BEA 2008: Booksellers Find the 21st Century

The retail book industry is a notoriously slow adapter to new technologies; that seems to be changing. Trends that were bubbling under the surface through a few pioneers like Powell’s even just a few years ago are now becoming mainstream among at least the larger and/or more successful independent bookstores. 11 years ago, when I was part of an abortive attempt to create a web-based marketing channel to facilitate independent bookstores ordering from independent publishers, many bookstores didn’t even have a computer–and only a handful had e-mail or a website.

While those days are long gone, bookstores—perhaps spurred by Amazon, which has always been an early adapter and comprehensive user of interactive technology (think reader reviews, Listmania lists, author blogs, and more)—are rapidly moving toward using Web 2.0 tools.

Some of the ways bookstores are using these technologies:

  • Authors blogging before an event.
  • Staffers blogging on their favorite picks.
  • Audio/video podcasts of events, available later and all over the world.
  • Reaching out to sell autographed copies in places authors don’t frequent.
  • Promoting specific books through in-store videos. John Wiley, for instance, gives booksellers DVDs with 30-minute films promoting a specific book (and this in itself is quite a bit more ambitious than the typical 3-minute book trailer).

If I owned a bookstore, I’d probably add more, for example:

  • In-store workstations focused on Google’s book search tool, so that customers could easily locate books containing particular phrases, and with one click buy the book right there and then, with an exact indicator of where in the store it was located, or an easy interface to place a special order (which would automate much of that work that the clerks have to do individually now, and at the same time drive “long tail” sales to independent stores instead of Amazon).
  • Notification systems for new arrivals/special events from customers’ favorite authors.
  • Customer reviews and commentary.

Trends in Books

  • The biggest trend is sustainability. Green/climate change consciousness is everywhere, not only in book titles but in conference programming, in vendor announcements and positioning, in the attention paid by printers, store managers, etc. to Green practices in their own facilities (both for environmental and economic reasons). There was even a vendor from a Green galley submission service: e-book versions instead of the typical paper. Green titles from far more than the usual suspects and big houses, e.g., National Geographic and the business publisher AMACOM: covering shelter, lifestyle, food, clothing, household cleaners, and dozens of other topics.
  • Many, many progressive political, including numerous books about our disaster in Iraq, i.e., how else we could have spent the money.
  • The big-format art book is here: massive, oversize pages (much larger than 8-1/2×11), high page count, full color.
  • Lots of self-help, mostly diet.
  • Surprisingly large number of vegan titles—probably offerings from at least 20 publishers, including a guide to raw foods restaurants around the U.S. ( There was even a book that combined vegan and activist perspectives: One Can Make a Difference, an anthology of social change essays focused on animal rights, from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
  • Young Adult was almost invisible for some reason, or else I somehow missed that section.
  • Also much less than usual on fashion and celebrity, though books that do fall into this genre are quite glitzy (including cookbooks, which for several years already have been as much about coffee-table art as they are about practical instruction).
  • Also very glitzy: the shelter category—again, many of them emphasizing ways to be more Green.
  • Graphic novels, comics, and cartoons are ever-more-mainstream and ever-more-popular. Autographing lines for cartoonists were among the long ones, right up there with famous mystery and romance writers.
  • As Boomers age, more and more books about aging gracefully, taking care of elderly parents, living a happy and fulfilled and sexy life as an over-60.
  • In technology, the big star was the Amazon Kindle: a major step forward in the quest for a practical e-reader that could actually replace books. In my opinion, it’s still not there yet. It’s the heaviest 10 ounces I’ve ever lifted, and the screen made me tired—plus the price, recently dropped, has to come down a lot more. When it dips below $100, I predict an explosion in sales. But a whole lot of people have already embraced it: see related story.
  • Tons of buzz about Microsoft’s announcement the previous week that it’s giving up its Live Search program—but it’s unclear what effect that will have on the industry. The program was similar to Google’s and Amazon’s, allowing web visitors to search entire contents of books and have those searches returned in regular search queries.
  • International and cross-cultural writing is a growing category, especially fiction in translation (once quite rare at the show).
  • The consciousness movement is not just about meditation and yoga anymore. It seems to be integrating itself into wealth creation, social change, shelter, and other categories. The word “conscious” is showing up on more book titles.
  • Speaking of wealth creation (and loss): there were already several books about the mortgage crisis, and much less about investing in real estate as a way to get rich. But there were quite a few titles about getting rich or at least succeeding online: through blogging, social networking (a whole book from AMACOM on LinkedIn for business!), clear and appropriate online writing (some particularly nice titles from First Books).
  • The book community as a whole remains adamantly opposed to increasing restrictions and surveillance by the U.S. government. Librarians, authors, and bookstores—but especially librarians—have long been in the forefront of this struggle. Several years ago, I attended a BEA panel on censorship with Michael Moore, Barbara Kingsolver, Nat Hentoff, and Rick McCarthy; you can read about it here.This year’s BEA featured a free speech reading organized by PEN American Center and the ACLU, featuring Judy Blume, Dennis Lehane, and various other authors. Another event was “Obscene in the Extreme: Why Books Still Get Banned,” looking at censorship from The Grapes of Wrath to today.
  • Alternate formats were very much in evidence. Preloaded flash drive or MP3/MP player offers graced a number of booth banners…many publishers have turned to audio or are chunking up their content and repurposing it…there’s much closer integration than in the past of downloadable audio, CD audio, and print… One vendor I particularly liked,, presented a series of business and personal self-improvement audios from author/speakers, on such subjects as public speaking, wedding planning, and job interviewing, in a choice of digital downloads or attractively packaged and branded CDs.

BEA’s educational conference had a whole lot of programming involving libraries this year. One panel in particular I’d hoped to attend (but it was too crowded—I wouldn’t be able to take notes standing on my aching feet at the back of the room): “What Librarians Wish Publishers Knew: What Makes Them Tick, What Ticks Them Off.” This is something you might expect at the American Library Association, rather than Book Expo. I imagine with these events’ popularity, they’ll be offered again in coming years.

So…the short summary is that the printed book is alive and well, but new ways to package information are a growing trend. At least for now, however, these new presentations are supplementing, rather than cannibalizing, traditional paper books.

Shel Horowitz is the author of Grassroots Marketing for Authors and Publishers and six other books.

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