Reporting from New York ——If it was a bright sign that plenty of iPads lit up BookExpo America, the publishing industry's annual trade show and convention held at Manhattan's Jacob Javits Center this week, it was equally telling that the hot trend for fall books is dystopian fiction.
For an industry still reeling from the battered economy and not yet reconciled to the e-book revolution, tales of society gone wrong have resonated. As for the big picture, it was possible to find writers, independent publishers and executives optimistic about the future, but many remain guarded and grim.
"No author is going to want to only publish his book online," said Jonathan Galassi, head of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "They want to give their mother a copy." This got a laugh, but publishers might also do well to consider what authors' children find appealing.
That was the point of the edgy, multivaried 7-by-20-by-21 panel, in which writers, innovators and independent publishers offered an array of new ideas.
One panelist proposed that literature be taught backward (from " Harry Potter" to Holden Caulfield to "Hamlet," instead of the other way around); another showed photos of an upcoming book of literary tattoos, raising issues of writing, the body, and how devoted young people are to reading.
Jennifer Egan — a Guggenheim winner and National Book Award finalist — presented a chapter from her new novel, "A Visit From the Goon Squad," which had been written using Powerpoint. Thematic color schemes, overlapping bubbles, page position and the odd formality of the slides were employed to create the story.
Egan's experiment should play well in e-book form; at 47, she offers an example of how authors don't have to be Gen Y to embrace — and have fun with — new technologies.
But novelist Scott Turow, new president of the Authors Guild, used his time on the CEO panel to raise concerns over e-books and the changes they bring.
He warned of the growing influence of "device manufacturers" (in addition to Amazon and Apple, Google is poised to enter the market). "The entity that ends up controlling that device," he said, "will be a behemoth and a threatened one."
From the consumer perspective, e-books are just another format to add to hardcovers and paperbacks; inside publishing, however, they're forcing significant shifts. Also speaking as part of the CEO panel, ICM agent Esther Newberg said e-books had hit the industry "like a fist."
Amazon.com began a tradition — which its Kindle readers applauded — of selling e-books for $9.99 apiece, a price that publishers find unsustainable. Apple's emergence as an e-book seller has allowed publishers to have more control over pricing: Many e-books now retail for between $12.99 and $15.99.
But Apple has also forced a change in publishing's traditional retail model that is resonating throughout the business: Because of the way contracts have been structured, authors stand to lose the most.
At a private Authors Guild event on the eve of the convention, Garrison Keillor spoke of the end of an era; a version of his talk ran on the New York Times' op-ed page Wednesday.
"This book party in Tribeca feels like a Historic Moment, like a 1982 convention of typewriter salesmen or the hunting party of Kaiser Wilhelm II," Keillor wrote. "I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea."
Of course, we've heard this many times before. Twenty-five years ago, it was corporate conglomeration that was going to kill publishing, then the advent of chain retailers such as Borders and Barnes & Noble and later the rise of Amazon.com. Even as far back as the 15th century, Venetian judge Filippo di Strata declared of Gutenberg's movable type, "The pen is a virgin; the printing press, a whore."
Through it all, books and publishing have survived.
What may be new is the exhaustion in the top ranks. Newberg expressed what other publishing veterans won't say out loud: "One of the only good things about being old is that I won't have to deal with this."
And yet, in a distant corner of the convention floor, 75-year-old Lewis Lapham, the legendary editor of Harper's, was attending his first BookExpo with his new journal, Lapham's Quarterly. The publication has a successful online presence, but he wanted to meet independent booksellers and librarians in person.
"We've had a lot of inquiries," Lapham said. "We're hopeful." Tellingly, he was less interested in talking about the business than in "the power of expression and the force of imagination."
That kind of engagement is a reminder of why books matter. Take away the booths, the changing business model, the e-readers and all the other noise around BookExpo, and what you get is that reading remains a joy.
Novelist Michael Connelly was at his eighth convention; although BookExpo is open only to publishing professionals, he signed hundreds of copies of his upcoming book, "The Reversal." He sees hope in this community.
"When people come together," he said, "I get a sense of celebration."