My Book Expo hangover has lasted longer than usual this year, maybe because I crammed four days of meetings into two and, after 10 years of faithful attendance, took Saturday and Sunday off to go to my 20th college reunion. The two events have pushed me to reflect on the past, present and future more intensely than usual, and it’s taken a little while to get my feet back on the ground.
For me, BEA’s bookends were Mike Shatzkin’s talk, Stay Ahead of the Shift: What Product-Centric Publishers Can Do to Flourish in a Community-Centric World, and the CEO Roundtable led by Tina Brown and Harry Evans. While Shatzkin reviewed the considerable changes of the last twenty years and daringly forecasted those of the next twenty, the CEO panel was unhappily mired in the present. Shatzkin fluently played the role of a visionary with Einstein-like hair, pointing out challenges and opportunities with equal verve, but the CEOs were more like grim container ship captains in choppy seas, fastening their attention on e-book pricing, book promotion on You Tube and other threatening icebergs, with all hatches battened.
Shatzkin’s big takeaway was that we are in the twilight of “the good old days,” and entering transitional decades when costs will rise and revenues decline as publishers support inefficient old models and experiment with digital ones that will require many iterations and years to mature. The big takeaway from the CEOs was that it’s just about all they can do to flog the old model: “The Today Show is not as effective as it used to be—and the Internet has not replaced it,” said Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy, who is looking to front-of-bookstore displays to jumpstart sales, even though the recession has markedly reduced store traffic and most browsers start their book searches on the Internet.
Now, to be fair, everyone made generalizations with enough hot air in them to steam up our proverbial glasses. Shatzkin is also an independent consultant who doesn’t have nearly as much at stake from day to day as these venerable publishers. And although both sessions took place (at different times) in the same large conference room at Javits Center, Shatzkin’s talk drew about a third of the audience that the standing-room-only CEO panel did, with fewer recognizable faces in attendance.
I was left with a persistent sense of whiplash as I tried to integrate Shatzkin’s sensible talk about the importance of niche-focused “vertical integration” (e.g. not only creating and distributing content in all formats, but fostering dedicated online communities through content aggregation and curation) with the CEOs’ resolutely traditional view of their role in creating, manufacturing and distributing books in the physical world.
“How are we going to get from resentment about the unsustainable present to a more workable future?” I kept wondering while navigating the crowds between conference rooms. In every panel, everyone seemed on a different wavelength. Making sense of it all is clearly a big job for as many bright minds as the industry can muster.
Some people, particularly unemployed publishing veterans, are very motivated to start building bridges. But we will also need a whole lot more young, rank-and-file publishing people to attend these forward-looking programs. I’m talking about the 20- and 30-somethings in editorial, publicity, online marketing and sales, as well as in online and bricks-and-mortar bookselling. Though many are on the front lines of the publishing process, they can also be blinkered by their limited roles in the publishing assembly line, and too rarely encouraged by higher-ups to seek out the big picture. But we need their engagement, vision and energy more than ever to make the transition to the future.
(Yes, when I graduated from college 20 years ago, I was one of them - an often blinkered editorial assistant working my way up the ladder at HarperCollins, later moving to Avon Books as an editor, then Publishers Weekly as a writer and editor. But to me, today’s rank and file are luckier than we were, back in the industry’s more stable days, because they have a bigger opportunity now to put their stamp on it.)
If I have one fervent hope for BEA next year, it’s not so much that consumers will be invited to attend on the last day, as Richard Nash and Michael Cairns have suggested, but that every publishing person in their 20s and 30s has the chance to attend the educational programming and become part of the online and offline conversation about how to get from the present to the future we will create together. Here’s hoping that moving the conference to mid-week next will only make it more possible.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this as mine continue to gel.