Publishing and Perishing: The Book Industry Struggles With the Future

Book Expo America, the publishing industry's annual trade show, kicked off yesterday morning with a lively, wide-ranging panel discussion featuring several top executives. Penguin (PSO) CEO David Shanks was there, as was Ingram CEO Skip Pritchard, American Booksellers Association CEO Oren Teicher, Workman publisher Bob Miller, and literary agency ICM co-president Esther Newberg. Scott Turow, recently named president of the Authors Guild and bestselling author of Presumed Innocent and Innocent, also sat on the panel, which sought to make some sense of the fast-changing industry. And as is typical of such panels, the consensus turned out to be that there wasn't much of a consensus about anything. But there were fireworks!

Farrar, Straus and Giroux publisher Jonathan Galassi set the early tone with prepared remarks expressing amazement at just how quickly change has come over the last five years. Now, with digital sales accounting for up to 10% of the market for trade books (fiction, narrative non-fiction and business books), Galassi said that "education is precisely what we need."

The proceedings got off to a heated start as Newberg, Galassi and Shanks sparred over issues related to royalties (agents and publishers tend to think differently about such things), and how they might shift in the e-book era.

Miller, who recently tried a more experimental approach to publishing with HarperStudio's low-advance/ equal profit share model before bolting for Workman, meanwhile believes the downward pressure on book pricing by the influx of cheaper-priced e-books will "kiss goodbye" the $27 price point for a hardcover, and that even the prospect of compromise won't change this: I don't think we can sit and decide" pricing as a group.Teicher was all about compromise -- because to admit that there can't be one is to essentially bestow a bigger market share to the digital behemoths like Amazon (AMZN) Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG).

E-Books: The Future Perfected?

When talk turned to enhancing e-books the divide between panelists yawned wider still. Galassi has little use for them: "who has time for all the enhancement? You could be in there forever." Miller reached back in history for his rebuttal, arguing that similar objections came up when Gutenberg created his press: "These books are going to be a real time suck." And with all the emphasis on e-reading, what of the book as a physical object? Newberg brought up Steve Martin's upcoming novel, which Hachette's Grand Central imprint (LGGDY) will issue in a "beautifully bound" edition. Pritchard, however, disagreed strongly with the notion that an object can stem the inevitable tide of downward pricing. In his mind, the vast majority of readers aren't going to care.

Watching the panel brought to mind the feeling of passengers trapped on a speeding train headed for a wall that might be made of solid brick or soothing transparent liquid. Nobody knows what that wall will be, and the fear of brick is doing battle with the possibility of the more permeable stuff. Whatever happens, that train is going to crash, creating a kind of chaos, either for good or for ill. In the end, Newberg proved the most pointed -- and funny -- about publishing's future. "I'm scared to death," she said at one point. "One of the only good things about being old is that I'm not going to have to deal with this for long."
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