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Report from BEA 2010: “Think Outside the Shop”

| Essays

Book Expo America this past month in New York marked my seventh time at the publishing industry’s annual get-together and my first  feeling like a grown-up. I wasn’t there to grab armfuls of free books (tempting, but given new airline bag regulations, impractical) nor visit with friends I’d made over the years (would do anyway) nor to make more friends leading to more free books (see above and my new wife, rightly entitled to half the shelf space in our now shared dwelling). As the CEO of a small business serving authors and publishers, I had meetings scheduled, demos to demo, and our future to chart. In short, I came to an industry conference for the same reason most working adults do. I came to “talk shop.”

My “shop” in this case sat in a cul-de-sac next to other tool and service providers, our faithful customers  and a loose confederation of wise heads thinking about the smaller, nimbler future of book publishing. It was “shoptalk” to its bones as “shop” the noun connotes smallness and specialization of purpose. Children are not misplaced at “the shop” nor can one get an oil change there while buying a recliner. The issues at play at this BEA might have been quite big for our little company–new products, new company focus, unfamiliar map tacks in a line pointing to our future. But the community we introduced them to was quite small–trusted friends and colleagues going back. BEA was a nice excuse to to see them in the flesh but hardly the convening of a dialogue. The conversation about the future of our industry happens nearly every day in social media. Many of our colleagues we met that way.

One of these community members described BEA as “my twitter stream come to life.” Quite so, but what is the benefit of that? The solidifying of relationships between old friends who’ve just met or inspiration waiting for the collective ” us” to ignite? Are we here for comfort or possibility? Both get used to justify attending an industry conference which by nature will include many appendages, all attached to the same beast. Many have needs unfamiliar or competing with ours. Some we have no time to even think about. Nonetheless we all  belong to the beast and when the beast sickens, so do we.

Book Publishing, our beast is, to put it nicely, in a period of great transition. And not just because of ebooks or KindlePadNooks or “Agency Models” no reader cares about. We are in the great uncomfortable middle  of deciding as an industry, what approach will be best for both ourselves and the common goal we all have–To put as many good books into the hands of as many readers as possible with a minimum amount  of inconvenience to them as possible.

Those interests–between publishers and authors, between librarians and booksellers, between technology and tradition–often clash. Its tempting then to ignore the obvious business parable–that books are a small pie industry and fighting over crumbs leaves everyone hungry–and arrive at the annual meeting prepared to tally up who your friends are and see how the battle lines have been drawn.

I don’t then for a moment begrudge say a librarian at BEA for wanting to talk to other librarians about how they do their job best and how libraries fit into the industry’s overall dynamics. But that librarian has publishers as vendors, readers (not allowed at BEA) as customers, local book bloggers and literary media (hopefully) as allies and booksellers as frenemies. A giant industry conference is the perfect excuse for these parties to have a drink together as their common destiny mirrors the industry’s own futures. Why do I feel then like this happens in the afterwards, at darkened hotels and loud parties, and not where it is most important, at BEA itself?

I heard one the nation’s most respected booksellers say to a packed panel session that his store has no relationship with local book bloggers. “Buzzworthy Book” panels seem great for sales agendas but curiously backward thinking without any plain old readers allowed in the room. And the conference’s opening plenary had CEO’s, agents, and authors arguing like brats over whether the book should be a physical object or a digital file (settled already), whether authors should get a larger share of the revenue (of concern to no one but them) and whether the price of a book has been “pre-determined” by cheap ebooks (again over and done with).

Each example is a sad illustration of the same dangerous idea. We come to BEA to talk to “talk shop”–to converse with  people just like us who understand how hard it is to be us everyday. That bookseller may think his staff has “no time” for local book bloggers but he then has his head in the sand about his relationship to his community and his business’s survival. The “buzziness” of a book is ultimately determined by readers at least as much as booksellers and librarians and to think otherwise is to simply ignore reality in favor of collegiality. And for an opening plenary–the “big vision” slot of reckoning at any conference–to devolve into childish mine-not-yours bickering is illustrative in two scary ways. 1) That those at the tippy top of book publishing still think their concerns mirror everyone’s and that 2) none of them for a moment thought their myopia and fear would reach anyone outside that room except by pre-approved media outlet. They obviously did not count on their words being scattered to the four winds by everyone in the room with an iPhone. Of course not. Because when you “talk shop” who outside the shop is listening?

I once heard a web designer summarize the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (tagline “Tomorrow Happens Here.”) as “a chance for designers and developers to talk shop.” To you perhaps. But as an overall assessment, that sounds like calling The World Economic Forum “Heads of State, talking about Heads of State stuff.” In the 21st century, the value of going to a conference is the collective energy of the entity itself. That energy should be transformative–new ideas derailing old ones, inspiration leaking from the windows, lives changed. If the takeaway is instead a  “yeah, me too” colloquium between members of the same club, can’t we schedule a weekly “Heads of State Stuff” conversation on Skype and call it a day? What’s the point of the money and time spent on conference attendance if the aim isn’t to be inspired but see who else is like you? If you’re in regular communication with your colleagues, shouldn’t that be happening all year long?

I love to “talk shop.” It makes me feel empowered, with brethren, not alone in this crazy business of ours. But I am also in this crazy business because I believe it is at a thrilling time in its history and I want to play a small part in that change. That change is as scary as it is exciting. But we will all be more ready for it the more we open ourselves to other voices, varying concerns, the more we think outside the shop and see it as part of a noisy, bustling marketplace. We all want the shoppers to come to our booth. But we also must assure, first and together, that they are in the habit of visiting the shops at all. And we can’t do this if our default mode is “nobody understands.”