Blandness from the Biggies, Innovative Indies: Book-Industry Trends at BEA 2005

Tsunami Publishing’s Bob Bellin is a small publisher who thinks big. “We take abandoned brands, former bestsellers that we can bring back to bestsellers through aggressive and offbeat marketing and promotion.”

New York Times bestseller Steve Alten feels Bellin is treating him “a lot better than my last two publishers.” Bellin sent out 1500 galleys of his first title, Alten’s The Loch; he spent $100,000 on PR, satellite TV and radio tours, bought ad time and a banner on a coast-to-coast radio show, and is testing a radio ad campaign involving a bookstore coop.

“Our goal is to sell books. Ideally, a book that’s likely to be made into a movie; it will sell more books.” And apparently, it’s working, so far. “We popped in the first week at number 9 on Ingram’s bestseller list. We’ve already sold more than his last publisher. We printed five figures and we’re about to go to print again,” one month after the May 1 publication date. Bellin bought the rights to another abandoned Alten book, Meg, from Bantam. New Line Cinema is making the movie.

The trend of smaller publishers picking up larger authors was evident elsewhere at the show. Two among several examples: Small publisher Quill Driver Press has picked up Dr. Ruth, and Chelsea Green, publisher of the mega-hit Don’t Think of an Elephant (see related story), is in negotiation with some successful authors (but declined to name names).

On the other side of the fence, large publishers continue to pick up titles that have proven themselves in an independently published, self-published, or even subsidy-published run. John Wiley, for instance has picked up Internet marketing gurus Joe Vitale and Mark Joyner (in separate books, although the two have often collaborated).

Several categories seem to be drying up. You’d expect some reduction in political books now that last year’s hotly contested election is in the past, but their near-total absence from the major houses and obscurity even among the smaller houses was surprising.

Also, unless I simply missed the whole section somehow, there were amazingly few glitzy new cookbooks. The cookbooks I saw were mostly of the down-home variety, rather than the big coffee-table volumes that have dominated for several years. Combined with the greatly reduced presence of large four-color art titles, the shortage made me wonder if there’s been a huge increase in the cost of printing and/or shipping in Asia–though I wouldn’t expect the impact of the weak dollar and high fuel prices to show up until next year, given the publishing industry’s long lead times.

I noted last year how bland the largest houses have become, and this year that was even more true. Cookie-cutter, formulaic books dominated the largest booths–but independent publishers continue to focus on titles that one can take pride in.

One category where the largest houses do seem to still have some verve: history. Lots of solid-looking titles on wars, presidents, and fashions over the decades and centuries.

And perhaps 2005 is the Year of the Ordinary Mortal. From both small and large publishers, I saw a number of books celebrating the achievements of average Joes and Janes. One of my favorites in the category was Damn! I Wish I’d Written That!: chronicling the publishing successes of ordinary folks who didn’t necessarily even have big credentials. (However, it was rather odd to see Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese on the cover along with several more appropriate books. Johnson, after all, was already the best-selling co-author of The One-Minute Manager.)

Faith and religion were much evident this year, and not just in the religion aisles. WJK Books, whose The Gospel According to the Simpsons I picked up a couple of years ago, has now expanded to a whole line of Gospel According to titles: Harry Potter, Tolkein, and even (forthcoming) Oprah, among others. Wonder if the Potter book will shift the discourse among those elements of the Christian Right that have attacked and tried to censor the series.

And speaking of Hogwarts’s celebrated wizard, spin-off were everywhere: not just books trying to position themselves as the Next HP, but also literary criticism and scholarship on Potter and other fantasy series–looking, for instance at the mythology that influenced JK Rowling (this is a trend at least a few years old–my 2001 show report mentions The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter: A Treasury of Myths, Legends, and Fascinating Facts, but more titles are appearing, including Fact, Fiction, and Folklore in Harry Potter’s World from midsize publisher Hampton Roads.

As I look over my notes, I do notice that a lot of what I’ve found worth mentioning is from midsize publishers who put out, say, 10 to 50 titles per year. As the big boys swallow each other up and increasingly concentrate on celebrity tell-alls and blockbuster novels from famous authors, perhaps it is these publishers who will become the Keepers of the Culture: the ones who can release books that actually advance our thinking as a society, who take a chance on a first-timer’s literary gem–and who have enough marketing muscle (unlike the vast majority of self-publishers, tiny independents with fewer than five titles a year, or authors publishing with subsidy presses) to actually move the books out of the warehouse, into the bookstore, and out to the consumer.

Maybe it’s time to start reading publisher labels as we select our bookstore purchases. While an imprint like Chelsea Green, Berrett-Koehler, or New Society Publishers–and there are a couple of dozen others–doesn’t guarantee a great book, in my experience, it definitely increases the odds.

Shel Horowitz is the Editor of Global Arts Review and Down to Business and the founder of the Business Ethics Pledge campaign. His Apex Award-winning latest book is Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First.

Another article from the 2005 BEA:

Independent Publisher Combines Progressive Politics, Commercial Success
By Shel Horowitz