The best way to think about this year's BookExpo America -- the book industry's annual trade show and convention that concluded Sunday at the Jacob Javits Center -- is as a mirror: What you see reflects who you are.
For major publishing conglomerates such as Random House, which scaled back its presence to nearly nothing, or Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which opted off the floor altogether, there was a sense of retrenchment, a feeling that the business model had irrevocably shifted -- although to what exactly, no one was quite sure.
But for independent publishers -- from the midsized Grove Atlantic to the fiercely iconoclastic Akashic and the up-and-coming Two Dollar Radio -- there was an air of possibility, the belief that the future was very much in play.
Such contrasts were articulated even before the convention officially opened Friday, at a pair of panels Thursday. One showcased former Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash, who debuted his plan for a new kind of imprint in which the traditional role of publisher as gatekeeper is superseded by a more dynamic community of writers and readers.
The other featured a Tina Brown-led conversation in which industry leaders -- Brian Murray of HarperCollins, Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster, John Sargent of Macmillan and David Steinberger of Perseus -- lamented the shrinking attention span of readers, the dangers of electronic piracy and worries about the Kindle and Amazon.com.
Together, these panels illustrate two sides of an industry in transition, with all the panic and excitement that implies.
Publishing has been in trouble for some time, with massive layoffs and sales numbers in decline. One reason is the industry's blockbuster mentality, in which big books -- " Harry Potter," "Twilight" -- are expected to play a savior role.
At BookExpo, Dan Brown's forthcoming "Da Vinci Code" sequel, "The Lost Symbol," was advertised on two enormous banners in the Javits Center lobby, but it was the only book to get that kind of play.
Otherwise, evidence of cost-cutting was everywhere, beginning with the convention itself, which occupied 21% less floor space than last year's show in Los Angeles. As for giveaways, once a hallmark of the show, they were almost nonexistent; even advance reading copies were in short supply.
Yet there were many at BookExpo who see this state of affairs as an opportunity, a charge to reinvent the book -- and publishing -- for a new century. Using print-on-demand technology, PublicAffairs -- a division of Perseus -- edited and published a 134-page paperback in 48 hours. Called "Book: The Sequel," it featured hundreds of first lines for prospective sequels to classics such as "Gone With the Wind" and "The Catcher in the Rye." Work began at 4 p.m. Thursday; finished books were distributed Saturday afternoon.
"It is not often that someone comes along who is friendly and tasty. Wilbur was both," wrote Liz Frame, identifying one possible future for E.B. White's iconic pig. Lauren Gilbert imagined " Facebook of Common Prayer," a sequel to the "Book of Common Prayer." Its first line? "You have a friend request from God. Confirm as Friend or Ignore?"
On the one hand, an instant book is a convention gimmick, a way to generate buzz. It succeeded: "Book: The Sequel" was unveiled to a crowd that included National Book Foundation Executive Director Harold Augenbraum and Grove Atlantic Publisher Morgan Entrekin.
But more important, the book indicates ways the publishing industry can be more responsive as well as illustrating the viability of print on demand. This was also the message of the Espresso Book Machine -- a large computer copier that can print and bind a paperback in four minutes -- which offers a new model for publishers to produce small press runs.
Of course, the essence of the reader-writer interaction still has to do with content. And the best news to come out of the convention is the number of fascinating books in the pipeline, such as Dave Eggers' "Zeitoun," about a Syrian American who disappeared from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and Michael Lewis' "The Big Short," which looks at the collapse of the economy last fall.
The future, in other words, might be uncertain, but at least there will be plenty of good stuff to read.
Ulin is book editor of The Times.
Carolyn Kellogg and Scott Martelle contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times