Approximately 130 people, as well as others listening online, attended the Book Industry Study Group’s first in-person annual meeting in three years, held April 22 in New York City. The meeting focused on the impact of the pandemic and continuing efforts to make the industry more inclusive.
Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch delivered the keynote and framed his remarks through a “best of times, worst of times” lens. On the plus side, Pietsch cited several positive trends: higher-than-expected book sales over the course of the pandemic, an increase in interest in reading, higher backlist sales fueled in part by more online sales, consumer support for different formats, the ability of publishers to adapt to remote work, the increase in sales fueled by social media, and publishing's commitment to produce more works by people of color. “We learned we were more adaptable than we knew,” Pietsch said.
On the down side, Pietsch said, crisis keep coming. Labor, distribution, and shipping costs are rising at rates not seen in many years, Pietsch said, while paper shortages and other manufacturing issues are forcing many pub dates to change. And while publishers successfully transitioned to remote work, the industry is facing the challenge of moving to a hybrid model, Pietsch said. (HBG’s New York employees are returning to the office this week under a twice-a-week formula). He also maintains that it is all-but-impossible to replicate the excitement about a book via Zoom that can be transmitted by in-person meetings.H
He cited other issues as well. Book banning efforts are occurring at alarming rates and copyright remains under siege from companies looking to take publishers' content with little or no compensation. "Copyright challenges, from tech-company-backed entities who are coming for publishers’ content in every way they can, are gigantic and cannot be overstated," Pietsch said. "These challenges are backed with vast investments from companies whose business model is based on free content that they can make available and sell ads against, and who are doing everything possible to erode copyright and expand fair use." Pietsch was relieved that Maryland’s law that would have required publishers to offer e-book licenses to libraries on "reasonable terms" was enjoined by the courts. But, he said he expects different versions of the law to be introduced in some states. And while publishing has made strides in improving diversity, he acknowledged change has been slow to come in upper management. The industry needs a means of tracking and measuring diversity.
Publishing also needs to step up its programs to make the industry more environmentally sustainable, Pietsch said. To meet that goal, Pietsch said publishers need to consider using more print-on-demand manufacturing to print books locally and reduce emissions. For the industry to continue to thrive, publishers need to develop a better understanding of changes in consumer behavior. Publishers also need to work better with authors to develop partnerships that will keep authors interested in working with us, Pietsch said.
Spotlight on diversity
In a panel on diversity, American Booksellers Association CEO Allison Hill acknowledged that the organization has made its share of mistakes in its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, in part due to its reluctance to talk about its plans and preferring to wait until it had made some improvements. The ABA learned, Hill said, that it needed to press ahead and correct mistakes as it moves along. A crucial step, she said, was changing its End Policies to stress ABA’s commitment to anti-racism. Coupled with that change, the ABA added two board seats to be filled by BIPOC store owners. Under the bylaw change, moving forward, four board seats must be held by BIPOC owners. Hill said she has been encouraged by the early results, noting that ABA has added 120 BIPOC stores to its membership ranks. She said the expansion of the board has led to “different kinds of conversations” and debates in meetings, something she said that could lead to more changes. She also observed that in making shifts, “you are challenging the status quo and that will create resistance.”
Peter Berkery, executive director of the Association of University Presses, discussed the organization's experience taken part in the Mellon University Press Diversity Fellowship Program. Today, 19 fellows out of a total of 30 who took participated have landed permanent positions in scholarly publishing, including 10 positions as acquisitions editors responsible for developing their own lists; 5 assistant editors; and 4 in production or marketing roles. This was the second fellowship grant AUP was involved with and has had more success in keeping new hires working in their new homes by developing more inclusive press environments, by opening processes to welcome the fellows’ perspectives and input into the daily work of acquisitions, and by providing fellows with focused career advice for job placement and professional development.
Berkery noted that AUP's participation in the original fellowship initiative led not only to more inclusive programming choices at its annual conferences and webinars, but also to the formation of a Diversity and Inclusion Task Force which has now evolved into the Equity, Justice, and Inclusion Committee to help us sustain momentum in this area of vital importance to our community, higher education, and the entire publishing industry.
Shelley Husband, senior v-p, government affairs and special projects for the Association of American Publishers, said the organization has approved resources to create a new head of DEI initiatives for the industry and will move the DEI committee from a working group to a standing committee.
In reports from the heads of BISG’s committees, Rachel Comerford of Macmillan Learning said publishers should stop thinking they are in the book business, but rather realize they are now in the technology business. It was a sentiment supported by several people at the meeting, though exactly what that may mean for publishing wasn’t fleshed out.
Ken Brooks of Treadwell Media Group and head the supply chain committee, said his group would like to develop a “state of the industry” report that would help publishers gauge such things as lead times for printers in Asia.
On a panel titled “Future-Proofing Your Work(flows)," Joshua Tallent, director of sales and education at Firebrand Technologies, said while the future is difficult to predict, it will be more digital. Co-panelist Mary McAveney of Open Road Integrated Media, concurred. And while the future is hard to predict, the two speakers said publishers should stay prepared by continuing to identify new creators and getting to know their customers better. McAveney picked up on something other speakers had previously addressed, stating that achieving a more sustainable publishing environment will be difficult as long as the supply chain continues to encounter shortages. Tallent said publishers shouldn’t see change as a problem, while also advising “not to change for the sake of change.”
During BISG's award ceremony, the Sally Dedecker Award for Lifetime Service was presented to Joe Gonnella, former BISG board chair, and longtime Barnes & Noble executive. The Industry Champion Award, was presented to Pat Payton of ProQuest, and the Industry Innovator Award, was given to Wattpad.