It was so deserted at the Book Expo America at the Convention Center today, I was beginning to despair about the state of the book industry. But it turns out I showed up a day early. I was not the only one. "But the website said it was open today at noon?" another lost soul pleaded with the security guards manning the entrance to the Exhibit Hall, where the various publishing houses were setting up booths.
Ironically, the only open section today was the Remaindered Books area. There, if you are someone who owns a gift shop or grocery or if you represent a Borders, you can order many, many copies of an $80 book on Solar Eclipses that will sell for $9. "Welcome to the New World," a banner in this area said. As the kind gentleman at one of the remainders booths explained, a "remaindered" book is one left over from the original print batch that the publisher couldn't sell. If they do a print run of 100,000 and only sell 90,000, remainder companies bid on the unsold ten thousand. That's where those severely discounted copies of Chicken Soup for the Soul at your local drug store come from.
Eventually, I wandered into a panel discussion on "The Author-preneur: Balancing Authorship and the New Business of Brand-building." It was the most well-attended panel of the afternoon. (Though maybe this is because it was one of the only panels of the afternoon.) "Writers," said moderator Kevin Smokler, "Yes, you need to do something on your own behalf."
Mark Sarvas, debut novelist and blogger extraordinaire--his Elegant Variation blog is required reading for the literary set these days, declared that he's "not convinced that we should start wearing black armbands yet" to commemorate the death of reading. Though he also said that he'd been called a snob twice already that day.
The panelists included literary agent Betsy Amster, Kim Ricketts, Ron Hogan and Smokler and Sarvas. All were agreed that people in the print industry need to start embracing new business models--new ways of promoting yourself as an author, of marketing your book, of selling books, of approaching the audience. "Tomorrow's readers are on the Internet," Sarvas said, "It's time to stop this snobbery about print." Kim Ricketts, whose company brings authors out on promotional gigs on cruises, and resorts, and conferences in Dubai, predicts that "we will see more bookstores go down." Yet she also predicts the rise of the library, so go figure.
Towards the end of the discussion, someone in the audience remarked that the panelists had put forth two contradictory points of view. Namely: Everybody was agreed that (1) authors should concentrate their energies on writing good books, not on hashing out good marketing plans. But, if that's true, then why are (2) the bestseller lists full of crap books? Is it maybe because the market demands crap?
No one seemed to have a good answer for that one.
Oh! I also wanted to say, about Betsy Amster: she is one of those old school literary agents who is still looking for books she can't put down. Period. When considering works of fiction, she doesn't care about the author's "platform." The work rules the day. This, at least, is a relief.
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I'm looking forward to tomorrow, when the BEA begins in earnest. It felt weird to be at the Convention Center not wearing a costume with funny ears, as I've been to so many science fiction conventions there in the past. Today was really just the calm before the storm. For those of you who are going to the Expo, when you check in, you'll be getting one of these:
You know you're at a BOOK expo when the program is thicker than the Bible.