Publishing Trendsetter is a production of Market Partners International and Publishing Trends.

Trendsetter at BookExpo 2017, Day 1

This year saw the return of BookExpo – now minus the “America” – to New York City from Chicago. It was also my first time at the show, although I’m not new to conferences and conventions: I’ve been going to AWP and BookCon for the last few years. But those are geared to writers and readers, respectively, and as someone relatively new to the industry, I was excited to see how publishers get down.

So on Thursday, I headed over to the Javits Center with a notebook, a phone charger, and some sensible shoes. (I’d already read up on conference advice from other Trendsetter writers.) My goals were pretty modest: to see a few panels, talk to other professionals whose work I admire, and check out some of the nearly 700 exhibitors. If I was lucky, I’d even get a sense of the state of publishing in mid-2017. And no spoilers, but I was lucky.

 Notes from the show

The last conference I’d attended was AWP, which was held in DC just a few weeks after the inauguration and which had an unmistakably defiant vibe. The show floor at BookExpo was much less overtly political, although there were occasional glimmers of current events: a special display for the forthcoming Subway Therapy book invited attendees to add their own Post-It note messages to a temporary wall, and large banners announced that Hillary and Chelsea Clinton would be making appearances at BookExpo and BookCon, respectively.

A survey of the floor revealed that the industry umbrella continues to expand: the booths held a pretty remarkable range of exhibitors, though the majority was publishers. Non-publishers included an array of mostly Chinese and Korean companies offering shipping and printing; wholesalers and used book stores; manufacturers of reading glasses; and a few toy displays, like New York Puzzle Company and DEVAR Augmented Reality. (Delightfully, I also spotted a massage booth.) Some exhibitors blurred the lines between books and other kinds of merchandise: subscription box services like Call Number and Owlcrate include books and book-related items like tea, stickers, and apparel.

How were the books themselves? Plenty of new ideas were on display. One of the stars of the show was This Book Is a Planetarium from Chronicle Books, a pop-up book featuring working tools and toys; the aforementioned planetarium is only one. Macmillan offered a listening station for attendees to sample forthcoming audiobooks, a fast-growing market segment. A number of publishers showcased children’s wares focused on the maker movement and kits for adults interested in all things DIY. For those interested in creating their own literary work, products like Storymatic – half-writing prompt, half-game – drew a steady crowd.

One of the more unexpected exhibitors was Greenpeace, which had come with an art installation. They were at the show to speak out against Resolute Forest Products, a major paper suppliers to many of the publishers gathered here. As one of the men staffing the booth told me, the aims of publishers and the aims of environmentalists are highly compatible; both want to see a thriving future. Greenpeace’s stated goal is not to move away from using paper but to move towards harvesting paper sustainably.

Of course, you can only sight-see for so long. I took in some of the programming, too. Since this was my first Book Expo, I picked events that were broad in appeal so I could see what people across the industry were thinking about.

The first presentation I saw was “Hiring for Diversity, hosted by Mecca Santana, Esq., current VP of Diversity and Community Relations at Westchester Medical Center Health Network and former Chief Diversity Officer for the State of New York. This was primarily geared toward booksellers in search of means for improvement – practical, rather than philosophical. Santana provided a few handouts with graphics and charts to help conceptualize a diverse workforce as well as a diverse customer base, as well as a list of challenges booksellers might face. These challenges, she argued, were really “opportunities for innovation” and for new kinds of community engagement.

In an era of book deserts and of overwhelming whiteness in the industry, it was good to hear a discussion of access and outreach. Ultimately, Santana argued, a bookstore that partners with groups in its community – academic, social, and religious groups, to name a few – will have a much easier time finding diverse talent. After all, how can a qualified candidate apply to an opportunity that they don’t know exists?

The next event on my schedule was PEN America’s “The First Amendment Resistance,a panel discussion that aimed to address the publisher responsibilities toward and about controversial authors. Before the discussion got going, a short video about the suppression of journalists and free speech across the world was played. It concluded, provocatively, with a title card reading “Can it happen here?” This was followed with another card reading, “It can happen here.” For a few seconds the room was absolutely still before applause erupted.

Then the executive director of PEN America, Suzanne Nossel, was presented with this year’s BookExpo Industry Ambassador Award and delivered a few remarks. “These are perilous times for those of us who traffic in words and ideas,” she said, before reaffirming PEN’s commitment to free speech everywhere. Host Brooke Gladstone reiterated this thought: “The questions we face now aren’t new, but this time feels different,” she said. Then she introduced the panelists: video game developer Zoë Quinn, Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors, columnist and editor John Podhoretz, and author and lawyer Scott Turow.

Of course, Milo Yiannopoulos was invoked immediately. “Are you happy with how [the cancellation of his book deal] played out?” Gladstone asked each panelist in turn. The five speakers onstage tried to draft a policy of publishing that minimizes the harm that hateful voices can do while steering as widely clear of censorship as possible, but it became apparent very early on that the allotted hour wasn’t going to be nearly enough time. On some points, there was unanimity: no one felt particularly sorry for Yiannopoulos. But whether his book deal should ideally have been pulled for commercial or moral reasons quickly became a topic of contention. In other words: should a person lose a book deal because of who they are?

Ultimately, the four panelists split into two camps along gender lines. Cullors made the point that commercial publishing and impact on humanity are not separate, and that the latter must be held in consideration by the former. “Impact speaks for itself,” she said. Quinn, who described her own experience of harassment at Yiannopoulos’s hands, added that the elevation of hate speech means the silencing of those who are targeted by that hate speech. Podhoretz and Turow argued that the market and the legal system should be the forces charged with punishing bad actors, not individual publishers; preemptively removing platforms from controversial figures because of what their words might incite others to do is unjust.  The audience seemed unsatisfied by this, but, unfortunately, the hour was up.

The final formal event I attended was the ABA Town Hall and Annual Meeting (after a sprint upstairs to get a signed ARC of Jesmyn Ward’s new book). Though obviously a bit lighter in tone than the PEN America discussion, this too was a charged discussion. The first question from the audience was a scorcher: is BookCon run at the expense of BookExpo? The man at the microphone, whose name I failed to catch, added that he was referring particularly to a decrease in the number and diversity of exhibitors, especially international exhibitors and non-publisher booths. BookCon is, after all, a fan convention; even though the programming has been shifted this year to accommodate more adult attendees as well as families and teenagers, its goals are necessarily different from that of an industry show.

Mostly, though, the ABA members that had gathered were in a pretty sunny spirits, and with good reason: indie bookstores continue to thrive. There was some discussion of how to recruit more members, especially among the alternative bookstore set, as well as a back-and-forth over tiers of entry for smaller stores and greener booksellers.

Bookseller Camden Avery took the microphone at one point to address diversity in the ABA; while he commended the steps the organization has already taken, this, he said, was only a beginning. And he addressed the room at large about the responsibilities of each industry professional during this strange American moment. “Bookselling,” he said, is “inherently” political – and that is to be embraced. Individual politics may vary, of course, and each bookseller is entitled to approach the matter in their own way. But people who traffic in words and ideas (to borrow Suzanne Nossel’s phrase) are, by definition, political.

With that, I returned to the floor, which was still bustling, though maybe not as energetically as first thing in the morning. Most of the conference-goers I saw were laden with at least one free tote bag and at least one armload of books. Toward 5, a number of booths pulled out wine and champagne, and impromptu cocktail parties sprung up in the aisles.

Takeaways

Two major questions face the industry in 2017. First, what should a book look like? And second, what are our responsibilities to the broader public?

There’s no definitive answer to the former yet but plenty of possibilities. Physical books can become sites of play or platforms for digital crossover. Audiobooks and ebooks are finding their way to people new to those mediums.  And related products and services broaden our own understanding of book consumers to include their cultural attitudes and buying behaviors.

As for the second question, a single answer is unlikely, if not impossible. What’s clear is that the work we do doesn’t occur in a political or cultural vacuum. As ever, publishers and booksellers cannot afford to be separate from the communities they serve. The future of the industry depends on our ability to imagine a way forward together. This year’s Book Expo may be over, but with any luck, our conversation is just beginning.  

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