Where Have All the Readers Gone? And Where Can We Find New Ones?"—that was the theme for the Association of American Publishers' 2006 annual meeting in New York last week. At the end of the day, the not surprising conclusion was that reading is losing out to electronic alternatives and that there is no new major initiative on the horizon that will give a sharp boost to book sales.
The liveliest part of the program was a brief debate over how deep the problems in publishing run. Following a presentation by National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia and American Library Association president Michael Gorman that lamented the decline in the reading habit in the U.S., HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman said she doesn't believe trade publishing is facing the crisis described by the two men. In his remarks, Gioia reviewed the 2004 "Reading at Risk" report, which found reading in steep decline in the U.S., while Gorman cited a host of statistics to support his assertion that "we're seeing a regression of reading" among the middle and upper classes in America. Friedman, noting that HC's sales have gone up over the last few years, said it was "dangerous" to keep reporting that people aren't reading, "because it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy." Gioia backtracked somewhat, acknowledging that the report found that reading as a percentage of the population has declined, not the number of actual readers, which stood at about 90 million in 2002, the same level as 1992, though the population rose by 40 million over that span.
Gioia provided further details on the NEA's plans for the Big Read, now in a pilot stage in 10 locations (PW, Jan. 2). The national rollout of the program, which aims to have cities and towns all reading the same book, is set for May 9 in New York. Gioia said the goal of the NEA, which is backing the program with grants, "is to make the Big Read part of America's public life." He hopes to have the Big Read in 1,000 communities within a couple of years.
The AAP is also working to establish a national reading initiative, at least for one day. Following remarks from Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Hyperion's Bob Miller said the association is hoping to establish a National Literacy Day, and would like the Secretary as well as the First Lady to participate in the effort. Spellings said she would be interested in working with publishers to set up the program.
In the kickoff session to the day, Michael Lynton, former Penguin head and now chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, noted that the movie industry shares publishing's problem of losing young males, most likely to video games. While Lynton said he was surprised publishers don't use the Internet more for building audiences, especially for genre titles, he defended publishers against charges that they are in the dark ages in terms of marketing. In fact, the movie industry could learn some things from publishing, he said, especially about managing a wide range of titles and formats. He said the movie industry was envious that publishing still has a one-year window between the release of a hardcover and paperback while the time between the release of a film in theaters and the DVD release continues to shrink.
Lynton predicted that even though the book has sold million of copies, Sony's movie The Da Vinci Code will still be a big hit—research showed that many people haven't read the book because they felt it was too difficult. He said Sony worked with Random House at arm's length in developing the movie, and noted that publishers and movie studios could work better together to sell books. "It's something we're not resistant to," he said. Lynton suggested that books could be sold in movie theaters and that given the consolidation in that industry, getting books to the movie chains would not be difficult.
During the AAP business meeting, John Sargent, CEO of Holtzbrinck Publishers and association treasurer, said the defense of copyright—the association's most important task, Sargent said—will drive up AAP's expenses to $11.3 million, while revenue will be about flat at $7.7 million. The shortfall will be made up from cash reserves. A substantial part of copyright funds will go toward the AAP lawsuit against Google. Bruce Keller, AAP's attorney in the case, said the lawsuit is in the early stages of discovery and that a scheduling conference has not even been set. Discovery could take most of the year.