CEOs Have Spirited Debate on Industry Future

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

The American Booksellers Association's Day of Education at BookExpo America began with an occasionally feisty opening plenary session, co-sponsored by ABA and BookExpo America. "A CEO Panel: The Value of a Book" featured Oren Teicher, ABA CEO; Skip Prichard, Ingram CEO; David Shanks, Penguin Group CEO; Bob Miller, Workman Group publisher; Scott Turow, author and Authors Guild incoming president; and Esther Newberg, International Creative Management (ICM) executive vice president. The panel was moderated by Jonathan Galassi, president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Two of the panelists were strong proponents of maintaining the primacy of print books. "Why did publishers ever agree to allow the e-book to be available at the same time as the hardcover?" Turow asked.

"I agree with Scott that it was a mistake to allow Amazon to put out the e-book simultaneously," said Galassi. "I think this is going to have an impact on the paperback edition."

"Publishing is changing fast, bookselling is changing fast," and expectations have to change at the same time, said Prichard, who pointed out that it was unrealistic to blame e-books for digital piracy. "Most of the [pirated] books are coming from paper books," he said. "Digital versions didn't cause piracy."

Teicher urged participants to "focus on the content," regardless of the form in which it is presented. Noting that independent booksellers "curate content" in whatever format it's presented in, he said the goal should be to meet the different needs of customers at different times, and to maintain "a creative publishing environment where lots and lots of content is being created" and stores can "put [books] in the hands of the appropriate customers."

Shanks took an optimistic view of the future of publishing: "There's no question there's a bigger readership out there," he said. "As an industry, we need to embrace anybody who brings books to their audience."

There was some concern about the possibility of concentrating market power in the hands of the leading e-reader manufacturers, particularly following the removal of some Amazon buy buttons in January. Newberg said that when one of her authors contacted her after his book was affected, "he wanted to know why that button was turned off, and we didn't have an answer to that." Teicher said he didn't want to see another instance of "books being used as loss-leaders to sell flat-screen televisions and lawn furniture," as was the case in last fall's online price wars.

Galassi noted "there's something radically wrong" when a market has the power to cause the value of a book to plummet. "I want to be able to say that a new book by Scott Turow is worth $28, and people should be willing to pay that."

Turow agreed. "There is nothing wrong with [copyright holders] maximizing their profits," he said. "If we really want to have a robust literary culture, then we have to think about the compensation system." As an agent, Newberg had a simple answer to compensation questions: "I say that it's never enough," she noted, smiling.

Others took a more laissez-faire view. "However much we might love that $27 price point, kiss it goodbye," said Miller. "What the book is worth is dependent on the market," Prichard said.

As the discussion of value kept returning to the topic of e-books, Teicher pointed out that independent bookstores have a place in that discussion as well. "It's important to know that physical booksellers can sell digital content too," he said. "We're trying to help our stores sell that content in whatever format the customer wants."

Miller agreed that the book industry needs a to meet customers' expectations with a variety of formats. "I think it's a false thing to talk about all books in one sweep," he said. He returned several times to the example of the iPad app associated with The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe (Black Dog & Leventhal), which covers much of the physical book's content in an interactive format. "I really believe that that app will increase the interest in that book," he said.

Though the session ended with little agreement among the participants -- indicative of the current uncertainty in the publishing and bookselling industry -- they all seemed to concur with Prichard's conclusion: "It's going to be an incredible five years ahead."