Publishing Industry Growing Pains at Book Expo America

I spent the last few days at the book lover’s Mecca: Book Expo America 2013.  I noticed several things this year that made it stand out in contrast to my past pilgrimages to BEA (I’ve attended as an author, speaker, buyer, retailer and marketer). The most glaring things centered on the overall atmosphere and a sense that the publishing industry is still struggling to keep up with rapid changes in technology and how readers consume and buy books.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m an avid lover of the printed page. I much prefer to hold a real book in my hands, and only reluctantly use Kindle for iPad or iBooks. That said – the times, they are a changin’. I think BEA could have used the Expo to set a great example for publishers, buyers and consumers, with a few simple tweaks to the conference.

If you walked the Exhibit hall, you may have noticed a larger area devoted to the self publishing industry, the digital publishing industry, digital publishing tools, and e-readers. You may have noticed a slight increase in speakers dealing with the growth of digital and multimedia reading experiences. In my opinion – it wasn’t quite enough of a push. This series of trends in how people consume “content” has been growing, whether traditional publishers like it or not, for several years.

 What I Liked

I liked the floor space given to the new, easy tools authors have at their disposal to empower them with easy publishing in a new digital age. There was no shortage of booths for companies that help authors create multimedia, enhanced, books-as-portable-masterpieces that allow readers to go deeper into the story through music, videos, 3D graphics, maps, illustrations, games, animations, and more (and in some cases that may make authors and publishers uncomfortable: manipulate and “mix” an existing digital story into something new).

I liked the healthy number of talks centered around digital media and publishing for portable readers, tablets and a newly responsive and multimedia-driven web space. I’m glad that there is more education being offered at events like this one to help authors and publishers learn to better navigate the digital reading environment, and that many of the talks centered around how to make your digital publications more compelling and take them beyond just a simple PDF or basic ebook.

I liked that they continued to have an app for phone and tablet to help navigate the conference, though I felt it was a bit incomplete. It did help not to have to carry around magazines and maps when you already carry around big swag bags full of heavy books and booth trinkets.

I liked that the app included a way to scan fellow attendees nametags for inclusion in your contacts and for ease of mailing ordered books. They have offered this in years past, but this year the technology worked fairly seamlessly – an improvement.

What Was Missing

There were a few things I thought were missing from the Expo. Many of them I hope to see next year.

I thought the app had a few missed opportunities, mostly in the area of digital publications. I noticed a marked decrease in the number of available galley copies to take home and evaluate this year, but there was no equivalent uptick in electronic books. Why wasn’t the app set up to ping you when you passed a publisher booth to offer you a free download for your Kindle, Nook, or iBooks apps? I realize this would take massive coordination with the publishers to accomplish, but in an age where publishing is becoming digital, this is a huge miss in my opinion. In fact, I’d have even been pleased to see signs on publisher booths offering one of the dreaded QR codes that led to a download page while at BEA. Only a handful of booths tried to include technology driven downloads.

On the publisher side, there were several who were still reluctant to include social media and email in their marketing and in their communications with fans. Most of the major publishing houses had social fan outreach in place, but the smaller publishers did not. This was an especially glaring miss in the comic and graphic novel publishing section of the Expo. There are few fans more rabid than comic book lovers, and the publishers seem to be content to let them subsist in the dark with only minimal official engagement online. For example, did you know they are rebooting “Elfquest” soon? Neither did I, until I had a side conversation with a booth rep about favorite graphic novels. A rabid comic fan might have picked this up via forum or blog scuttlebutt and rumor, but for folks like me who love comics but don’t get into the fan world? There has to be a better way to find out information about what’s coming next.

I also noticed a lot of companies offering DRM solutions and ways for authors to protect their work in various ways. I think there needs to be an equal number of ways for people to share their digital reading material. The thing that is lacking in digital editions of books is the ability to easily hand it to a friend and say “Wow, this is awesome – you have to read this.” The more a book is isolated by DRM, or fixed to a certain ereader or software, the less the idea behind the book can travel, and I think that does all of us a disservice.

I also felt a sea change in the overall atmosphere of the conference. There was a buzz from previous years that seemed largely missing this time around. In fact, instead of feeling like I was walking through a bustling hive of book lovers, it felt more like I was walking through the world’s largest homogenous Barnes & Noble Superstore. This is, I’m sure, strictly a matter of perception, but I think that bustling indie feel will return to the Expo once the industry embraces the new, more accessible, ways of publishing and reading books.

Did you attend this year? What were your takeaways from the Expo?



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