Anyone who identifies the literature business with the publishing industry would have quickly learned otherwise by walking a few hundred yards of Book Expo America at the Javits Center last week. In adorning their booths, the publishers of America reach quickly for the lowest-common denominator: The Clean-Eat Diet, Harlequin Romances, John Grisham, self-help, Sarah Palin, cookbooks, textbooks, coffee-table books, travel guides, Oliver North, Ralph Reed and Chuck Norris. The convention’s keynote speaker was Barbra Streisand, hawking her new opus, My Passion for Design. On Wednesday, the longest line at the autograph stands was for Cecily Von Ziegesar, founding scribe of the Gossip Girl franchise. On Thursday, an even longer line had formed for someone named Stein. “Gertrude?” asked a bystander. “No, R.L.” Stine, that is. A book is a book is a book.
Literary authors were not entirely absent. The Transom heard of a young author releasing a first fiction collection last week who believed his debut had been overshadowed by the simultaneous reissue of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. Who could blame him? The back cover of the BEA program was emblazoned with the cover of the forthcoming memoir Life, by Keith Richards. In a way, the writer’s predicament recalled that of Jonathan Franzen, who published The Corrections just 10 days before 9/11.
The most banal corner of the Javits was to the southeast, the designated Digital Book Zone. Here the Transom encountered a representative of Equire Tech, a typesetting firm based in Pondicherry, India, that charges around $600 to compose a 500-page book, corrections included; by any industry standard this is cheap, and it makes sense when you consider that Equire’s 70 employees make about $400 a month each. Down the line was Copia, a Web site spun off a family electronics firm that brands itself as “Amazon meets Facebook”-retail plus social networking. Around the corner was iScroll, a technology that combines ebooks with audio books, such that you can read a book on a screen and have it read to you through headphones at the same time; the effect on children, your correspondent was told, is a quantifiable improvement in reading comprehension.
Far across the Javits floor, another contender in the ebook race, Google, had erected a lavish, multicolored mini-pavilion directly across from a man clad in shorts selling half-priced subscriptions to The New York Times and serving as a cheerful metaphor for the death of print. Many times the Transom approached the Google booth, and many times he was told to come back shortly to speak to Google’s communications person, who eventually told us he could not speak on the record.
He, Sean Carlson, did issue a statement, which read, in part: “We want to build and support a digital book ecosystem to allow our partner publishers to make their books available for purchase from any web-enabled device.”
One thing children learn in school-or on their iScrolls-about ecosystems is that they sometimes creep up on and overwhelm neighboring ecosystems. And this was an anxiety in the heavily conditioned air at BEA.
“Is epub going to become the dominant format?” asked an attendee of Google’s Thursday morning talk.
“I don’t know,” Google representative Aimee Hong began her long and somewhat evasive reply, which concluded, “I do think ebooks are going to get more dominant.”
The talk was titled “How the Digital Book Cloud Works for Publishers and Users.” The technical meaning of “cloud” here is that in a few months, readers will be able to buy Google Editions of books through their Gmail accounts and access them anywhere they can check their email-forever. The symbolic meanings are threefold: (1) Google’s cloud will be fluffy and cumulus, making the ecosystem prettier for everyone, readers and publishers alike; (2) Google’s cloud will rain down information, fertilizing the ecosystem with ideas; and (3) Google’s is a storm cloud that will ravage every ecosystem in its path.
“A tsunami is coming,” said James Macfarlane, founder of the U.K.-based Easypress Technologies during his Cassandra-like talk “eBooks $how me the MONEY” on Thursday. “The wave is on us now.”
After his talk, Mr. Macfarlane was approached by a man who asked, “How can I make billions off this tsunami?” This was Dr. Anup, M.D., author and publisher of 400 multimedia titles from his own four-person press based in New Jersey. Dr. Anup told the Transom he got his start self-publishing a book for his medical students on rare blood gas disorders. The spare copies sold out of Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue, and he discovered a market. Now he caters to a developing-world audience that seeks an American level of care, with titles like Essentials of Diabetes.
“Google makes the whole world the market,” Dr. Anup told the Transom. In Google, Dr. Anup was looking for a partner-or what an ecologist would call mutualist symbiosis.
“Google’s use of the word ‘cloud’ is a lot of hocus-pocus,” OR Books founder John Oakes told the Transom. “It’s a new word that publishers hear and think, ‘Oh wow, here’s a new thing that we want to be a part of.’ But it’s the same process that’s brought publishers to their knees. You have a middle person taking a cut, and the publisher is left with a fraction.”
An ecologist, by this view, would term Google a parasite.
“A book is a pretty advanced instrument itself,” FSG president Jonathan Galassi told the Transom. “No writer wants to give his mother an ebook to show that he wrote a book. All writing is not going to become virtual in five years. It just isn’t.
“There are two competing interests at work. People who want to sell widgets at the lowest possible price. They want action, scale, volume. They’re not interested in creating value. A publisher is invested in the creative process. Somebody should be willing to spend $26 or $28 to buy Jonathan Franzen’s new novel. It’s something that’s going to enrich our lives, and it’s worth that.
“There are ebook consumers who are saying, ‘I’m not willing to spend more than $10 for a book.’ That’s thinking about a book like a widget, where books are interchangeable. It’s not the kind of reading I’m talking about.”
The Transom is inclined to talk about reading the way Mr. Galassi does. Sarah Palin is a widget. Cecily Von Ziegesar is a widget. Keith Richards might be a widget. Dr. Anup makes widgets that save lives. R.L. Stine is a widget. Gertrude Stein is not. Freedom, the volume by Mr. Franzen that Mr. Galassi will be publishing in September, is unlikely to be a widget.
So perhaps when all the widget-books melt into widget-ebooks, only the real books will be left in the undigital ecosystem, and the literature business and the publishing industry will be one and the same.