May 26, 2015

Two For Tuesday: What time is it? BEA time!


PrintTopics discussed: BEA, BookCon, ReedPop, Tom Jones, the title of this post refers to BEA but we don’t get to it until something like word 1,500, oh well, live with it, Dumbo the neighborhood, not Dumbo the elephant, the fact that Dumbo the neighborhood does not have good bars, the fact that people in the publishing industry like to talk about how bored they are about BEA even though they go to all the parties, the fact that people in the publishing industry go to the parties and complain about the parties at the parties, the fact that we are these people, cynicism, Vook, Booklr, Byliner, false hopes and dreams, Judy Blume, David Foster Wallace, Jason Segel, inexplicably not how silly Jason Segel looks as David Foster Wallace. 

Alex: Hi Two for Tuesdayers! Hi Mark! I am one, you are one, one plus one equals two, so that means it’s Two For Tuesday. Let’s set this motherfucker off like a uh Memorial Day firework!

Mark: I like that our new sales pitch seems to be tautological–because there are two of us, this is thus Two for Tuesday. I could see this becoming a problem down the road: if the two of us get a beer at one of Dumbo’s zero good bars, is it automatically Two for Tuesday? I guess we could resolve this potential problem by simply never getting beers again.

How was your long weekend, Alex? Did you take a break from thinking about publishing? For your sake, I hope so, because toward the end of last week, you and I were doing too much Gchatting about Pronoun.

Alex: Pronoun falls under the category of “Publishings Things That I Become Obsessed With That Everyone Else I Know In Publishing Just Shrugs At And Then Tells Me Not To Care About” (see: every Author Earnings report data troll). Those people are smarter than me! But I have a long-standing fixation with the small, vocal self-publishing community and, while Pronoun doesn’t perfectly fit that mold, I nevertheless am fascinated by it.

Quick background: Pronoun used to be Vook, a company that was trying to bring the book into the 21st century by adding multimedia (aka “an app”). Vook also acquired Booklr (aka “the Hambooklr”) and Byliner. Things didn’t go so hot with Vook, so the company rebranded and released a “manifesto” on Medium, “How to fix book publishing.”

That’s a pretty good name for a manifesto! Unfortunately, the manifesto itself is pretty sparse when it comes to details—though it relies on tried-and-true vagueries/populist assaults like “Publishers’ business models are about more than authors” and “Author Solutions.” In the process, it seems to alienate everyone despite the fact that it doesn’t really make much of an argument—its pillar points are all things that most people agree on, they just haven’t figured out exactly how to make them work. (Pronoun is implicitly suggesting it has figured these things out, but provides no evidence.)

As for the bulk of the argument, it’s mostly things like “When publishers fully control the marketing of a book, authors lose their ability to reach readers,” which just doesn’t track, especially in today’s hyper-connected world. I worry that authors, self-published or no, who aren’t plugged in are being left behind, but I think that the economics of publishing are only one of a host of factors at play here. Mostly, I just want to react with a big old shrug, though, because there’s nothing to see here, folks. (Nate Hoffelder is good at what doesn’t add up from a self-publishing perspective.)

I’ll hold back, for now, at least—what did you think of the Pronoun Manifesto, Mark? Is publishing broken? Is the PTA about to disband??????

Oh, as for my weekend, I watched a lot of basketball and packed up my books because I’m moving apartments next weekend. 25 fucking boxes. Gotta say: I’m not feeling too great about books right now.

Mark: As a rule, I like manifestos. I was born in the Soviet Union, where the production of manifestos constituted approximately one third of the country’s GDP. We were a land rich in manifestos. And if it weren’t for that pesky command economy, decades of economic disinvestment, and extraordinary levels of corruption, I could, right now, be sitting in one of Moscow’s finest manifesto publishing houses, where I would, perhaps, be the senior editor for agricultural proclamations. The wheat harvest has never been so glorious, Alex! Never!

Oh, sorry, where was I. Yes, manifestos. I like manifestos, but this Pronoun one sucked. Every time I begin to read one of these things, a small part of me thinks, “what if, this time, they’ve really gotten it right? What if, instead of vagueries and platitudes, they’ve actually delivered a cogent analysis and have proposed, in concrete terms, some substantive solutions? WHAT IF THEY WROTE SOMETHING SO GOOD THAT I FIND MYSELF IRRELEVANT?????” Someone could write such a destabilizing manifesto–that Michael Schaub is a hell of a fire-starter–but the Pronoun people have not written it.

While wholly unconvincing, the Pronoun manifesto is, nonetheless,  an amazing literary document. It’s as if it were sourced entirely from buzzwords, which is fine, I suppose, but the buzzwords make very little sense in context. There’s so much abstraction and self-contradiction in this very short piece of writing that it’s sort of admirable. What it isn’t, though, is any kind of vision for the future–even a very non-specific one. Those guys should read some Marx and Engels. Those dudes knew how to write manifestos.

What documents like this Pronoun thing mostly leave me with is a feeling of unfulfillment. I read a title like “How to fix book publishing,” and I expect at least some suggestion of a fix–even if that fix is “fire Mark Krotov and prevent him from ever working in book publishing.” I’m always interested in practical solutions–and even impractical solutions. Which is, I guess, a very elegant segue to the matter of BookCon, the “literary cousin of New York Comic Con” (the Wall Street Journal’s words, not mine) and public-facing component of BookExpo America taking place in New York this weekend. Let’s talk about BookCon, Alex! Is it better than a manifesto published on Medium? I think it’s much better than that.

Alex: That’s funny because I don’t know if the bar inside the publishing industry itself could be set any lower than BEA. People love to announce cynicism about BEA publicly—it’s one way to publicize the fact that you are one of the Elect, you are completely In The Know. Here, I’ll prove it.

Mark, are you excited for BEA?

Mark: Uggggggh, BEA?

Alex, I don’t know if you know this, but I’m In The Know. I’m one of the Elect. I’m a Publishing Insider. And as a member of these constituencies, I’m obligated to declare my distaste for BEA.

Never mind that I’ve always enjoyed it when I’ve gone, or that I think it offers an amazing look at the very large and very diverse ecosystem that is book publishing, or that there is always a lot of free candy. Never mind that it’s probably the best way for people in book publishing to see how large their world is–that publishing encompasses Chinese printing companies and creepy Scientologist publishing houses (with good free candy) and men dressed as ancient Greek warriors, and academic presses I’ve never heard of. It’s not a complete picture by any means, but it’s a fascinating one.

Wait, sorry. I totally forgot that I’m In The Know and am one of the Elect, so please ignore what I just said, because BEA is lame, and I’m proud to announce my cynicism publicly. Hooray for cynicism! Liking things is dumb.

Alex: I had food poisoning on the first day of BEA last year and it really didn’t make much of a difference—it’s an overwhelming experience, and an overwhelmingly odd one, and throwing up a lot is probably the best response. Weirdly, one’s enjoyment of it tends to hinge on two things: whether or not one lives in New York and/or whether or not one works in the intellectual fuddy duddy part of the industry (read: literary fiction and nonfiction, or “Adult Trade” to those in the Publishers Weekly set). If you answer yes to one of those questions, you are probably cynical about BEA! If you answer no, you may very well be very excited!

One of the things that interests me most about BEA is that disparity—that it really is a highlight for some people and a lowlight for others. To some extent, I think there are similar reasons for this: BEA is overwhelming! And it’s really taxing! There are so many people to meet and so many parties to go to!

I generally like the social part of BEA, though—and I think most people inside the industry do as well. It’s nice to see colleagues, booksellers, and writers that you only know over the Internet (or from telephone calls, Skype sessions, sales meetings, whatever). I’m genuinely thrilled that I am going to meet Kenny Coble this year. I can’t fucking wait. I can’t sleep, I’m so excited. It’s going to be the best. (Kenny, if you’re reading this, I know you’re about to ask me if I am being sarcastic or genuine and I would like you to know that I am being 100% genuine.)

But communicating that particularly insider-y enthusiasm is tough—and not just because it requires being earnest (gross). I think the biggest reason it’s tough is that there’s an implicit insider/outsider dynamic to a lot of BEA that can be a bit uncomfortable. A lot of people come to BEA with the hopes that it will be the stepping stone to becoming an “insider”—that they’ll meet someone who will help them launch a career. BEA doesn’t actively encourage that perception, but I think it’s just a fact of life for most trade shows—I know it certainly happens at art fairs as well.

That may very well happen, but it certainly doesn’t happen particularly often—the only meetings that seem to matter at BEA are ones that we’re not a part of—ones that don’t take place at the Javits Center, aka the Glass Palace of Hell, Except When It Hosts The New York Auto Show Which Is Dope As Hell. (Shit, does that mean that maybe we’re not the insiders we thought we were? Oh NO.)

The other sort of weird implicit promise of BEA is that it is a place for publishers to connect with readers—mostly in the form of giveaways. People come to BEA to load up on free shit and load up they do. I still haven’t gotten used to the sight of the dozens (if not hundreds!) of suitcases at BEA, but their image is burned into my brain. The giveaway has become the central part of BEA, which I don’t think is a terrible thing in and of itself—I’m generally pro-giveaway, especially pro-targeted giveaway.

The problem with BEA is that I don’t really know how effective the giveaways are—I don’t think anyone does. I certainly don’t see a lot of people raving about books they first picked up there—in fact, I see more people talking about how they never unpacked their galley suitcase from the previous BEA—but that’s anecdotal and may end up being like love (i.e. I may not be looking in the right place). BEA remains a place where readers and authors and publishers can theoretically come together, but those connections rarely happen and, when they do, that they tend to be fleeting. But maybe I’m just being a cynical insider who can’t get over communicating my cynicism so I can show the world how much of an insider I am? I’m bored, Mark, so bored with BEA. Yawn.

Mark: I think you’re being a cynical insider who can’t get over communicating your cynicism so you can show the world how much of an insider you are. That’s the short version.

The longer version is that industrial-scale efforts aimed at spontaneous interaction and connection, like BookCon, will almost never be a good look. What we’re discussing here are a series of big, well-funded initiatives designed to provoke very ineffable things: engagement and interaction. Naturally, this isn’t as appealing as something democratic, organic, artisanal, etc. Then again, when you’re dealing with a space the size of the Javits Center, you’re unlikely to see things done on a small scale. And I think this is . . . okay. More or less. Modest efforts are certainly more appealing to engage with and think about, but just because something looks or even feels somewhat cheesy doesn’t mean that it won’t elicit a positive reaction from the people from whom it’s intended to elicit a positive reaction.

Alex: Ugh, let’s talk about BookCon. BookCon has increasingly and rapidly become the focal point of BEA—it’s a kind of BEA on steroids. Run by the same people who run Comic Con (and, uh, BEA), BookCon is an attempt at turning an annual celebration of continued relevance into a Comic Con-like frenzy of consumer-facing insanity.

Last year, BookCon was fucking insane. John Green was there—he’ll be there again this year—and the basement was like a One Direction concert. It was packed full of teenagers (with the teenagers’ parents shuffling awkwardly around the perimeter). I nearly got trapped down there and I was scared, Mark. Scared! Those kids could’ve torn me limb from limb and they would have if they knew what I thought the plot of The Fault in Our Stars was (Two teens go to the Anne Frank House to bone?).

Last year, BookCon had a big problem: it was all white—literally all 30 participants were white—and that was a very bad look that thankfully inspired some much deserved criticism of both the conference and the larger publishing industry, which is also blindingly white. We still need diverse books, but last year’s uproar over the overwhelming whiteness of BookCon was inspiring.

This year, BookCon is much more diverse, much bigger, and a perfect metaphor for Big Publishing’s overall strategy over the past three decades, which is not a good thing. Here is the lineup for BookCon that BookCon itself is pushing:

Now, BookCon itself is much bigger and contains some, you know, real authors. This, however, is just a bunch of actors and celebrities who happen to have books coming out—books that will sell, sure, and books that publishers sure as shit paid a shit ton of money for, but books that will almost definitely not move in the backlist. These are books for a bunch of people to burn through once and then give away, where they will sit on Salvation Army shelves until Judgment Day or when Global Warming kills us all in 2031

Connecting with readers is important, but these seem to be draws to get people to BEA, not to get them to do anything else. That in and of itself is useful, but I don’t think most exhibitors and publishers have much of an idea as to what to do with these people once they get there. (Sidenote: last year, I learned that teens fucking love our Art of the Novella series.) This brings me to the larger issue: if BEA is about getting people in front of authors, shouldn’t events like BookCon try to push them in front of authors they may not learn about otherwise? That may also fail, but as it stands right now, BookCon mostly strikes me as a waste of time and effort: you’re reaching existing fans, but not converting anyone. And, if your draws are the cast of The Office (who all have books coming out apparently?) and other folks who already have a large fan base, well . . .I’m torn. Preaching to the converted is a good business strategy, but BEA is costly and I suspect the value for publishers is slim, especially considering how much they pony up in advances to publish big seasonal books.

In a very, very short time BookCon has become a bloated exercise in pandering, not bookselling—though thankfully a more diverse exercise in pandering than it was last year. It’s gotten very good at drawing a crowd—and probably also very good for making money for ReedPop, which puts on the conference—but I think publishers themselves (and, by extension, non-celebrity authors) have gotten lost in the shuffle.

Mark: Over the weekend, Jeffrey Trachtenberg wrote about BookCon for the Wall Street Journal, and he included a couple of examples of non-Office-castmember authors making appearances. Knopf’s decision to sell copies of Judy Blume’s new book a few days ahead of publication, for example, strikes me as a fine way to exploit BookCon’s strengths–Blume has a passionate readership, and her readers are likely to be thrilled by the opportunity to get their hands on a new book a few days early. On the other hand, none of this mitigates my confusion about Jason Segel’s decision to write a children’s book. Maybe it’s a spooky story about an American actor who stars in a film about David Foster Wallace. Ghoulish!

As for BookCon itself, I hope you’re wrong! It does seem to be the focus of a tremendous amount of attention and energy, and I’d like to think that it amounts to something more than an opportunity to see celebrities hanging out in an extremely unappealing convention facility.

Anyway, I have only one request for next year’s BookCon: the presence of Tom Jones. Tom Jones would singlehandedly revolutionize the public-facing aspect of the book publishing industry. All problems would be solved. In the meantime, here are “She’s a Lady” and “It’s Not Unusual.”