It took quite a while for the ABA’s opening keynote to get past the preambles and underway. Roughly a half hour into the allotted time, R.J. Julia owner Roxanne Coady explained that the panel’s purpose was “to talk a little bit about the partnership between authors and booksellers – formerly the bedrock of our literary landscape” at a time of “extraordinary disintermediation.”
There’s an assumption about independents, she explained, of a “Mom and Pop/Apple Pie theory – that we have to exist”–but she suggested it’s more a matter of the “cute pet theory – we want them around, just not in the same way.” Coady then offered some statistics about channel market share to panel of James Patterson, Sherman Alexie, John Meacham and Lisa Scottoline and asked them whether they approached each potential stream (chains, indies, online, big boxes) differently.
Scottoline described everything as being part of the long tail. “Authors used to be passengers on the publishers’ train, but now it’s become clear we have to be more active. We’re not hear to tell [independent booksellers] what to do, because you work your asses off. Instead the question is what authors have to do.” Alexie likened his Costco experience to being akin to “an 80-pound jar of peanut butter,” and said it’s a completely different experience reading at Modern Times in San Francisco versus the Barnes & Noble in Union Square.
Patterson doesn’t think about differences among stores, and addressed the relative lack of publicity for BEA, especially in relation to Comic-Con, which is “little” and yet garners much more media attention. He also called for more inclusiveness at independent bookstores: “People need to feel welcome whether they read John Grisham, a book by me, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Open the doors wider to make people feel more comfortable, because when they are turned off, it hurts the book business as a whole.”
Meacham referred often to his experience as editor of Newsweek, pointing to magazine’s recent print and web redesign and how they want to capture the “28 million or so” potential readers who are part of what he called the “Virtual Beltway” and read newsmagazines, shop at independents, and who are equally interested in Lionel Trilling and American Idol: “How do I produce something that people want to read? If they don’t want to read it won’t matter. We have to produce content people want – something that’s been true since Homer.” Overall Meacham believed that in order to define the sense of author responsibility and duty, you have to define the mission.
After that, the differences among between the panelists became more prominent. Meacham referred to “niche-ification” of readership, while Patterson stressed reaching as many as possible. When talk turned, as it inevitably does now, to electronic reading Scottoline believed the effect of the Kindle and other electronic devices is additive; but Alexie was blunt in his objection: “I saw a woman in the audience with a Kindle and I wanted to hit her.” He also explained why his work is not available digitally: “I think [electronic reading] is the opposite of the Gutenberg press, and that machines promote elitism”, while adding his opinion stemmed from growing up poor with “limited access to technology.” It isn’t that Alexie is a Luddite, but that the “physical presence of book – turning pages, sitting in the bathtub, the relationship to book won’t be the same. It distances us from the book. Only a certain kind of book sells well electronically and thus limits what publishers will make available in that format. Eccentric writers will have even more difficulty getting books published. As a result the Kindle will homogenize literature even more.”
Before closing with a poem (“Distinction”) Coady summed up the challenges facing independents: “Things are changing, but there are opportunities to expand world of readers, retain credibility, embrace new technologies and think about who are customers are and what they want.”
(This feature comes from correspondent Sarah Weinman, who will contribute other BEA dispatches over the next few days. This was “pretty much captured as it happened” for today’s Lunch; she will have a few more moments to reflect and revise for her other dispatches.)