Two years after moving its event across town from UCLA to USC, the L.A. Times Festival of Books seems to have recovered from its growing pains and achieved attendance not seen in a few years. Over 100,000 people came to the two-day event on April 21 and 22 that included a range of panels on the publishing industry.
The crowd of over 100,000 moved more efficiently through the large campus grounds thanks to the addition of new signs directing people from one area to another; they were especially helpful in locating the various buildings where panels were held. Food and beverages were more readily available, and events began and ended on time. The only unpleasant glitch occurred at the end of the day on Saturday, when valets in the VIP parking area kept people anxious to get home waiting up to 90 minutes for their cars. The situation was remedied by Sunday. Like last year, exhibitors praised the USC volunteer staff for its outstanding help with set-up and other needs. At the New World Library booth publicity director Monique Muhlenkamp was happy that after complaining to the USC staff about the poor location of her booth in 2011 they moved her to a much busier spot this year.
The festival’s move to USC has engaged a new and more diverse segment of Los Angeles that lives closer to the event. A noticeable increase in different ethnicities and families with children made exhibitors happy, particularly in the children’s area of the festival where the YA and Target stages provided an ongoing roster of performers and authors. In addition, the Hoy Stage featured Hispanic entertainment, including mariachi players, and author events. “I really like the neighborhood feel of the festival at USC,” said Emily Pullen of Skylight Books. “There are a lot more trees, and the booths are closer together than at UCLA. Also, the hustle here feels more tangible.”
Both panels about publishing were nearly sold out. Saturday’s “Publishing: Nuts and Bolts” was moderated by Patrick Brown, Community Manager for Goodreads.com. Panelists John Tayman of Byliner.com, literary agent Betsy Amster, publishing director George Gibson of Bloomsbury USA, and W.W. Norton’s executive editor Robert Weil discussed topics ranging from the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against five New York houses to the new demands and formats of marketing books. Brown explained the nature of the lawsuit to the audience before Gibson remarked, “It’s one of the most misguided enterprises ever undertaken. We’re talking here about the implicit devaluing of intellectual property.”
Tayman, who publishes only in the digital format and whose company has sold about a million downloads of original short pieces by well-known authors, argued that if a writer can tell a good story people will buy it regardless of the format. The panelists, all of whom have embraced the digital format, agreed that e-books have evolved into an important and sustainable part of the industry. “There’s a close connection between both formats,” Gibson said, equating it to a symbiotic relationship. Weil, a staunch supporter of bricks and mortar bookstores, said that while e-books are valuable “indies are now like the panda – they’re a very endangered species.”
The topic of marketing brought a consensus that authors today must take on the responsibility of attracting readers. “You have to take it seriously,” Amster said. “You have to demonstrate to publishers that you have an audience for your book.” Gibson asks his authors to come up with an email list of 1,000 names, and said that although it’s a nerve-wracking process at first the authors always manage to accomplish this. In the days leading up to the publication of Ina Caro’s Paris to the Past, Weil found out who the most active travel tweeters were and sent galleys of the book to them to comment on. “You have to lift your work yourself,” he said.
“Publishing A to Z” was moderated on Sunday by the Times’ book critic David Ulin, who filled in for O book editor Sara Nelson at the last minute due to a job-related emergency. Counterpoint’s editor-at-large Dan Smetanka; Miwa Messer, director of Barnes & Noble’s “Discovery Great New Writers” series; and Bonnie Nadell of the Hill-Nadell literary agency were lively and candid panelists. “This is the last panel of the festival, and we’re all a little bleary,” Ulin explained before asking the trio for their thoughts on the current state of publishing in a digital world.
Messer said that the combination of e-books and p-books “give me more room to play” and bring more creativity to her work. Nadell, who had returned from the London Book Fair the night before, felt differently. “I think the sky is falling,” she said. “The economics are so different now, and the U.K. publishers in particular are terrified. Some of them are only selling 500 copies of a book these days.” To Smetanka e-books bring revenue that “gets us out of bed in the morning. It’s a new way to get readers.”
The issue of self-publishing was met with measured enthusiasm. “You have to remember the bestsellers that started out this way,” Messer said. “The Celestine Prophecy and The Secret are just two examples.” For Nadell self-published authors are more viable now because some of them already have an audience and get media attention. “There’s no longer just one established way to reach readers,” Smetanka said.