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Explosive Words

Updikes Autographs His Book
"Defend your lonely forts," John Updike, here signing copies of his new book, "Terrorist," told booksellers on Saturday. ". . . Books are intrinsic to our human identity." (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

He'd "glanced at it, at least," Wozniak said. "It's like everybody's scrambling to figure out how it falls out," he added, "and I don't know how it falls out.

"But I do know that heck, I wrote a book, and you know I did it for Norton -- and I wouldn't want to get copies somehow spread around the Internet."

'Who Needs Megahits?'

Score one for the literati. But the technorati had their innings as well.

At a presentation titled "The Future of Publishing in the Digital Age," former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina drew parallels between the publishing industry, as currently constituted, and the music and photography industries before they were blindsided by the digital revolution.

These were "cautionary tales," she emphasized, not predictions, but publishers should understand that "there are a whole set of choices in front of you" and "my guess is that not everyone will survive and not everyone will thrive."

Fiorina has written a book, "Tough Choices," coming out in October from Portfolio, a Penguin Group imprint. "With all deep apologies to Penguin and Portfolio, whom I love," she said, she found it "horrifying" that a manuscript she had submitted electronically came back to her, in the copy-editing stage, as "physical pieces of paper with red and blue ink marks on them."

She mentioned this more than once in her speech. Had she intended it as a metaphor for a larger problem?

"Certainly," she said afterward. "That's why I kept using it. It's sort of emblematic, I think."

At another BEA talk, Wired editor Chris Anderson presented a concept called "The Long Tail," about which he wrote a famous article in 2004 and which he has now turned into a book. It contains both hopeful and troubling news for publishers.

The basic concept is fairly simple, though it helps to have an illustration in front of you to understand it. Picture a graph showing sales numbers for, say, books. At the left, way up high, are the numbers for blockbusters like "The Da Vinci Code." The curve then dips sharply down and bends to the right, flattening out and stretching at some length (hence the name "long tail") as the sales per book get smaller and smaller.

It used to be that it simply wasn't worth keeping anything in print below a certain sales-per-year figure. But with the Internet's ability to reach niche markets, combined with online booksellers' infinite shelf space, this has changed.

The good news? More titles can be sold profitably over a longer time. The bad news -- for an industry highly focused on the care and feeding of bestsellers -- was summed up on a screen to Anderson's right as he began his talk.

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