By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009
NEW YORK, May 31 -- If you wanted to think about the future of the written word, the publishing industry's annual convention, held at Manhattan's Javits Center, was the place to be over the past few days.
There was a problem, though.
BookExpo America was almost guaranteed to make your head hurt.
This was especially true if you were a traditional publisher or bookseller, a late-adapting lover of physical books, or just someone inclined to wrinkle your nose at the mention of the word "twitter."
Take the road map to the world of 20 years from now offered by Mike Shatzkin of the Idea Logical Co.
A publishing lifer who's turned himself into one of the industry's most respected digital futurists, Shatzkin gave his BEA talk the unwieldy title "Stay Ahead of the Shift: What Product-Centric Publishers Can Do to Flourish in a Community-Centric World."
Key word: "flourish."
He'd been encouraged to change it from "survive."
"It's not going to be about how you flourish," Shatzkin said. Then he introduced a complex vision of why there might only be one big trade publisher left in 2029 by pointing to what happened to other industries over 20-year spans: network television between 1968 and 1988, newspapers between 1989 and 2009, and the crash-and-burn scenario most frequently cited in discussions of the book business, the music industry between 1980 and 2000.
Nobody knows what's going to happen to publishing, Shatzkin emphasized, except that it will change. But "you have to have a view of the future in order to know what to do in the present." His involves vertical specialization, "format-agnostic publishing" and an extended period of frantic Darwinian experimentation during which "costs are going to go up and revenues are going to go down."
As for that thing with printed pages and a binding:
"If you read a book on paper, you're going to be definitely stamped as retro," Shatzkin said. "This is not going to be a fashionable thing to do."
Speaking of digital futurists, it was hard to walk the halls of BEA without tripping over Wired editor Chris Anderson -- best known as the author of "The Long Tail" -- flogging his disconcertingly titled new book "Free: The Future of a Radical Price."
Here was Anderson onstage interviewing venture capitalist Eric Hippeau, a man without a good word to say for traditional publishing. "The business model for the book industry is broken," Hippeau said. If your business requires a truck these days, forget it.
What advice would the venture guy have for Borders, then?
"Shut it down in an efficient fashion," came the prompt reply.
Here was Anderson signing free copies of "Free" (cover price: $26.99) at the booth of his traditional publisher, Hyperion. Now here he was on a panel called "Jumping Off the Cliff: How Publishers Can Succeed Online Where Others Failed."
"When we talk about others failing, we're talking about the music industry," the moderator said helpfully. This allowed Anderson to make a point about a misunderstanding that "drives me berserk." The music industry, broadly defined -- which includes bands, fans, concerts, recordings, iPods, etc. -- is thriving, he said. It is only the major labels, with their foolish attempt to cling to the CD model, that crashed.
"We don't need those jerks," Anderson said.
A message for publishers, perhaps?
Not necessarily. The analogy, in Anderson's view, is not precise. For one thing, the physical book is a far better product than the CD. For another, well, traditional publishing has been very, very good to him.
An hour before, he had been on another panel called "Do Publishers Still Hold the Keys to the Kingdom?" Short answer: yes, and the authors on the panel were delighted to jingle them. "I have incredible respect for those traditional skills," Anderson said.
Still . . .
"There are many kingdoms now," he said. And if an author can't find a publisher to work with, "the Twitter to Amazon link is now a viable career."
Twitter, Twitter, Twitter! Facebook, Facebook, Facebook! The increasingly unavoidable social networking sites created the biggest digital buzz at this year's BEA. And small wonder: Word of mouth has long been the holy grail of book marketing, and now it's digitally enhanced.
"Sell my Google stock is what you're saying," joked the moderator of one of the plethora of social networking presentations.
"I'm not part of this! I don't tweet!" shouted memoirist, late-night TV host and self-described "vulgar lounge entertainer" Craig Ferguson at Saturday's book and author breakfast. Brief pause. "Although before the book is out, I'll be tweetin' every day! Tweet, tweet, tweet!"
Social networking was so hot it overshadowed not just Google but last year's buzz winner, Amazon's Kindle.
In an aisle dubbed the "New Media Zone," Bob Carlton of LibreDigital, which helps publishers manage and market digital content, used a laptop to display a word cloud for "e-book" that he created at a recent digital publishing conference. The fact that "Kindle" was the biggest word in the cloud, he said, is because people in the industry tend to think of e-books as "a technical challenge."
The point is, digitization creates "this incredible opportunity between readers and writers," Carlton said. We're entering a golden age in which the genius of "Gutenberg and Zuckerberg" -- the latter would be Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook -- are being combined. Friends will hand-sell books to each other online! Meanwhile, the gloomy cloud of what Carlton called "FUD," or "fear, uncertainty and doom," that has pervaded the publishing industry is starting to lift.
It's not lifting for brick-and-mortar booksellers, though.
A few yards away in the New Media Zone, Bill Reed, the co-owner of Misty Valley Books in Chester, Vt., was taking the latest Kindle for a spin. Lynne Reed, his wife and bookstore partner, stood nearby and contemplated the future.
"I think the publishing industry will have to change, but it's still a viable industry," she said. "Whereas bookselling -- nah. In 20 years, there won't be bookstores. Science fiction is coming true. You'll go into a house and you won't see any books."
Store or no store, though, Reed plans to live out her old age surrounded by the real things.
Ah, but even futurologist Mike Shatzkin doesn't predict the total demise of the physical book.
"I mean, I don't know how many billions of them we have on the planet; we're not going to suddenly burn them all," Shatzkin said. As for manufacturing new ones, well, the traditional press run may be facing extinction, but with print-on-demand technology, "pretty much as long as anybody wants a book they'll be able to have a book."
And hey, you could walk over a few aisles at the Javits Center and see the wonderfully named Espresso Book Machine spitting books out before your eyes. Here came one by Plato. Here came the CliffsNotes for Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth." Later in the convention, the machine was scheduled to spit out copies of "Book: The Sequel," a slim volume that the Perseus Book Group was creating and publishing in 48 hours -- in just about every format you can think of -- just to show it could be done.
"Book: The Sequel" consists of creative first sentences to the imagined sequels to (mostly) classic texts. The content was crowd-sourced, meaning anyone could submit a sentence, and whittled down to 240 sentences as the conference began.
At the Perseus booth, marketing chief Rick Joyce read a few favorites out loud, including one from an adaptation of "A Tale of Two Cities" in the style of that great Yankee wordsmith, Yogi Berra.
"It was 50 percent the best of times, 50 percent the worst of times, and 50 percent regular times," Joyce read -- a line that might serve as an optimist's view of book publishing today.