Troubled book world is going for novel ideas

Times Staff Writer

Clusters of TV and computer screens beam chatty videos about cooking, travel and wellness books. A music kiosk lets visitors download MP3s or burn CDs, while another offers tips on how to publish your own novel.

Welcome to the newly opened Borders bookstore in Southbury, Conn., which looks less like a traditional branch of the nation's second-largest book chain and more like what customers might see on their home computers.

"We wanted to go beyond selling books, CDs and DVDs and become a headquarters for knowledge and entertainment," said Borders Group Inc. Chief Executive George Jones of the recently opened "concept stores," including one in National City, near San Diego. "We needed to do something new in our stores to compete with all the alternatives people have at home when they shop online."

As Book Expo America, the nation's largest annual book convention, opens today in Los Angeles, innovation -- some would say desperation -- will be the main order of business. More than 2,000 exhibitors from every facet of the publishing world, nearly 1,000 authors and more than 25,000 people will be gathering at the L.A. Convention Center this weekend to discuss the state of an industry that's at a critical crossroads.

Indeed, the $37-billion industry's generally flat sales are likely to continue and perhaps worsen in the near future, according to a report issued today by the Book Industry Study Group. And with the end of the "Harry Potter" franchise, which single-handedly kept up fortunes and spirits in the publishing world, the search is on for potential growth areas.

Dozens of BEA panels will explore the possibilities of digital publishing and the expanded use of the Web to market to customers who view online as the best way to buy books. Another promising trend is the rising sales in young adult fiction -- Borders' concept stores have separated a young adult section from the children's books. Graphic novels aimed at adults are also looked at as an area of growth.

Nobody is immune from the economic turbulence: Barnes & Noble Inc., the nation's largest book chain, is exploring a bid to gobble up financially troubled Borders. Random House Inc., the nation's largest trade book publisher, was rocked this month when its German owners installed a new cost-cutting chief executive who is generally unknown in New York's insular book world.

"Everybody in publishing has to bring their game to a higher level," said Allison Hill, president of Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, which was recently named Bookseller of the Year by Publishers Weekly. "Change is the key word now. If you want to survive in publishing, you've got to start thinking outside the box."

The rapid growth of author videos is one example. In a small Manhattan studio, Marisa Benedetto is spearheading an effort at HarperCollins to produce more than 500 such interviews a year, which are designed for online distribution. Although many publishers create videos, HarperCollins raised the ante by producing them all in-house, instead of farming them out to independent production companies.

On a recent afternoon, Benedetto was trying to coax a better performance and smoother answers out of Elissa Wall, a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who wrote about her harrowing experiences in "Stolen Innocence."

Benedetto asked the author several times to repeat comments about what it felt like to break free of the sect. Wall caught on quickly, offering several versions as a camera rolled. "That's a wrap," says Benedetto, who edited the 20-minute interview into two-minute segments. Hours later, the video was posted on the Internet, including on Amazon.com.

Some experts caution that videos aren't the instant solution to the industry's woes. "I haven't seen any bottom-line evidence where somebody can point to a video and say, 'Oh, we've sold X thousand copies of a new book because we did that new trailer,' " said Ron Hogan, who runs Galleycat.com, a publishing industry blog. But he added, "They do generate long-term buzz and create author awareness, and publishers must have an instinctive sense that this approach has been working."

Though publishers are getting comfortable with the Internet, it still poses challenges for booksellers who are trying to hold on to loyal customers while attracting new ones who are used to buying books online.

Borders officials said they hoped the new concept stores would bring the two worlds together. But Jones acknowledges the irony. As he opens 14 of these stores this year, his cash-strapped company may soon be sold. Either way, he said, "we're boosting shareholders value. How can you be in our business and not include the Internet as part of a regular, in-store experience?"

But even with all the bells and whistles of the Internet transplanted to a physical bookstore, there are some aspects of the online world -- like digital publishing -- that can bedevil smaller, independent shops. E-books, which can be downloaded on demand and read on lightweight portable devices like the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle, have captured only a small share of the general interest book market. Yet many believe the right device will eventually meet the right format, paving the way for a transforming "iPod moment" in the book world.

"The tipping point is not going to be that quick," said Brennan Mullin, vice president of Sony Audio and Electronics. "People actually have to try this product and see what it's like. Just knowing that e-books exist now won't make you go out and buy one."

Yet when this moment finally comes, how do you sell digital products to customers who prefer to buy traditional books? More important, how do you convince them that they can buy e-books just as easily from an independent store as they can from Amazon.com?

Enter Peter Osnos. The founder of Public Affairs Books recently launched the Caravan Project, an experimental, grant-funded effort to educate publishers and an initial target group of independent bookstores about digital books. A key goal has been to show sellers that they can participate in the sale of digital books like anyone else. These days, that can include an e-book, a digital audio book, print on demand titles or the downloading of individual chapters.

"Even though e-books are not a huge market, we're seeing the beginning of a market," Osnos said. The venture, which has focused on nonfiction books by university presses, allows shoppers to see hands-on examples of what the new digital formats look like. Retailers get special aids, including software, to help order them.

One early participant in the Caravan Project was Vroman's Bookstore. Although Hill was initially skeptical that digital products would catch on, she was happy to see some customers getting comfortable with a device like the Sony Reader. Eventually, they bought e-books as well as traditional texts from her store.

"This isn't the bleak future many of us imagined when people first talked about e-books," she said. "But it means dramatic changes are on the way. That's what innovation is all about."

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josh.getlin@latimes.com

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