Book Expo America: Industry Dinosaurs on Parade

Last Updated May 26, 2011 9:42 AM EDT

Want to know the future of book publishing? It's as close as a tablet, smartphone, e-reader, or browser. It's open to anyone willing to do the work: fast-paced instant gratification, freely combining text, video, graphics, and sound, available virtually anywhere.

What isn't publishing's future? A genteel world in which an entitled gentry can take a year or two to bring a title to market after it's already written. The world on display this week at New York City's Javitz Center during Book Expo America, the major industry U.S. trade show.

The New York Times claimed that "e-business is the buzz" at BEA. Not a chance. Read between the lines of the action on the floor, listen to the people in the trenches of publishing and selling books, and you see an industry that still hasn't begun to comprehend the e-media revolution that is rapidly engulfing it. The industry is a mass of silent film stars telling each other that the talkies are no threat.

Illuminated manuscripts were good enough for Father...
I attended BEA on Tuesday and found that, overall, interest in technology is superficial at best. In the eyes of the industry -- that is, as one person put it, the old white men in their 60s and 70s who run the big publishers â€"- e-books and what they represent are a curiosity and maybe potential opportunity. But they aren't vital to to the industry because its captains think they have all the time in the world to understand and exploit it.

Their focus is still on paper, on cutting deals and cutting costs, on keeping business, as much as possible, as it always has been. And, understandably, you can't walk easily walk away from the bulk of your business. However, the publishers have fought progress rather than embraced it. Collectively, publishing decided to stick its big toe into the ocean just as a series of 8-foot waves are about to hit the shore. The result will be ugly.

The show itself telegraphed its reluctant acceptance of technology by designating one corner far from the Big Players as the Digital Book Zone. That's where startups from all around the world pushing e-books went. Although the show did feature some new technology throughout, it came off as an afterthought, something tacked on to the "real" publishing business.

Perhaps it's a mistake to expect more from the people who could have invented the term "hidebound," but it was still pretty bewildering to watch in action. Even new approaches to producing old-school, printed books went largely unnoticed. I talked with a company that printed unusual high-end books in China with remarkably attractive color photograph reproductions. (The trick, for you publishing geeks out there, was to replace traditional halftones, in which ink dot sizes vary, with a stochastic process that changes how densely dots are printed.)

The result is a book page that can approach the look of a photograph. One of the people at the booth said that the cost is about the same as normal printing, but that almost no one in the U.S. does it because it's different from how they've always worked. Sure, book publishers do adopt new production technology, but it takes many years because they don't like change. When I told the story to others on the show floor, no one was surprised (although one asked for the name of the company).

As for e-books? Forget it -- they're just that much further out of the orbit of what publishing executives can intuitively grasp. These are people who have struggled mightily to keep things as they should be -â€" firmly in the latter 19th century.

If we ignore the barbarians, maybe they'll go away
One of the most striking spots on the floor was the Amazon Publishing (AMZN) booth near one of the show entrances. The company hired former Time Warner Book Group CEO Laurence Kirshbaum to head the group. Amazon already represents a big part of industry sales. It gets technology like no major publisher does. It's a shark among manatees.

And yet, according to someone I've known for years who has worked for multiple big publishers, traditional publishing bigwigs weren't even discussing the company's presence. "It's as though they discount Amazon as a competitor."

Amazon is already lining up writers who already see big sales in e-books. The company can quietly gut the heart of traditional publishing while the traditional business sleeps. Want proof? In March, thriller writer Barry Eisler told Joe Konrath that he turned down a $500,000 two-book deal from St. Martin's Press. Eisler thought he could do better on his own. Now Amazon has signed Eisler for six figures. Six figures that were probably north of half a million dollars. And down a bit from Amazon? The Google Books (GOOG) booth. A company with even more money to move the industry the way it wants.


The industry, however, still conducts itself as though it was still 1995, when the Web was still a curiosity to many. People I spoke with -- the production people and editors and marketers -- know that an era is over. They all know what the people who make the big decisions have yet to realize it. And the wave is curling over and begins to block the sun.

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Image: Flickr user takomabibelot, CC 2.0.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.