You're Talking a Lot, But You're Not Saying Anything

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BEA 2009: Did We Learn Anything?

Judging from the tweets, Book Expo America 2009 was more about building relationships than exploring meaningful issues: Ooh, look, book lovers can tweetup too! Wow! Meaningful relationships within publishing are important, but so is actual progress. And that doesn’t just mean talking about how no one knows what things will be like in the future, or lamenting a lack of galleys rather than celebrating a presence of, say, NetGalley (a system for viewing galleys online), or Eidelweiss (an online catalog system). Even Wiley wrapped up with a mere social media – mostly twitter – and will we be here next year. Well, okay, but what about social media and Twitter? Did publishers do anything at BEA other than finally admit that this social media stuff can’t be ignored?

According to the LAT, “Brian Murray reminded the group that sales of e-books make up just 2% of HarperCollins’ revenue, so they’re not a huge priority. When e-book sales revenue hits 20%, he promised to be more interested.” Except, um, book sales revenue is probably not going to hit 20% unless you work to make it happen! This goes along with Richard Nash’s observation that “The CEOs [of publishing companies] seem to think they’re not in the media business at all, but in a B2B business, where meeting with B&N and Amazon and a few independent booksellers constitutes doing business.” Nash goes on to say that, with the exception of Perseus, “the CEOs seemed more inclined to observe that all these bad things are happening to us, and it’s not really fair, and let’s focus on how to stop people [from] reading our books for free.” The commentary on Nash’s article is also smart, demonstrating the valuable symbiosis of original article and reader knowledge that results from the best forms of commentary.

It’s sad that publishers are only now, after a drastic economic decline that’s led to significant job losses in their industry and elsewhere, realizing that publishing is in trouble. But it’s even sadder that publishers don’t seem to want to evolve, but to move back to the way things used to be (and can never be again). Publishers have to start making smart choices, start making things happen rather than having things happen to them. O’Reilly is a great forward-thinking example for other publishers, opening up its work for commentary and hosting an annual conference focused on improving publishing rather than looking to the past. But everyone in publishing will be at the Hamptons all summer, anyway (right?), so there’s no hope for progress to be made in publishing anytime soon, is there? Oh, wait–Google’s taking over already; traditional publishers might as well tan the summer away.

Filed under: Bookselling, Commentary, Conferences

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