The 16th annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books made a smooth cross-town move this weekend from the Westwood campus of UCLA to the sprawling, user-friendly home of USC situated near downtown L.A. in a neighborhood that is both ethnically and culturally different from the Festival’s former location. The crowds seemed heavy both Saturday and Sunday, April 30 and May 1, although because of the more spacious exhibitor and stages set-up it was not easy to discern if there was a drop in attendance at the inaugural USC event. According to Anna Magzanyan, L.A. Times v-p of advertising, marketing & events, the number of exhibitors jumped 12% this year to 304, included over 500 authors and performers, and the Festival also attracted double the amount of sponsors from last year.
The general consensus among the exhibitors was enthusiastic and satisfied. At the Angel City Press booth co-publisher Scott McAuley described the FOB as "great, just great. We’ve been really busy, busier than last year, even though people seem to be spending less. USC has created a wonderful layout that’s not as crammed in as it was a UCLA." McAuley praised the staff at USC for its excellence in coordinating and assisting in a set-up that, for the first time in the FOB’s history allowed exhibitors to bring their inventory in on Friday rather than early Saturday morning. "
Natalie Compagno of Traveller’s Bookcase was also pleased with the move to USC. "There might be fewer people here, but the Festival just needs time to grow into its new space," she said. Because of the demographic change created by the move to downtown Los Angeles, Compagno brought more inventory of dependable bestselling travel book series such as Lonely Planet, Time Out, and DK titles to err on the side of sales caution. "It does seem like a lot of west-siders didn’t come this year, which is what everyone was wondering about with the move. I consider it their loss."
The FOB offered over 100 panels, always a popular draw that feature major authors and a variety of book-related topics, which were generally well-attended if not sold out. Patti Smith, Dave Eggers, Michael Connelly, and Jonathan Lethem were among the most in-demand speakers; Barbara Eden, Rick Springfield, and Steve Lopez with Father Gregory Boyle were also hot panel tickets. Both panels on publishing drew large audiences. "Publishing in the 21st Century," moderated by O Magazine’s book editor Sara Nelson on Saturday, featured panelists Robert Weil, executive editor of Norton; Akashic Books’ Johnny Temple; Kim Robinson, regional publisher of U.C. Press; and Twelve’s publisher and editor in chief Cary Goldstein. The panelists agreed that while the biggest challenge publishers face today is how to adapt to new technologies, there is still a place for both print and electronic books.
"There is a crisis in bookselling itself," Nelson said, noting the gradual disappearance of traditional bookstores. "What will replace browsing in the future? You can do it on the Internet, but it’s a different kind of browsing. Maybe bookstores will simply become showrooms for publishers as the browsing quotient continues to drop." The panelists all represented independent publishing, which has seemingly benefited from the changes in content distribution and the ongoing evolution of book formats. "We’re getting bigger authors now, as the major houses are making it harder for people to get published," Temple noted. "The scale of our business is more suited to the times we live in. Akashic might offer lower advances, but everything else [we provide our authors] is the same if not better. It’s a great time to be a small company."
Weil agreed with the others that social networking is a viable marketing tool, but only up to a point. "The best way to increase book sales is still through word of mouth, national media, NPR, and C-Span," he said. "At Norton we also work with different groups, including the Evangelicals, if they’re specific to a book, groups we may not usually go to for promotion."
On Sunday the panel "Publishing: The New Shape of the Book" was moderated by Times staff writer Carolyn Kellogg. Graywolf’s editor Ethan Nosowsky, Tom Lutz of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Ami Greko from Kobo, and Siglio Press’s Lisa Pearson were on the lively panel that frequently returned to the question of enhanced e-books. Pearson, who publishes fine art books, mused, "How can I best utilize the form of the traditional book? Today we’re pushed to be more and more innovative. A book is about more than just content." Lutz responded by noting that while "the culture industry pushes art away from the center of commerce, independent publishers don’t do that."
Nosowsky, who still edits manuscripts on paper and laughingly referred to himself as "a tree killer," caused a bit of a stir in the audience when he suggested that e-books should be priced higher, not lower. "It’s more work now to connect the author with the reader," he said. "Now we need to design books to appear on a screen. Publishers have to justify the cost of what they do, or they don’t deserve to be around." As for multi-media add-ons to ebooks Greko said, "Experimental is fine, but to jam a video in it? I don’t like that idea. Still, e-books are making people read more. They’re cheaper. What really needs to be overhauled now is what we’ll pay for content."
On the bustling grounds of USC, though, e-books seemed inconsequential to the many shoppers at the booths. EsoWon, L.A.’s premier African-American bookstore, was back at the Festival after not exhibiting last year. "Business has been excellent," said co-owner Tom Hamilton in his crowded booth. "I’m pleased with everything, and the people at USC have been good hosts. The only difference for us is in our inventory. We knew there would be more non-white folks here who have less expendable income, so we brought a lot of remainders, and they’re selling."
The Festival will return to USC next year. "This was an extremely smooth transition that exceeded our expectations overall," Magzanyan said. "USC has turned out to be a great partner for us, and we consider this weekend to be a huge success."