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BookExpo considers future of books in a digital world

NEW YORK — Will the book publishing industry be able to keep pace with the digital revolution?

Will e-readers render the ink-on-paper book a "fetish object"?

Are 140-character Tweets the best way to sell a 400-page book?

Will authors start seeking not the perfect, most expressive word but the one most searched online?

The changing shape of books and bookselling was a major topic at last weekend's BookExpo America in New York City.

The industry's big annual convention was attended by about 29,000 publishers, authors, booksellers, librarians and journalists, according to Publishers Weekly. That's a smaller number than in New York two years ago, but up from 2008 in Los Angeles.

The so-far uneasy marriage of books and digital media provoked two main topics of conversation: How will books themselves and the way they are sold change? And can the book industry resist the online demand for free content?

At one author event, Ken Auletta, who covers the media for the New Yorker, talked about his upcoming book Googled: The End of the World as We Know It.

Auletta spent more than two years amid Silicon Valley culture, interviewing Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page and many others, whom he found "brilliant but not always wise."

Google was created by an engineering culture that focuses on how to do things more efficiently, but, Auletta said, "They don't think about the consequences of what they do."

He told how Brin, whom Forbes ranks as the 26th richest person in the world, said to him one day, "Why don't you put your book on the Internet for free? That would be cool." (Google has already digitized about 10 million books.)

If he gave the book away, Auletta asked, who would pay him an advance to spend several years researching and writing the book? Who would edit it, legally vet it, fact check and copy edit and design it, market and publicize it?

Brin said, "Oh."

Digital books, reviews

A busy section of the convention floor was dedicated to new media, with booths offering demos of Amazon's Kindle, Sony Reader and other e-book devices.

One standard feature of BookExpo is the distribution of thousands of advance reader's copies — full-size, soft-bound versions of upcoming hardback books — to booksellers, librarians and reviewers.

This year, a number of publishers experimented with digital reader's copies, notably HarperCollins, which offered no printed galleys at all, only cards with the book jacket image on one side, a code and instructions for downloading the book on the other.

A panel sponsored by the National Book Critics Circle focused on the shift in book reviewing from traditional "authoritative" sources like newspapers and magazines to online user-generated reviews.

Ben Greenman, a novelist (Superbad) and New Yorker editor, said that shift has left authors "confused to the point of fury" about how to get books to readers.

Software engineer Otis Chandler talked about GoodReads.com, the social network site for readers he founded in 2006. It has more than 2 million members who have rated or reviewed more than 50 million books.

"Some of our reviewers are creating themselves as a brand, on blogs, Facebook, Twitter," Chandler said. Just as Google built a reputation system for Web searches, GoodReads hopes to develop a similar weighting system for book reviews; it has recently added a function to allow followers for reviewers.

Book blogger Bethanne Patrick noted, "It's not your tweet that gives you authority. It's what you link to, and that might be a newspaper review."

Book as fetish object

Another panel brought together several authors who write about technology and new media to discuss whether the publishing industry still holds "the keys to the kingdom" — to making decisions about what gets published.

Tom Standage, an author (An Edible History of Humanity) and business editor at the Economist, said, "The obvious analogy is the music industry, which has been completely hollowed out" by technology that allows musicians to record and distribute their own music cheaply. "What's left is people who can do publicity." Standage does think that printed books will survive as "fetish objects," perhaps becoming more artistically designed and expensive: "Nobody wants an e-book for Christmas."

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired and author of The Long Tail and the upcoming Free: The Future of a Radical Price, pointed out that basic Web savvy isn't enough: "Being able to just do the Twitter to Amazon link is not a reliable career." He also speculated that e-readers could cause book consumption to rise because books will be cheaper and easier to buy.

Steven Johnson (The Invention of Air) said that as more books become available in digital form, they will cease to be "dark matter" — not searchable — and begin to be ranked by search engines. "Pages within a book could be competing with each other."

Lev Grossman, a novelist (Codex, The Magicians) and book editor and technology writer for Time magazine, said that could change how authors write. "You'll pause on the key word and say, if I was a huge whore, I'd write it this way for the search engines."

Not every author welcomes technological innovations. Sherman Alexie (whose upcoming book of short stories is War Dances) said during a panel that he refuses to allow his books to be sold in digital format; he considers e-readers "elitist" because of their relatively high cost.

Comic and TV host (The Late Late Show) Craig Ferguson talked at another event about his upcoming memoir, American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot.

He said his publishers have been telling him "I need to tweet more. I don't even know what tweeting is . . . I'll give them the old tweety tweet tweet, but to me this is rubbish."

Crime writer James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential) said during an on-stage interview, "I've never used a computer in my life. I started out writing on paper with a pen, and it worked. I'm also afraid of being distracted by pornography if I turn on the f---ing thing."

But, he said, his publisher "made me get on Facebook." As he signed copies of his fall book, Blood's a Rover, he said to each person in line, "Don't forget to write on my wall."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

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BookExpo considers future of books in a digital world 06/06/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 6, 2009 4:31am]

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