Thursday, June 1, 2017

BookExpo Snapshots: Editors’-Eye-Views of the Publishing Industry, mid-2017

BookExpo, the annual booksellers and publishers convention, has traditionally been the moment for media and book-business observers to take stock of the industry. Like many things about traditional publishing, BookExpo has shrunk in size and schedule in recent years, though it now includes a consumer-oriented portion called BookCon. But editors, sales reps, and booksellers still walk the floor and ask each other “how’s business?”

So I thought I’d honor the tradition and gather some impressions from colleagues. The natural place to start was a ready-made panel of experts—the contributors to the forthcoming essay collection WHAT EDITORS DO, edited by yours truly. (For more on the book, see yesterday’s post.)  I circulated a few questions to my 26 co-authors. Interestingly, many of those who answered were not attending BookExpo, probably because for those who are, this is a crazy-busy week. But I got some thoughtful responses from editors representing Big 5 trade houses, university, and literary indie publishing.

Herewith some brief selections from their answer, with a few of my own comments thrown in. As usual, different perspectives give us a variegated picture of the industry, where cautious optimism is streaked with the awareness of challenges.

What was the first BEA
you attended? What do you remember of BookExpos past or present, or what are you looking forward to?

Jane Friedman
Jane Friedman (Blogger, consultant and industry observer at  My first BEA was 2004 in Chicago. I don't remember much from that first year, but I attended every year after that for about 10 years. The best part was always meeting and spending time with authors. The worst part was always the lines, lines, lines, and crowding—and feeling done with humanity by the end. I'm not attending this year, but I know it's partly a mistake. Some serendipitous encounter always happens that makes the discomfort and exhaustion worthwhile.

Susan Ferber  (Executive Editor, Oxford University Press):  I have actually never attended the BEA! Since I work for a university press, my highest priority is the conferences in my academic discipline. 

Diana Gill  (Executive Editor, Tor/Macmillan): My first ABA was while I was still in college, courtesy of one of my very first publishing mentors. I remember being so very excited to see the booths and to get ALL THE GALLEYS.  I couldn't believe how cool it was. Your first BEA is a rush, whether it was many years ago or for the new assistants just starting out.

Peter Ginna: I have written elsewhere of memorable BEA experiences and characters. One that was happily not my own was a peer of mine who toiled in an imprint of Random House, back in the days when Random caused a stir by spending a million dollars on a vast, elaborate BookExpo booth featuring an actual House in the middle of it. Along with other low-riders on the corporate totem pole, he was stocking the shelves in the booth when an unfamiliar-looking suit, cocking his head to examine the custom-made fixtures, said, how does it look? The new recruit said, candidly, I think it looks like a French pissoir. It was then that he found he was speaking to Alberto Vitale, Randoms CEO.

Carol Fisher Saller
What is the most underappreciated positive development in publishing recently, or the most overhyped negative one? What about the flip side—what is the most underappreciated threat or challenge to book publishers? 

Carol Fisher Saller (University of Chicago Press, author of The Subversive Copy Editor): From the get-go, I was amazed at the hysteria over e-books and how they were going to destroy publishing. Instead, we've seen publishing explode in many new directions, with more kinds of things to read in more kinds of formats than ever before.

PG: One of the most underappreciated challenges to publishing is the dwindling of mass consumer medianewspapers, magazines, and radio especiallythat have long been a crucial way for publishers to make readers aware of new books. Online marketing and social media have not yet replaced the reach of, for example, the vanished book-review sections of major newspapers. Another real problem for book publishing is its lack of diversitypublishing staffs are far less diverse than America at large. (In a chapter of What Editors DoChris Jackson of One World writes eloquently of why this is a serious issue.) It is not just a matter of social justice, when talented candidates dont get hired or promoted. Its a problem for the industry, which is often out of step with the tastes and interests of the reading population.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf
Katharine OMoore-Klopf (Freelance editor specializing in medical & life science books): I have been concerned about the loss of respect for or loss of knowledge about the value of developmental editing, line editing, and copyediting. As publishing has become more about the financial bottom line than about quality, editing has come to be seen as less of a necessity than it once was. Part of this is because editors in general have been self-effacing, thinking it almost improper to talk about the value of their role in publishing. That must change. Editors of all kinds must speak out in every venue possible to explain what it is they do and why it’s important to the quality of books.

Diana Gill
Diana Gill: I think it's fairly clear that the big 5 will continue to contract and tighten their programs, with all the commensurate effects and spinning of publishing's own wheel of fortune for people at those houses, and for authors new and old. I hope smaller and indie presses continue to provide some alternatives and ideally grow to counteract the contraction.

Susan Ferber: I think we have taken for granted what an incredible development print on demand has meant for publishers, authors, and readers.  There is no need to declare books out of print anymore; we can literally make work available forever, which is a development on par with the printing press in my mind.  I think the death of the print book has been the most overhyped negative in the publishing world.  This has been augured and feared for so long, and for new generations of readers, it is so heartening to see that they love the print form.  It is enduring and old technology can and does have value. 
Susan Ferber

Jane Friedman:  I am encouraged by the new data-oriented research and tools that help publishers and authors better speak to, connect, and market directly to readers. Direct-to-consumer knowledge and marketing has been the Achilles heel for traditional publishers, particularly when compared to Amazon's capabilities, but it really feels like the industry is making some progress. 

As an author-advocate, I wish publishers would take more seriously the need to offer authors more communication and education on book marketing. I know it's not possible for publishers to give all their titles A-list marketing treatment, but by far the biggest complaint I hear from authors is that no one told them or prepared them for what the publisher would or would not do. Greater transparency would be so helpful.

 [BookExop photo via Chicago Tribune]