Four Slices of Book Expo of America 2003, Los Angeles
Trends: The Show Overall
The blandness of corporate publishing seemed to be the dominant trend. I saw almost nothing of interest from the dominant publishers, other than a couple of business titles from Wiley and a new Madhur Jaffrey cookbook. Even the covers were bland. Their emphasis seemed to be on glitzy-looking novels with unmemorable titles, heavy on genres like suspense and romance.
Interestingly, two of the authors whose publishers were going for the biggest buzz came to their large houses from self-publishing or POD publishing: 18-year-old Christopher Paolini’s Eragon (Knopf, originally published by his parents), and Ruby Ann Boxcar’s trailer park cooking series (Citadel, originally one of the few success stories from iUniverse). St. Martins’ new novel, Push Not the River by James Martin, forthcoming in the fall, is another self-published book gone major, and I know of a number of others in the past few years. So if you self publish or use a POD imprint, and then establish a sales track record, the majors may come calling.
Very few business books were on the floor. The few business titles seemed to focus largely on strategies, rather than on detailed how-to. They were split about evenly between books emphasizing ruthlessness and alternative (gentler) strategy books like my own Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First-that espouse principles completely opposite from Enron or Worldcom (e.g., Hug Your Customers, A Short Course in Kindness, Ethics and Etiquette in American Business).
Also in surprisingly short supply were books on politics, or Iraq-and much of what was there came either from European (especially French) publishers or from the traditional stalwart progressive U.S. publishers like South End Press.
In fact, the dominant flavor was avoidance of controversy. Lots of yoga and Pilates books-a trend recognized by Marcella Smith of Barnes & Noble, in a presentation about industry trends-and some general fitness books. Much less literary fiction than usual, and computer books from the US are way down (though they were heavily featured in the Asian and other foreign stands. More erotica than usual, some of it quite kinky. More Christian books, and, more pop culture. Fewer books that appear to have real substance, except in the booths from distributors like Consortium and NBN, which cater to well-established independent presses.
Among midsize publishers, a number had scaled their booths way back (Chelsea Green, Adams Media), while others still maintained their usual size (Workman, for instance, had a very large booth, as usual). And some of the smaller presses are maturing. Clearbridge Publishing’s Art of War series, for instance, has a new, much more unified and professional looking design and has expanded to many niche groups-not bad for a repackaged 2000-year old monograph from China.
Another disappointment for this year was the Small Press area. They always stick it well away from the main area so there’s generally not a lot of traffic through it-which means the exhibitors are very willing to talk, at length. Usually, there are least four or five absolute gems among the 50 or so little booths. But this year, the books were extremely uninspired, mostly poorly produced self-help and memoir titles. I didn’t see a single one that jumped out and made me say “wow.”
The foreign publisher area was desolate. Few people were about, many of the stands were unattended when I went through, and for the first time in seven BEA, I found no one at any foreign booth who was interested in even talking about buying rights; those few people I did talk to were there to sell, not buy.
I encountered more first-time authors/publishers who understand aggressive promotion-but walking the main floor, not the small press area. Liz Franklin, How to Organize Yourself Without Resorting to Arson, seemed to have her stuff absolutely everywhere. Far from a first-timer, with several dozen books out, another avid promoter, Lee Nelson, got the rights from Mark Twain’s estate to complete a novel about Tom and Huck as young adults-Twain wrote the first 15,000 words and stopped in mid-sentence. The book, coming this fall, is called Huck and Tom Among the Indians, and the publicity claims that it’s impossible to tell where Twain left off and Nelson began.
There were some interesting games. A delightful mix-and-match brainstorm game called “Spinergy,” and a word derivation game called “Derivations,” which benefits literacy/education causes.
The show was very spread out. To go from the west hall to the south hall, you need at least 10 minutes. Because of this, I had to scale back the number of presentations I could attend, including a number on the political situation. Fortunately, Pat Holt made it to several of these; for great coverage, see her Holt Uncensored newsletter for June 4, 2003.
One event I did make it to was ForeWord magazine’s Book Of The Year Award ceremony, where novelist Lev Raphael and book publicist Jacqueline Deval entertained the audience. For some reason, the show organizers had timed this event at the same time as the IPPY awards, which must have been very frustrating to publishers with finalists at both events.
For Raphael, the journey was a lot different than he’d imagined. “Your idea is that you’ll be reviewed in the New York Times both weekday and Sunday, in the New Yorker, ads for your book everywhere, and a big advance. First and foremost is the famous publisher with imperial clout. This is not a healthy set of expectations, and it’s not realistic for short fiction.
“As UMass MFA student, I won the Harvey Swados Prize and was published in Redbook. Unfortunately, it all seemed so easy and natural. I’d written the story on a weekend. My head was spinning like Linda Blair’s. Six years followed in which I could not sell a single story anywhere. Of course, I only submitted to national magazines.”
Reality started to settle in after he relocated from New York City to Michigan in 1981. The move “turned me inward. I asked myself who was my audience. It was a profound change and helped me get published and stay published.
Writing primarily about children of Holocaust survivors, he found a niche in regional Jewish publications, then did “a few modest books with St. Martin’s.”
But then the dream of a big New York house turned into a nightmarish reality. “In 1995, I sold a co-authored book to Doubleday, which I now refer to as Double-Cross. We were deeply disappointed. The advance was low and non-negotiable-the only one I’ve ever gotten with no wiggle room.” His editor promised all sorts of publicity, suggested a sequel and even a calendar-but “things turned sour. They produced a hideous cover and would not take our input. We suggested a big name for a blurb, someone they hadn’t thought of before”-and the company appropriated the contact to blurb a different book. “A few months before the book was due, the 5-city tour was canceled by fax. I have since learned that shafting authors was standard operating procedure at Doubleday and other big houses.”
That same year, he published a book with Faber, “they promised little, didn’t mention Oprah. But I knew I could count on an attractive, well-done book. I was invited to a sales conference to present my book-the first time that happened. They sent me on a small tour to NY and DC..
In the late 90s, Raphael was “offered the chance to move my mystery series from St Martin’s to Walker, for more money, I took it. I actually got a call from the art director. I spoke to a big house author with 10 books who had never spoken with anyone in the art department. She said, ‘how come you get bestseller covers and I get Young Adult?’ Now I’ve chosen [Marge Piercy and Ira Wood’s] Leapfrog, the smallest publisher I’ve ever worked with. It has been an amazing experience. The level of professionalism is the highest of any I’ve ever worked with. My editor did line and structural editing and I fell in love with my book all over again. My editor responds to e-mails within hours, and I’ve been involved in every aspect.
“Ira Wood produced the best written and most effective press release I’ve ever had, and that got my book adopted by the Jewish Book Council,” which in turn generated “more speaking requests than I could possibly handle.
“Ira sent me six different early cover designs and asked me to rank them. He sold British and Commonwealth rights faster than any publisher I’ve ever worked with.
“I feel like I’m finally getting my big break. It doesn’t make it into People Magazine. But my fiction is being valued truly, deeply, honestly, and marketed by someone with more business savvy than anyone else I’ve met in publishing.
Independent presses are willing to take risks because books still matter to them. They are offering an alternative to the six corporations who control what we read. I say, the only thing worse than not being published is not being published by an independent press.”
Stars’ Publicist: Win an Award, Grab Publicity, Climb the Sales Charts
Jacqueline Deval, author of Publicize Your Book and publicist to the stars, also spoke at the ForeWord awards.
“Authors don’t get told the truth. There are a lot of reasons why truth-telling doesn’t happen,” but the author has to be responsible for publicity; the publisher won’t do very much.
One of Deval’s favorite strategies is awards. “Apart from making you feel really good, awards can lead to increased book sales. But they help only if the sponsoring organizations, authors and publishers get the word out.” Even lesser awards “can be very valuable. You get a terrific publicity platform. The news gives you an excuse to contact the media-hometown, trade press, professional. If the award isn’t known, talk about the other newsworthy aspects of your book.. Awards get the attention of booksellers,” which is especially important as you sell your next book. “You start climbing a sales ladder. It creates in-house excitement at the publishing house and can help you get your next book deal. When I was at William Morrow, you couldn’t stop hearing about Dennis Lehane winning the Seamus prize. His next book was a bestseller. You build peer recognition.”
Another benefit of entering awards: The prize committee or judges may give you an endorsement.
Some authors gain publicity by creating their own awards. “Kelvin Christopher James set up a prize for three years, and named it after himself.” He offered prizes for New York City high school students’ writing on the theme of getting along together in New York. “We got essays, plays, fiction. The media loves such a warm story; this writer is giving a prize to kids. Great photo opportunities, a feature in the NY Daily News, a full hour with the prize-winning student on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, a column in the NY Times”-and of course, his novel got mentioned numerous times during the press deluge. His sons, who were high school students, helped him judge.
Deval encourages authors to seek out awards beyond what your publisher is familiar with. “Your publisher may not know all the awards available. If you research it on their behalf, they may end up submitting for you.” Find contests through PEN Grants and Awards Available to American Writers (also sold by Poets &Writers), searching Google, and reading writer newsletters or even publications from your trade organizations.
Deval’s website is http://www.publicizeyourbook.com
Barnes & Noble’s Trend-Watchers Highlight a Changing Industry
Barnes &Noble’s small press liaison, Marcella Smith, outlined the future of the book industry as seen through the lens of the country’s largest big-box book retailer. Among the key points:
- Books have dropped to 80% of sales-and cafe sales are rising (now averaging about 1/3 of all transactions-though with lower dollar amounts per transaction than books or music, of course)
- B&N stocks 40,000 new titles every year, but only 30% of these are purchased chain-wide
- The company’s buyers have gotten very risk-averse, and are buying very conservatively-especially with small-press titles (Marcella notes, “We could buy your whole 2500 copy run and return it all-that doesn’t help you!”)
- Brand has become very important, especially in highly competitive areas like business books; an author or series with a brand (e.g., Ken Blanchard or the Dummies books) has a huge advantageNot taken from her presentation, but important information nonetheless: Barnes and Noble is relying on the super-giant publishers for a much smaller share of its inventory. In 1994, 74% of its stock came from the ten largest firms; that figure had dropped to 46% only three years later (as reported in the Publishers Marketing University newsletter, June 2003). This represents an opportunity for smaller publishers-but also a caution: B&N is becoming its own largest supplier, printing a large line of classics in dirt-cheap editions, and crowding other publishers out of the front of the store to make way for these cost-conscious and highly profitable editions that cut out all the middlemen.
With fewer wholesalers and distributors open to very small presses, restrictions and fees cropping up everywhere (including new costs for the Amazon Advantage program), independent booksellers folding their tents (The American Booksellers Association has lost 30% of its membership), and B&N going into the publishing business big time, the bookstore channel looks less and less secure to many publishers.
Fortunately, as we all know, there are many, many channels where books can be sold successfully.
Shel Horowitz is the editor of Global Arts Review and Down to Business webzines. His latest book, Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, can be previewed at http://www.principledprofits.com.