Perhaps it's the psychological fallout from 9/11, but we have a sense that 2001 was a defining year for the book business. Thus, the features in our first issue of 2002 look both ahead and back. Many in the industry were worried about retail sales during the all-important holiday season, which this year followed rather closely on the news that, yes, Virginia, we are in a recession, which the events in September only deepened. Would the old adage that "books are recession-proof" still apply? Would people be too somber to get into the holiday gift-buying spirit? What kind of books would make appropriate gifts this year? Our article "Ho Ho Hum" (p. 39) reports on how booksellers fared throughout the holidays and which books attracted customers. The business was not immune to the job fallout that came with the recession and the dot.com bust. In "Reality Check" (p. 36), we assess which sectors were hit hardest by layoffs. A large number of the layoffs were in the field of e-publishing, affecting both suppliers of digitization services and the publishers themselves. But don't write the obituary for e-publishing yet, says Richard Curtis ("Bullish on E-Books," p. 42). Expectations outpaced demand, but demand is definitely there, he says.
Surprisingly, even those who closed down e-publishing initiatives agree with Curtis. Our roundtable discussion with top executives from eight of the largest trade publishing houses (p. 24) addressed, among many other topics, the e-publishing crash. Time Warner's iPublish was probably the most ambitious of the various e-publishing initiatives. Announced in September 2000, iPublish began releasing 25 titles a month. Eight months later, it launched iWrite, an online community of writers and editors who could critique each others' work, passing on the best material to in-house editors at iPublish. Three of the resulting titles were released in October, just before the venture was closed down in December. CEO Larry Kirshbaum believes the effort was simply too early, quoting Arthur C. Clarke that we overestimate technology in the short run, but run the risk of underestimating it in the long run.
The roundtable participants all claim to be cautiously optimistic about publishing in the upcoming year. Some have even committed to aggressive budgets. That optimism may be hard to maintain in the first few months of the year. With the depression in sales since September 11, returns—not yet in—are likely to be heavy. Unfortunately, the same was true for the beginning of last year, when books were coming back from Crown store closings.
The top spot on the weekly fiction bestseller list was ever-changing in 2001, as the usual take-it-to-the-bank authors experienced a general softening in sales. At the same time, the bar was raised on author advances, with Bill Clinton getting an estimated $10 million for a book on his White House years. Will publishers now start to balk at large advances? No, say the execs. There is still a level of predictability for authors with track records, and their corporate bosses like predictability.
In 2001, we began to see the results of the 2000 Census. There was a strong sense that children had been undercounted in the 1990 Census, and efforts were made to correct that in the 2000 count. In June, we learned that there are now more children in the U.S.—72 million—than ever before. Children's book sales have been a bright spot for several years, but the executives at our roundtable worry that sales of the top titles, such as Harry Potter and the Lemony Snicket series, mask an area that is not growing as quickly as it should.
The Census also reveals how quickly the Hispanic population is growing. Here at PW, a new sister publication, Críticas, was launched to help booksellers and librarians identify titles for their Spanish-speaking clientele. As our roundtable attests, American publishers are also expecting Latino publishing to be a growth area.
In closing, and in keeping with the tradition of the weekly consumer news magazines, I'd like to offer a cheer and a jeer for 2001. A jeer to Oprah for disinviting Jonathan Franzen to her book club. She missed a great opportunity to air Franzen's conflicted feelings about being selected, as well as issues about class and culture he raises in his book. Cheers to Jane Friedman, for deciding to go ahead with the publication of Michael Moore's Stupid White Men. Immediately after September 11, self-censorship of ideas perceivable as unpatriotic was rampant. Understandable, perhaps, but dangerous to a democracy, the free flow of ideas, and an industry that depends on them both.