Tina Brown, founder and editor-in-chief of the Daily Beast, was already losing her voice as she began moderating a CEO roundtable discussion at BEA Thursday afternoon with HarperCollins’s Brian Murray, Simon & Schuster’s Carolyn Reidy, Macmillan’s John Sargent and Perseus’s David Steinberger. Forty minutes into the discussion, Brown’s voice reduced to a whisper, her husband, journalist Harry Evans, took over, seamlessly picking up where Brown left off amid a discussion of what still works when it comes to selling books. And while the Brown-Evans tag team wasn’t intentional, it wound up providing a poetic juxtaposition: Brown saw digital media as a positive force in publishing, but Evans, while not exactly a naysayer, was a bit more skeptical.
Brown, who wondered aloud if she could ever return to the slower pace of print publishing after having been in the digital world for eight months now, pressed publishers to comment on Amazon’s e-book pricing, the power of viral marketing, and condensing books’ publications schedules to get books to market while they’re still timely. She asked everyone to comment on “the elephant in the room”: Amazon selling e-books for $9.99, but Reidy squelched the pricing discussion with a blanket statement: “A lot of us don’t agree with Amazon’s pricing.” Murray did manage to squeeze in a remark about pricing, noting that “we are in a unique position because [unlike newspaper readers] book consumers are used to paying for content.” Brown talked about how much her Kindle-owning friends love their devices, downloading more books than they’d ever normally purchase in print, which Steinberger met with a dig toward Amazon: while the Kindle has demonstrated that “the moment of e-books is here... the development of a monopoly is unhealthy for publishers.”
Brown’s comment that “magazine articles are the new books” launched a discussion about crashing books, which Reidy championed. She said S&S successfully crashed 150 books last year. The benefit to publishing books on a shortened schedule, Reidy said, is that “you understand the market you’re publishing into.” Meanwhile, Sargent said it can take time to develop a market for certain books. “You want excitement when a book pubs.” And how to generate that excitement (besides a thumbs-up from Oprah)? Well, for one thing, viral marketing “doesn’t sell a ton of books,” Sargent admitted. He said a video based on a Macmillan book spent time in the number-one spot on YouTube in the U.K.—and wound up selling a whopping 200 extra copies. So what works? Most panelists agreed front-of-store displays can boost sales. “It’s got to start in the industry,” said Reidy. “The Today Show is not as effective as it used to be—and the Internet has not replaced it.”
Evans, who moderated the final 20 minutes, brought up the other elephant in the room: Google. “Publishers seem incredibly weak about Google,” he said, although nearly everyone on stage responded by saying, “We sued them!” The conversation didn’t advance much from there, Evans shutting it down early, with five minutes still left. Brown, meanwhile, was engrossed in her BlackBerry.
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