At a question-and-answer session during an author breakfast at the recent BookExpo America, it didn't take long for the eternal question to be asked from the audience: How can I get someone to publish my book?
The event's host, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, gestured toward the author seated nearest him on the panel — Condoleezza Rice — and said, "You could become secretary of state."
Wisecracks aside, how to publish books was a burning question at the convention, the book industry's biggest in North America. About 30,000 publishers, authors, booksellers, librarians and others gathered at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in late May for three days of browsing the booths of 1,500 exhibitors, lining up for author autographs, listening to panel discussions, nabbing advance copies of upcoming books and angling for invitations to parties where guests included everyone from Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to Rolling Stone Keith Richards (both have books coming in the fall).
The business of selling books has always been the core of BEA, but now attendees also address the question of the forms those books will take. Publishing is in the same kind of slump as most other industries these days, but its fastest-growing segment is e-books. The day before the convention opened, Publishers Weekly reported that sales of e-books had risen 252 percent in the first quarter of 2010. Digital publishing is changing the industry, and changing it fast.
It's also raising a slew of other questions. If people are buying e-books, on what device are they reading them? On the exhibition floor, several companies were hawking e-reader devices and software, but most of the conversation at workshops and panels centered on the two big dogs, the Kindle and the iPad.
Another hot topic was e-book pricing. In the last year, Amazon.com's practice of pricing most e-books for Kindle at $9.99 or less has been challenged by several large publishers who prefer the "agency model," which lets them set prices for their e-books. During the convention, Amazon.com and Penguin, one of the biggest publishers, announced that they had come to an agreement and that Penguin's new e-books (which had not been available at Amazon for a couple of months) would return to the site.
The growth of e-books will also have an impact on author royalties. Under the print business model, much of a book's price covers costs of the physical book — paper, printing, transport, storage. Those costs don't apply to e-books, and authors hope that will translate to a bigger slice of the pie for them.
Where do booksellers — particularly the already beleaguered independent bookstore — fit into that mix? One development announced at BEA is a new partnership between the American Booksellers Association and Google. Google Editions will roll out this summer with about 400,000 e-books, downloadable to any device (except Kindle). The plan is to allow bookstores to "geo-affiliate" to let customers download books in the store and give it some of the profits.
Meeting and greeting authors is another one of BEA's reasons for being, and celebrity authors are always a feature. This year's keynote speaker was Barbra Streisand, interviewed by Oprah Winfrey pal and radio show host Gayle King about her upcoming coffee-table book, My Passion for Design. Streisand said she had made a stab at writing a memoir: "I thought, 'This is hard. I'd better write about design.' "
Sarah Ferguson was scheduled to host a breakfast panel of children's authors, and there was chatter that she might cancel in the wake of her caught-on-video blunder of trying to cash in on her relationship with the British royal family. But she kept calm and carried on, drily commenting to the crowd that it had been difficult to get into the convention center, then remarking that maybe "I ought to take a leaf from one of my own books — perhaps Ashley Learns About Strangers."
Stewart wasn't just hosting a panel; he has another book coming in September, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents Earth (The Book): A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race. So does another comic who hosted an author event, Patton Oswalt, who described his book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, as "Sex and the City for fat shut-ins."
Oswalt proved to be as big a book geek as anyone at the convention, introducing God Is Not Good and Hitch-22 author Christopher Hitchens effusively as "the White Stripes and Bowie and a rocket made out of Cheetos." Hitchens was oddly subdued, speaking briefly and almost entirely in limericks, albeit limericks about the Russian Revolution and The Wasteland.
Bestselling authors speaking on panels or signing advance copies of their upcoming books included Michael Connelly, William Gibson, Pat Conroy, Sara Gruen, John Grisham, Carl Hiaasen, Debbie Macomber, Scott Turow and many more.
Gibson, who is credited with coining the term "cyberspace" and was writing about the digital age before most of us knew it was coming, talked about how attitudes have changed toward change. "People my age (he's 62) are products of the capital-F Future. If you're 15 or so, you live in a constant digital now."
That includes the book, whatever its form. "A book exists at the intersection of the author's imagination and the reader's response."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs. tampabay.com/arts.