Given that this year’s American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute meeting is being held in California’s Silicon Valley February 2-5, it’s inevitable that the conversation has focused on technology. Even the acronym, Wi5, said fast mimics the name of the way most people go online. But as ABA CEO Oren Teicher noted when he introduced the afternoon session on The State of General Trade Publishing, some things weren’t part of the original plan. “We hardly could have anticipated that a few miles from here Apple would announce the iPad,” he said, “or that Amazon would declare war on several publishers.” Earlier in the day a thank-you to Macmillan from ABA president Michael Tucker, co-owner of Books Inc. in San Francisco, for standing up to bullying from a large competitor received a standing ovation.
While e-book pricing and delivery provided a subtext for much of the day, it was front and center at the publishing panel with David Young, chairman and CEO of Hachette; Madeline McIntosh, newly anointed president of sales, operations, and digital for Random House; and Drake McFeeley, president of W.W. Norton & Company; moderated by Barry Lynn of the New America Foundation think tank. “Our current policy is we release e-books at the same time as physical books,” said McIntosh. “I haven’t been convinced that it’s good for the author or consumer to delay the release. My fear is that the consumer who has fully embraced the technology will buy another e-book that is available or lose interest altogether. What if I train the consumer that the best scenario is to get it free?”
“I blame Mrs. Thatcher for I-want-it-and-I-want-it now,” said Young, who reiterated Hachette’s stance on e-books. “I see only a bleak future for $9.99. It devalues the book and the long career of those writers. It’s bestsellers, and it seems like selling off the family jewels. That’s why we took the road to announce windowing [or releasing the e-book after the print book]. I hope the agency model won’t force us to do it for very long.”
Despite the emphasis on digital, all three were enthusiastic about the long-term viability of physical books, which comprised more than 97% of sales last year for Hachette, 98.5% at Norton. “I still like the long form,” said McFeeley. “I like the book and I like it at its traditional length.” Added McIntosh, “I would hate to see you worried about a digital future that makes you take your eye off the ball of print.” She noted that Random continues to make print delivery a priority and has invested “several millions” in its warehouse to get physical books more quickly into booksellers’ hands.
As for Young, “what keeps me up at night,” he said, “is bookstore closings. What I want is a vibrant bookselling community.” And in a reference to Simon & Schuster’s rep layoff, he pledged that Hachette will continue to have its field team call on booksellers.
But Young’s words and those of McFeeley and McIntosh did little to sooth independent booksellers’ pent-up anger over publisher policies that they see as penalizing them, including loss of field reps. Sally Brewster, co-owner of Park Road Books in Charlotte, N.C., told the panelists that she found it “disturbing” to read in coverage on the Amazon war that consumers view $5 is a fair price for an e-book. “I think publishers have done a terrible job at expressing the value of a book. Why don’t you stop putting a price on it?” she inquired. Others questioned why publishers don’t bundle physical and digital books or even having publishers release hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats all at the same time.
With no quick resolution in sight to e-books, pricing, or even how independent booksellers will be able to participate, both publishers and booksellers could face a lot of sleepless nights.