BEA and Tapas Combo Plate (Thursday): Wrap-Up, Part 1

Last night, I got to meet Allegra Harris, of North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, who was in town for BEA and the MediaBistro Circus, and with whom I’d been chatting (140 characters at a time) on Twitter. We met at Bar Carrera, a tapas place in the East Village, and talked about everything from the Oakland-Astoria parallel to the future of publishing in a digital world, to what on earth the menu meant by “powdered olive oil.” Along the way, we inhaled plenty of spicy almonds and chorizo, plus some Ipsum, a Spanish verdejo-viura white wine that I kept wanting to call “Lorem Ipsum,” given the conversation…

It reminded me that I have yet to finish digesting the last two BEA talks I went to. So…

The last talk I attended on Thursday afternoon was Tina Brown’s CEO Roundtable with Brian Murray (HarperCollins), Carolyn Reidy (Simon & Schuster), John Sargent (Macmillan), and David Steinberger (Perseus). The room was packed, and I wedged myself into a row, in between a man and a woman (both with extremely nice shoes) who were nattering on about the deals they’d made that day.

Tina Brown’s first question to the panel: “Were you shocked when Amazon [began] selling e-books at $9.99?” The CEOs made it clear that a lot of them didn’t agree with that. Brown went on, “Is it the beginning of the Pac-Man effect?,” and everyone around me shuddered.

Brian Murray tried to put things in perspective: “We need as many different partners and channels as possible.” The panel noted that there was an opportunity to learn from what happened to the record industry.

John Sargent spoke about investigating the reading habits of Kindle customers from both a short-term and long-term view. What happens after purchasing a book?, he wondered. Do you keep buying more? And how much more is there?

“We can’t control the final price Amazon charges,” Sargent explained. (Allegra pointed out that it’s not publishers who are necessarily suffering from this, right now; Amazon is using e-books as loss leaders, pricing them far below what most publishers and authors would say they’re worth.)

“Is it possible that the hardback book is going the way of Caxton’s press?” Brown asked.

“Content is one of the last media forms to go on the Internet,” Sargent replied. “We have an advantage [in that] customers are used to paying.” There have to be ways to make migration [to digital form] where value is created, not destroyed.

The panelists agreed that since Kindle 2.0, there’s been a turnaround; there’s more interest than there was six months ago. However, as Carolyn Reidy pointed out, “It’s not just a matter of partnerships. [Publishers have got to] integrate digital into every part of the company.” It’s got to be in the company’s DNA, she went on. One of the most perceptive points, I thought, came when Reidy suggested that the real “explosion” of e-books will come when customers rely on a device like an iPhone–“something they’re using for another purpose” (that is, not a stand-alone reader like the Kindle)–to do many things in addition to reading.

Discussion turned to how the market is changing from “push” to “pull”; customers know what they want and expect to track it down online, quickly. For publishers, this means adapting ASAP: “This is the way you’re going to have to behave,” one CEO remarked.

Brown, who’d been wheezing through the talk with a bout of laryngitis, asked her husband, Sir Harold, to take over, and the discussion turned to crash books. Reidy noted that they do better because of the immediacy of the market, but others disagreed, suggesting that the fast production time took a toll on the quality of the product. (Most Beautiful Natural Wonders bind-up in six weeks, I’m looking at you.)

Viral marketing was the next topic. The CEOs concurred that they expect (to varying degrees) their authors to have a web presence, and that an ideal arrangement would allow some collaboration via the publisher’s web site, and, ultimately, the retailer’s site. Videos, and as much extra content as possible, are critical, in their view. Given all this, as Brian Murray noted, it’s becoming “harder to separate the conversation about the book from the book” itself, a notion that raises key questions about editorial and authorial boundaries.

The best part of the viral marketing discussion? Reidy was looking for an example of how a Simon & Schuster author used blogs and commenting on blogs to create an audience for a book.

“Let’s say your author is writing a series of novels about…” She paused.

“Quilts!” hissed a woman behind me.

“Quilts,” Reidy said, way up in front. The row behind me giggled excitedly. (Jennifer Chiaverini’s excellent Elm Creek Quilts series is published by Simon & Schuster.) Reidy noted that reaching out to bloggers is key.

What about Google? (In this case, as elsewhere at BEA, “Google” was shorthand for the Google Book Search Settlement.) The danger point, the panelists claimed, is what Google enables. Publishers must “get control of libraries’ digital copies,” in order to prevent piracy. At this point, Sir Harold queried the audience: “Are there any authors here?” A dozen hands went up around the room. Sir Harold pointed at a man in one of the front rows.

“Are they being aggressive enough for you?,” he asked the man. (In terms of protecting authors via the settlement.)

“No,” an Australian voice came back firmly. The room gasped, but the spurned author’s explanation was lost in a minor free-for-all as the audience tried to figure out where they’d gone wrong, and craned its necks to see which renegade author it was.

I think that’s when I stopped taking notes. In the same way that being at Frankfurt in 2007 was intoxicating, being at BEA had a thrilling, behind-the-scenes-at-the-circus quality, for me. To be in the heart of the book world, among people who love books and lavish care and attention on them, is energizing and exciting. BEA and Frankfurt are my skydiving.

But it was also fairly disorienting: at Frankfurt, I wasn’t a hanger-on. I had a job, I belonged there, and I worked with the rest of the Rebo team to present our books and our list in their best lights. Here, I was a reporter (in name only) who couldn’t really write fast enough and whose only deadlines were her own…which explains why these posts are slightly behind the BEA-reporting curve. Still, I’m glad to have had the chance to go–and to have swapped stories about it, over tapas, with someone else who’s equally excited about what’s ahead for publishing.

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