I'm back from BEA (and a bit more rested than I was yesterday), and I think it was all it promised to be. Yes, it was more scaled-back, but everyone knew that would be the case before the show opened. Attendance-wise, it wasn't even that much smaller: according to the statistics I read, attendance was up 30% from last year's LA show, but down 11% from the 2007 NYC show. Instead, the main tightening of the belt buckles seemed to be on the exhibition floor: fewer exhibitors, smaller booth spaces for even the largest publishers, less physical galleys and more e-galleys. In an industry whose business model has arguably tended a bit toward gluttony (more on that later), maybe a leaner BEA isn't a bad thing.
And, even with the smaller show, there was still tons to see. In the arena of pure spectacle, there was the Javits Center itself--a gorgeous place for an industry trade show; Clifford the Big Red Dog in huge, inflatable attendance; the new Cool-er e-Reader being shilled by dancing women in sequined bikinis and headresses being followed by a trio of men with drums. In the arena of galleys, there were still plenty to pick up from well-known authors: Mitch Albom, James Patterson, et al; celebrities & celebrity brands: Serena Williams, a Top Chef team; as well as those from small presses and debut authors. Elaine practically advised me to only pick up the galleys I was interested in reading. I thought I was judicious in my selections, and my shoulder still ached at the end of the day.
Last, but nowhere close to least, it was a great and interesting day for business. I got to meet some foreign co-agents with whom I had only ever exchanged e-mails. I met some new editors. I got to meet some authors. I also attended several interesting seminars and panel discussions. One session focused on foreign rights and trends in Italy. (During the session, one publisher asked about Italy's market for erotica, and, after the presenter shook her head no, an audience member piped up to explain, "We have the Pope.")
One featured Chinese author and publisher Lu Jinbo--a pioneer in the internet literature phenomenon in China. Lu Jinbo's company publishes 200,000 online titles per year (yes, that's two hundred THOUSAND), and authors retain 2/3 of the profit. Some tips and business models that have helped make it such a success: online usage practices instead of the printed book are the point of departure; content is serialized (users pay about 3 cents per 1,000 characters); and users can use their mobile phones to pay for the content (they enter their cell # for the transaction and it is included on their cell phone bill). The numbers and scale in this venture are pretty astounding.
One of the most interesting panel discussions that I saw was at the end of the day on Saturday, Stupid Things Booksellers & Publishers Do. It was a discussion that was, at times, heated--although more with passion than alacrity.
One suggestion floated from an audience member involved reducing first print runs, to create heightened demand for first editions of books. If, for example, a first print run for prolific author & Guinness record-setter, James Patterson, well exceeds all wildest or even reasonable expectations of sales, why would a reader buy the book in its first-run, hardcover edition--knowing that the value will only depreciate? Why not wait, or check it out of the library? One might resist talking about books in such stark terms of capitalism, but it seems likely that bibliophiles (even the mildest bibliophiles) are the ones who will keep the print industry alive in some manifestation. Those of us who, when asked why we like books, start talking about the way new ink smells and a hardcover book spine cracks on first open, and the weight of a book in our hands when we're reading, and the world that grows with each turn of the page, are often the ones who are interested in investing in first editions or hardcovers of books. If the excessive supply is decreased, will the bibliophilic demand for books increase?
Another audience member (in response to panelist Dominique Raccah, CEO of Sourcebooks) jokingly suggested putting Espresso Book Machines in every bookstore. The idea was not roundly scorned by panelists, which raises the questions: What do we get out of books? Out of reading? Out of reading communities? How are local bookstores conduits for local communities? How are those communities expanded in bookstores, and is that community dependent on the selling of books? How are those communities recreated online?
This forum, as everywhere in BEA this year, was rife with questioning: of business models, purposes, etc. But in every conversation, participants were obviously committed to the business of books (as we know them now or may know them in the future) and, therefore, committed to the written word. Needless to say, it was an exciting time.