Book Expo/Blog World 2011: A Brave New World or End of an Era for the Written Word? (by Becky Garrison)
When possible, I highly recommend that authors who are about to publish their first book pay a visit to Book Expo America (BEA). By exploring the exhibition halls and sitting in on a few seminars, they will come a way with a more realistic idea of how they can market their wares without selling out.
For those unfamiliar with BEA, I offer snapshot of this fete in Jesus Died for This?. For the uninitiated, BEA started as an annual convention for largely secular booksellers and has since morphed into a monster marathon featuring seminar series, schmooze fests, and, of course, sales.
Ever since I first went online in 1998, I’ve been frustrated with traditional publishing’s inability to see the potential in this ongoing shift from a print to a digital culture. Marshall McLuhan uttered the phrase “the medium is the message” back in 1968 but Book Expo America didn’t really start to embrace the rising new forms of media with any degree of seriousness until some 40 years later. But following the financial crash of 2008, they could no longer ignore the decrease in print book sales coupled with the rise of ebook sales not to mention the plethora of free offerings like free ebook downloads, Vblogs, podcasts and other electronic means of communicating ideas.
When I attended BEA 2009, I saw the stirrings of a definite shift to include online offerings though most of the panels were put on by folks marketing themselves as the latest, greatest social media mavericks who would put P.T. Barnum to shame. Hence, I found the seminars much less substantial than the online discussions I would have with Andrew Jones aka Tall Skinny Kiwi and others about how to communicate one’s message in increasingly pluralized and globally wired world.
Also, I noticed a significant drop in the number of exhibitors and attendees, with the number of religion exhibitors down to 21 from a high of 50 about decade ago. An increasing number of publishers reduced their exhibit space, booked a room to conduct sales meetings in lieu of an exhibit or decided to forgo the event all together. Along those lines, one saw a noticeable decrease of book giveaways, swag, free beer and other tidbits that gave BEA a circus like atmosphere.
In light of the downsizing of BEA, I debated the necessity of attending this expo in 2011. But when I discovered that Blog World would be held concurrent with BEA, I decided to attend at least part of this publishing pow-wow as I saw considerable potential in seeing what might happen in a conference setting that explored both traditional and new forms of media.
- At BEA/Blog World East 2011, I found a publishing industry still adrift at sea. As they still seem to be tinkering with the technology that will help them chart a course toward the digital age, one can’t really come to any solid conclusions at this juncture regarding where publishing is heading. But here are some takeaways, I found to be useful for writers wanting to practice their craft in the 21st century.
- Publishers are far less willing to tale risks in this current economic climate. In the past some publishers would take on prize winning authors who would garner them prestige but not sales knowing they could make up the difference by pushing out Valley of the Dolls type fare. But today, the major publishing houses focused on what can sell. Even those mid-list writer who provide steady sales in the tens of thousands are finding themselves moving to smaller presses or self-publishing.
- With publishers putting out fewer titles, cutting advances, authors tours and other perks, I sensed a much greater push for writers to brand and market themselves albeit Joel Osteen or James Patterson. This branding biz is at odds with my observations that at least in religious circles, people are growing tired of the religious rock shows and looking for ways to connect in more authentic and meaningful ways. Hence, those who wish to remain authentic and unbranded may find a more welcome home in a smaller publishing house (many of whom no longer come to BEA) or possibly a hybrid publisher like Samzidat Creative Services. (My experience as one of the contributors to the Wikklesia book Taking Flight proved to be very positive.)
- Those present at BEA seemed to be embracing technology more than they had in previous years. This was especially true in the acceptance of ebooks and the development of technologies to enhance the reading experience. One found considerable buzz around developing products for the Kindle, iPad and iPhone, with other devices trying to carve out a niche market. For example, Kobo launched Reading Life, a program that allows readers to connect their reflections on what they are reading with their connections via Facebook and Twitter. As these technologies continue to develop, expect to see the inclusion of audio, video, interactive chat, virtual study groups, and other means of enhancing the reading experiences. Unlike say the VHS v. Betamax wars where many say the lesser technology won, the Internet creates a space where audience feedback can play an important role in shaping the ways we all want to consume our material.
- The Xerox Espresso machine created a huge buzz in 2009 when Perseus Books demonstrated how this machine could publish a book in a 48 hour cycle. This device which will automatically print, bind, and trims—on demand, at point of sale—perfect found, library quality books held the promise of transforming book stores as they could produce any book with an ISBN number in the time it takes to order a latte. This year, I found the machine off to the side and wonder how many financially strapped bookstores can actually afford to pay for this technology. There’s some talk of how bookstores can incorporate e-sales but I wonder how many people will actually go into a physical store to purchase a digital product unless the store provides some added value (e.g., meetups around a specific literary genre, cafe performances).
- Blog World in particular was dominated by a number of start-ups geared mostly for web developers and those looking to market their business online. I’m not certain how effective these tools can be for writers. For instance, what how readers revolt against a blogger who crafted a platform where people felt they had to pay in order to play. Hence, a move like embedding an ad into a YouTube video can help a company sell their products but I’m concerned that a similar move could alienate readers who want connections not commercials.
- The most helpful conference offering for me proved to be a Blog World session on how journalists can utilize Facebook to connect with their audience, check sources, and encourage people to click on their stories. This session stresses Facebook is the tool to get the conversation started, the real connection is the author, who plays the role of the dinner host on their page. Hence, writers who are not comfortable operating online should not be forced to use Facebook or any other social networking tool as people will sense the lack of authenticity in trying to force a conversation. Check out www.facebook.com/journalist for more information.
- At a session exploring the intersection of traditional and online media, I noticed that that no one wanted to tackle the white elephant in the room that goes by the name The Huffington Post. In this business model, bloggers get a branded platform in exchange for providing free content. Over the past year, I’ve noticed other websites are shifting to this model whereby they offer much less money for the same pieces in exchange for “exposure.” I can see how this model may work for some well known author/bloggers who are also very savvy marketeers but I have yet to see the evidence that this “exposure” produces enough added income to justify not paying writers if one is operating a commercial site. Yes there are legitimate reasons for penning material gratis—all writers need recent clips to prove they’re still in the game and cross posting a hot topic can generate considerable online buzz. But for professional writers still reeling from the ongoing demise of print publications and the shift to lower paying online sites, this sudden switch to much lower or non-paying markets represents yet another major hit to the profession.
Apparently, BEA and Blog World will be together in New York City for the next five years. So my hope is that there will be greater synergy between the two Expos. In particular, Blog World seemed very open to workshop ideas. So, hopefully at least some who have been blogging about these changes and moving the conversation forward might consider bringing their ideas into the mix for BEA/Blog World 2012.
Becky Garrison‘s most recent books include “Jesus Died for This?” and “Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-Shaped Ministries.” Her additional writing credits include work for The Guardian, Washington Post’s On Faith Column, Patheos, Killing the Buddha, Geez, The Revealer, and Religion Dispatches. Follow Becky on Twitter or log on to her website at www.beckygarrison.com.