakout to be her previous one, the Indie Next darling THE LOLA QUARTET. Jeff Hobbs is a fiction writer joining the other side of the table with the nonfiction reported book THE SHORT AND TRAGIC LIFE OF ROBERT PEACE. None of these authors' backgrounds were hidden; instead they became part of the pitch, reasons to root for them. And they overshadowed the debut novels presented (Jessie Burton's THE MINIATURIST, Matthew Thomas' WE AE NOT OURSELVES and M.O. Walsh's MY SUNSHINE AWAY). Here's what I think this says about publishing now:

1. In these tough economic times for the book industry as a whole, sometimes a known name beats an unknown name -- despite past performance. Mandel, Biss, Hobbs and Laird Hunt (whose novel NEVERHOME was presented on the panel) already have some entry, publicity speaking, into the market. If their publishers struggled in the past to market them, they are improving upon those mistakes. This isn't a case where the reclusive author is found and uplifted. These authors already have platforms, websites, some activation in place. And more importantly for them --

2. Despite the ominous stories, it is easier for authors to continue in the industry and make up for what were seen as damaging sales records with later books. If you want we can call this the MIDDLESTEINS Phenomenon, for author Jami Attenberg's bestseller as she started over with a new publisher and was able to get a second chance, you could say, to make her name. (If you've read MIDDLESTEINS and haven't read her backlist yet, you have some delights ahead of you.) This is heartening for what should be obvious reasons. And it makes publishing feel great about itself for spotting the talent early (even if it didn't know how to handle them then).

28 May 2014

BEA14: Selling Ebooks By the Byte

Are books quite the same as other digital media, or are they different? The panelists taking part in "What the Digital Book Industry Can Learn from Other Digital Media" approached the idea of opportunities for publishing to get better at digital media through different paths, but they were agreed that books aren't like other media -- better than a pat one-size-fits-all answer, but strangely unsatisfying.

Panelists David Steinberger and Joanna Stone Herman are both startup entrepreneurs working with publishing, while not necessarily of it: Steinberger is the CEO of Comixology, the iOS comic book app recenttly purchased by Amazon (somewhat controversially as its one-stop shopping capabilities were recently stripped) while Stone Herman is the CEO of new kid on the block Librify, a subscription ebook service just launching this summer. As such they are on opposite ends of the startup rainbow, but share a similarly sunny view of the power of digital media to win new consumers. (They kind of have to be.) I haven't tried out Librify yet but it sounds like it is designed to cater to the more casual reader with an emphasis on book club materials and book-of-the-month type subscriptions. ComiXology was more equitable in its treatment of new and hard-core readers in comic books, partnering with retail stores in order not to "disrupt" the direct retail business of selling comics. Naturally Stone Herman is in favor of subscription models to purchase ebooks, and Steinberger isn't.

My favorite panelist was Anoushka Healy, chief strategy officer of News Corp (have you heard of it?), who spoke from her newspaper background and the opportunities for consumer research presented by engaging in the digital space. I pray this wasn't just an apocryphal anecdote, but Healy shared some feedback when she worked on FT.com and a customer told their team "This is a great website -- have you thought about a newspaper?" Even when properties seem closely connected from the inside, those connections aren't necessarily apparent to people outside the industry. (If you don't believe me try quizzing a consumer about which imprints belong to which publisher. I myself sometimes mix them up.) Social media is a piece of that consumer research, but it isn't all of it. Healy also encouraged the audience to think about what consumers really want and not get too hung up on the use of specific platforms over others. That second piece could be the history of book publishing in the past 10 years, or a really strange country song I guess. Wherefore books and how to protect them? But if you can believe that digital sales will lift all boats, then you can forge ahead digitally without fear (or at least with less fear).

And indeed this panel seemed to be designed to reassure book publishing professionals that that cannibalization would not happen. It's what we want to hear but is it what we need to hear? Or am I being doom-and-gloomy for no reason? I'll never forget the Ghost of BEA Past that asserted ebook sales would eventually level off and what the heck would we do then; I felt the chill of that ghost in the room today. A better topic for next year's panels might be what print marketing can learn from digital.

22 May 2014

5 BookExpoAmerica tips from a veteran

I'll be attending my fourth BookExpo America conference this year, and I'm super excited. I'm not a conference-type person, but BEA is just the most fun ever. I probably shouldn't give away my trademark BEA secrets since they allow me to see more conference stuff, get more awesome free books... too late:

1. Wear the most comfortable shoes you can get away with for the purpose of your visit. The home of BEA in New York (for now) is the Jacob A. Javits Center on 34th Street and 11th Avenue, practically falling into the Hudson River (if only). If you're from out of town or you just haven't visited it recently, let me tell you: The Javits Center is far. It's three avenues or about 10 walking minutes away from the nearest subway stop (that's the A/C/E at 34th) and the physical plant is massive. You're smart enough not to wear brand-new shoes, but I cannot impress upon you enough how much walking you will be doing (and want to do). Admittedly, I am spoiled in this aspect since I am visiting on my own behalf and can wear something casual but clean, but my advice still stands.

2. Ask all the questions. What's this line for? Where are you visiting from? What did you think of that guy? Do you have a fall catalog I can take a look at? Where did you come up with the idea for this booth? Who are you looking forward to seeing? BEA is way more fun to schmooze at than most conferences, and I'm an introvert, so you can trust me on that.

3. Pack snacks. You may have time and inclination to sit down for a meal at the Javits Center, or you may not. But the food is expensive and you may find your time better spent going to a session or getting in line to meet an author. Anything non-perishable like granola bars or trail mix oughta work. But, make sure to get at least one actual meal a day. For health reasons I must insist. The McDonalds on Tenth Ave doesn't count (although it's a great place to buy a soda and spend half an hour catching up on emails). I mean, go sit down somewhere. You've earned it!

4. The wifi is not great, but you can use it for free in the food court. That is the best reason to go to the food court (see #3). Around lunch time, get there early so you can camp out at a table.

5. Wear a backpack and carry a tote bag. The backpack is for all the swag you will accumulate throughout the day; the tote bag can be carried in your front with essentials like a pen and paper (necessary), cash money (so necessary) and your conference pass after you leave (so necessary). I know it's dorky, but you'll thank me when you have to grab yet another free book (see #2) and you see someone else weighed down with half a dozen tote bags going for the same prize.

05 May 2014

One-Star Revue: THE WIZARD OF OZ

The other day, I was unhappily subjected to a trailer for "Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return," an animated sequel to "The Wizard of Oz" featuring your favorite actors doing a cash-grab in return for a few weeks in a recording booth. (Bernadette Peters? Oliver Platt? For shame.) The actual Oz books are a good deal weirder than the first (and eventual movie adaptation) but are a useful precursor to this century's fantasy franchises: L. Frank Baum, who eventually wrote 13 sequels to THE WIZARD OF OZ, was an odd duck but he had a Piers Anthonyesque approach to world-building: He just kept expanding and heck if anyone got in his way. Now that Dorothy et al are in the public domain, anyone can write his or her own "Wizard of Oz" sequel, and the fact that I feel strangely protective of these characters is no doubt a remnant left over from my own childhood. But not everyone enjoyed THE WIZARD OF OZ, and some hilariously failed to do so:

  • "I think it has too much old talk in it."
  • "I thought it was boaring [sic] it was not realistic or creative like the movie."
  • "I hate it and it was terrible so I really hates it so good luck trying to read this book." Only including this one because it was from user "1dfan." Well, I can't get through a One Direction song without experiencing internal distress, so we're even now.
  • "Why do you make it so stupid. I was going to put it down, but it got interesting then it got boring. Dorothy had red shoes not silver ones. They didn't adventure through the forest at the end or the kingdom of the winkies, or the field mice. So make a better book that goes with the movie." Yes, sir and/or ma'am.
  • "Any books with this type of cover is bad." 
  • "Awesome book I love it I can not stop myself from reading it over and over again get this book." This is one of several very positive Amazon reviews whose writers filed them under one star. Not sure why the concept was so confusing. 
  • "Haven't used this yet but..."