Revised on March 12th with formatting and links!
Well, here I am with a view of Times Square out my hotel window. I’ve flown in from an unseasonably sunny Seattle to an unseasonably sunny New York for the Publishing Business Conference & Expo—my first time at this event. As I promised last week, here’s a special Monday blog post with a run-down of my first day’s activities.
The trip started out on a low-note when I arrived at Sea-Tac airport in Seattle just after 6:00 am on Sunday, dropped off by my wife, who was hardly delighted about getting up at 5:15 on a Sunday morning, and the first thing that greeted me at the airline ticket counter was a handwritten sign saying my 8:05 flight to JFK was rescheduled to 12:45. A four-hour, forty-minute delay thanks to the need for a replacement part on one of the plane’s landing gear. So there I sat, in the airport, for what seemed like endless hours, only to spend endless hours more on the cross-country flight. Arrived in New York at about 9:00 pm Eastern Time, or a solid twelve hours after being dropped off at Sea-Tac.
This is my third trip to New York, and no matter how many times I blithely slide into a taxi here I forget how utterly death-defying an experience it will be. I’m not sure what the land speed record is for JFK to Times Square, but this guy’s at least a contender for the top three. I’m pretty sure he was going faster than the 757 from Seattle. Okay, that aside, a nice room in the reliably nice but uncharacteristically space-age Marriott Marquis (if you suffer from vertigo, do not stay here), and I was so exhausted from the long travel day I fell asleep early and was awakened at 7:00 am by the alarm clock—I only kinda felt as thought it was actually 4:00 am. It was sunny outside—that helped.
Obligatory hotel lobby Starbucks for breakfast then right into my first seminar of the day:
Navigating the E-Publishing Terrain: Sales, Marketing & Distribution (9:00)
Moderated by Joshua Tallent of eBook Architects, the small panel consisted of Jeffrey Yamaguchi of Knopf Doubleday, Pablo Defendini of Tor.com, and Cynthia Cleto of Springer Science & Business Media. I think the whole seminar was summed up by Yamaguchi, who said, “digital merchandising is something we’re all going to have to learn.” That actually ended up summing up probably the entire first day of the conference where few people were talking about anything but e-books. This panel was interesting and the participants knowledgeable and generous with their informed opinions. I particularly liked Pablo Defendini’s reader-focused comments and I share his desire to look at e-books from a reader’s point of view and not confine conversations within the book trade. Ultimately all three parts of the e-book product cycle: publishers, software and hardware providers, and consumers are all learning/making it up as we go—all trying to figure out what we want, how to do it, where to sell it, and so on. A good start to the day.
The Point of No Returns: Following a Different Path (10:00)
John Oakes of OR Books told the story of his unique small press that is redefining the publishing business from the ground up, but on a very small scale. Oakes was free with his criticism of some of the business’s most influential players, but he was such a likeable guy—a little goofy, funny, sincerely curmudgeonly (and I don’t use the word “curmudgeonly” lightly)—that I think he can get away with it. Anyway, Amazon didn’t have any goons meet him at the door. He was the first person I’ve ever heard say publicly what everyone I know in this business has known for years: The publishing business is—with eyes wide open—hurtling toward imminent disaster. Everyone knows it’s awful, why it’s awful, how awful it’s been all along, and how much more awful it’s going to get, but no one is willing to do anything about it. According to Oakes, “the –ism of choice (in the publishing business) is fatalism.” I found him to be unnecessarily anti-bookstore, but he’s got some ideas that every small press publisher should look very closely at. For bigger trade publishers, his M.O. would require a massive, top-to-bottom reorganization of every aspect of the trade book publishing business. I can only join him in dreaming the impossible dream. Hey, Broadway is starting to rub off on me . . .
Keynote Event: A Q&A with Steve Forbes (11:00)
This one was held in “the big room” and we were packed in like sardines to listen to Esquire editor-in-chief David Granger lob up some political, economic, and publishing biz questions at two-time Republican Presidential hopeful and Forbes Media CEO Steve Forbes. First impression? I felt under-dressed. For a city that prides itself on being ahead of every curve, New York seems to have missed the memo on the death of the business suit. Even the women were trussed up in severe angled horrors. The clothing for both genders came in one of two colors: black or light black. Liberals can be identified by their bow ties. I saw only one other guy in jeans—a 60-something apparent ex-hippy, but he added the professorial tweed jacket. There’s one in every crowd. The room was noisy with false jocularity and desperate, almost shrill “networking.” I must be too used to SF and gaming conventions. I felt like Mr. Deeds.
The stage was a little too low, so tall as I am it was hard to see Forbes and Granger, who sat in red armchairs perhaps chosen because they matched Forbes’s tie. Forbes was surprisingly funny—at least I was surprised. I’ll admit I have a tendency to assume that Republicans are humorless, but turns out that’s not true. He did fall into some of that MBA speak I loathe, with all the right buzzwords, like “brand” and “value added” and he and Granger, both from the magazine sphere, used a term I hadn’t heard yet: “Advertising Recession.” I guess it’s as bad as they say in the periodical biz.
Forbes came out as a fan of the Kindle, and in support of the $9.99 price point. It was darkly humorous when this multi-millionaire said he wouldn’t pay $14.99 for an e-book because it was too expensive. I wonder if he thought they meant $14.99 million?
The Sales Spectrum: From Discoverability to Pricing (1:15)
Back to the too-small room and tragically uncomfortable chairs—though at least the curtains were open providing a view of the Lion King/Minskoff Theatre marquee. Forgive my bad note taking on this one. I’m missing the name of the guy from Google who described their upcoming (June) Google Editions program—what sounded to me like a full on takeover of the entire e-book coding and distribution system. That’s one to keep a sharp eye on. Michael Tamblyn of Kobo was funny and went beyond a sales pitch and into an overview of the e-book landscape that alone was worth the price of admission. Both he and the less charismatic but no less articulate John Ingram of, yes, you guessed it, Ingram are of the opinion that the changes e-books and POD are bringing to the book business is not an either/or proposition but what Ingram called “either/and.” The subject of bundling came up here, and that’s something I think the publishing business should consider—the same way I now buy DVDs with a second disc containing a digital copy for my iPod (I watched my digital Watchmen on the flight out). This provides maximum mobility in what Tamblyn referred to as a device agnostic or “multi-modal” environment.
I made a note here that, especially in the Q&A and not just in this one seminar but pretty much all of them, there’s this underlying dislike of Amazon. People make off-hand digs at them, one guy insisted on calling them “Seattle,” which offended me on behalf of both Amazon and Seattle. There’s a weird anti-Amazon undercurrent here that’s catty, bitter . . . and I think unnecessary.
Beyond the Price Wars: What’s Really Happening in Book and E-Book Retailing (2:45)
Michael Norris of Simba Information, a group that surveys the publishing business presented another grim Power Point prognosis of the business’s terminal condition, which he referred to as the “Post-Potter Depression.” Turns out there was this huge peak in book sales with the release of the 7th Harry Potter book and it’s all been downhill since then. Wait: We’ll just get J.K. Rowling to start writing again. Problem solved!
Norris showed one slide I thought was just weird. It tracked the number of physical store locations of retailers with one line on the bottom coming up from the left to right charting the growth of Target, which stopped right about exactly at the end of the next line, which charted the collective downward spiral of B&N, Borders, and other specialty book retailers. And that line began with a number of locations roughly equal to the number of Wal-Marts, which of course took off up and to the right—so the whole effect was what looked like an S, with book stores falling down the middle. That did not cheer me up.
The New Requirements for Effective Digital Marketing (4:00)
Ted Hill of THA Consulting defined some of the new skills that book marketing people are going to have to pick up on as marketing efforts migrate more and more into the digital sphere. This might have been the only seminar of the day that wasn’t entirely focused on e-book production, distribution, and pricing. The core assertion at the start of Hill’s presentation was that “traditional book marketing is dying,” and that new marketing efforts will require new infrastructure (agile, value-added new online content), new practices (patiently building online communities), and new (or “renewed”) people who understand the changing demands of book consumers. This seminar gave me one really great idea that I hope to bring back to Wizards of the Coast, but that’s my secret for now—and hey, let’s face it, you’re currently reading my attempt to patiently build an online community in support of the July release of The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction. Hopefully, it’s working.
And that was “it.” An exhausting day, but I can honestly say that it was neither time nor money wasted. I’m smarter for having come here, and I still have another day and a half of knowledge to absorb. Come back tomorrow to share in some of that knowledge—but it may be posted even later. I scored a ticket to A Behanding in Spokane starring Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell for Tuesday night!