BookExpo America 2011: Print Books Not Dead Yet

Article  by  Dovilé DAVELUY  •  Published 23.06.2011  •  Updated 23.06.2011
Thousands of booksellers, publishers, authors and agents met in New York from May 24-26, 2011 for BookExpo America, the largest annual gathering of book trade professionals in North America. This year, the convention focused on the digital future of the book publishing industry.

For thousands of BEA’s participants[+] NoteIn 2010, 21,919 industry professionals attended BEA; the 2011 numbers have not yet been released.X [1], the convention represents a major business opportunity. Thomas Minkus, vice-president of the Frankfurt Book Fair and a loyal fair attendee, explains that such events are “the most important business enablers for the global publishing industry”, providing invaluable “face time” for various industry players to meet in person. “It is not uncommon to find 16 to 20 scheduled meetings per fair day, not counting receptions, dinners, and parties”, writes Minkus in his editorial. According to him, informal encounters are just as effective as strict business meetings for striking deals; fairs “create the hustle and bustle, the excitement and energy” that make the informal meetings equally important and valuable.

This year’s BEA program included a multitude of presentations, panels, and autograph sessions. Three Editors Buzz Forums, described in BEA’s program as the “original and ultimate taste-making events”, presented the selected high-profile launches of the year. In total, sixteen lucky titles were presented over the course of three panels: Editors Buzz (adult fiction), Young Adults Editors Buzz, and Middle Grade Editors Buzz. These forums have been especially influential in drawing word-of-mouth attention to the selected books. And word-of-mouth translates into sales, which, as Wall Street Journal writer Barbara Chai puts it, is “the most important buzzword of all at BEA”.
 
BEA’s organizers claimed that the 2011 convention was about “all things digital”, with a program that included key panels on the latest intelligence, social media, emerging publishing models, and enhanced e-books. Participants filled the seats at conference sessions ranging from “E-Books 101” to “How e-Books will Save the Book: Putting Storytelling and Creation at the Center of Publishing”, “Advanced Facebook: Cutting Edge Tools, Strategies & Practices”, and “Advanced Twitter: Strategies and Practices”. Amongst the digital activities at the fair were an introduction of a new mobile app for BEA; live Twitter feeds running at key conference programs; enhanced video podcast broadcasts of all authors’ special events via bookexpocast.com; and a special Webinar program.

The convention’s focus on digital matters effectively reflected the predominant preoccupation of the book industry at large – currently in a state of flux, as its various players attempt to reinvent themselves in order to confront the challenges of the digital age. Julie Bosman summarizes the situation in the New York Times in the following manner: “Authors are shrugging off publishers to self-publish their work. Publishers are advancing into retail. Barnes & Noble[+] NoteBarnes & Noble is the largest book retailer in the US with (as of May 2010) 1994 bookstores and its online bookstore barnes&noble.com. X [2] is getting deeper into the gadget business, and Amazon is stepping into publishing”.
 
E-books were at the center of everybody’s attention at the 2011 BEA. Their sales have been soaring, and in February 2011, e-books surpassed paperback sales in the US. According to the Association of American Publishers, February 2011 e-book sales shot up by 202% compared to February 2010 numbers – and Amazon is experiencing this trend firsthand. In May 2011, it announced that it is now selling more e-books than print books, hardcover and paperback combined. Its press release specifies that since April 2011, for every 100 print books sold, Amazon sells 105 e-books. This tremendous growth in e-books, combined with continued growth in Amazon's print book sales, has resulted in the fastest year-over-year growth rate yet for Amazon's U.S. book business.
 
Participants in one BEA panel on the future of e-book publishing suggested that those interested in getting a share of the growing e-book pie should work on developing marketing strategies tailored to e-book consumers. Evan Schnittman from Bloomsbury Publishing noted that what sells well in e-book format is what sells well in print, which, according to him, is proof that “publishing does not know how to market e-books yet”. David Steinberger, the CEO of Perseus, further explained that the current e-book selling system is “good for hunters, but not as good for gatherers”. That is, it is easy to find a book if a consumer already knows what she or he is looking for, but the virtual book world falls short of the experience provided by a visit to a local bookshop. Tom Turvey from Google Books bluntly added that “all book recommendation engines suck, because there is not an algorithm that can compete with a competent, real-life bookseller”. The participants concluded that e-books could be especially successful in promoting midlist authors and allowing a larger number of smaller players to find their audience.
 
In a presentation at BEA, Scott Dougall, director of product management for Google Books, noted that the number of consumers who own e-readers or tablets is also growing at an extremely rapid rate. Barnes & Noble unveiled its latest e-reader at BEA, a touch-screen version of the Nook (opposite picture), which is its third e-reader in less than two years. Amazon followed with an announcement that its new 3G-equipped Kindle will be coming out soon. The Amazon Kindle is currently a clear leader on the e-reader market with 41.5% of market share, ahead of Pandigital (16.1%), Barnes & Noble (15.4%), and Sony (8.4%). Apple’s iPad dominates the tablet market.
 
It is not surprising, then, that in this environment of rapidly proliferating new technologies and e-book success, the ultimate question of the 2011 BEA was whether print books will soon become obsolete. A special conference session entitled “The Report of my Death Was Exaggerated” was devoted to the issue. Its participants unanimously agreed that print books are far from dead. John Boris, executive vice-president of Lonely Planet, explained, for example, that digital publishing has opened up a number of new opportunities. Lonely Planet’s apps have been downloaded more than 9 million times and have surely driven some consumers to purchase print editions. At the same time, Boris said that they were reinventing their print guides, adding more color and maps to meet “consumer expectations goosed by the rich media experience of the Web.” Panel participants also noted that certain sectors, such as children’s books, are relatively digital-proof. “Parents want to buy their kids physical books”, explained Robert Miller from Workman Publishing. Everybody on the panel agreed that the competition coming from e-books is driving traditional publishers to enhance quality and come up with innovative marketing and selling strategies.

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Photos credits:
-Showroom floor at BookExpo America 2011 - AnnickPress / Flickr
-BEA Logo, screenshot of the official site
-The latest version of the Nook - Kei! / Flickr
  • 1. In 2010, 21,919 industry professionals attended BEA; the 2011 numbers have not yet been released.
  • 2. Barnes & Noble is the largest book retailer in the US with (as of May 2010) 1994 bookstores and its online bookstore barnes&noble.com.
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