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May 29, 2015

New York City Book Expo = Book Exposure

By Scott Baker

The NYC Book Expo: promise and pitfalls in a changing industry and my own reactions as a struggling author to it.


Originally Published on OpEdNews

I attended my first Book Expo at the New York City Javits Center with Opednews' own veteran Book Exponier, Rob Kall, who's visiting for his "sixth or seventh year." I'm the anonymous "friend" he mentions in his article Doing BEA 2015 who was looking for a freelance publicist. More on that in a moment but, gee, Rob, you could have mentioned you attended the expo with one of OEN's Managing Editors!

Anyway, it was good to go with an experienced guide to show how to network at a confab like this, which is really the major reason to go. We both went as press, which gave us additional insight to how the publishing world has changed, and not always for the better.

The "rise of the rest" or, as Rob would put it, the "bottom up revolution" is a mixed blessing. While it has allowed for a new slew of writers, orders of magnitude greater than before, it has also so overwhelmed the industry, and the ability of people to read all these books, that marketing has now become more important than the book itself. Some years ago, Amazon predicted there would shortly be more self-published books than traditionally published books, but that prediction is now looking like the good old days. Today,

More than 2.3 million new titles were published in 2012 (the most recent year for which complete figures are available). Of these, 86 percent (more than 2 million books) were "non-traditionally published, including print-on-demand and self-published titles.

...says one of the exhibitors, Indie Book Awards, in their catalog of 2015 winners. Awards like the Indie Awards, are, of course, one of the growing numbers of ways authors try to distinguish themselves from the great mass of pulp out there, perhaps leading to the need to rank awards themselves now, as well as the books. Maybe we need an award for the most important awards?

None of these long odds, however, seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of either the publishers, the support industry, or of the fans, who sometimes queued up by the hundred or more, to get a signed copy of a free book by their favorite author. It's hard to understand how giving away free books, as well as free author's time, is a viable business model, but I guess they make it up in volume"or, maybe not. That the Harry Potter's of the world carry much of the industry, is a cliche. And I didn't pick that super-successful series by accident. A section of the show was dedicated to the series being re-released in a highly illustrated version by Bloomsbury this Fall. And James Paterson, the world's highest-earning author, and never one to miss a publishing opportunity, is launching a children's imprint too. Bottom-up may be percolating with thousands of new authors on the "long tail" as Rob put it when we were talking to a potential publicist for me, but top-down Paterson grossed $90 million last year, says Forbes.

Being definitely in the far end of the long tail myself, with a self-published 2-volume novel, Neitherworld, now both old and (2007-2008) and obscure, and a brand new non-fiction book "America is Not Broke! Four Multi-Trillion Dollar Paths To A Thriving America" (Tayen Lane, 2015) which is doing little better at this juncture, I have been shopping for a publicist. Publishers, especially "micro-publishers" (the term used by another exhibitor for publishers like Tayen Lane, who have under 50 titles) can't or don't do much marketing, at least not by the megabuck standards of the larger houses like McMillan, Scholastic, Disney etc. or even on the micro side at the show, where independent publishers can rent a small table for $1,800 for the show's 3-day run (there's a second, more consumer-oriented 2-day show over the weekend, which the $1,800 fee covers as well). It's good to see there is an opportunity for even the smallest of publishers to get exposure for their less than half dozen titles, but oh, if only they didn't appear so desperate...

Getting back to Rob's and my interview with a potential publicist, she confirmed that A) the publishing industry is in the throws of a contraction and realignment within an overall trend in which the public thinks "information is free" and that B) authors now have to provide for their own publicity, because publishers won't do it anymore. Of course, the book is only a vehicle, at least on the non-fiction side, and a good publicist will help promote the ideas and the person delivering them, and not just the book. Several professionals have written that no one interviews a book, they interview the author. These days, says this publicist, many media outlets don't do either. The old days of authors going on the Today Show, or other mass media to promote their books, are gone, unless they are celebrities, and now you have to tie your message into some topical story, often writing a couple of times a week, just to keep your message "out there." This comports with my own experience. I've been writing about the ideas in my book for several years now and in fact, the book is an updated anthology of articles previously published on Opednews and elsewhere. And the publisher approached me. But in fact, I've had more readership on Opednews and Huffington Post for the articles than when they were tied together in my new book. But the question is, as the publicist pointed out in an interesting discussion between her and Rob Kall, is when everyone is writing for free online, "how do authors get paid now?" Rob and the publicist are coming to the bottom up revolution from different perspectives then, and the only thing one can say for sure at this juncture is that the revolution is here to stay and ongoing. One other thing can be said for sure, the old Labor Theory of Value, in which "the economic value of a good or service is determined by the total amount of socially necessary labor required to produce it," has been finally and firmly put aside in a day when an author can labor for years on a book that answers the great questions of the day, yet which few will buy, while another author makes millions by trading on her celebrity and may not even write the book to which her name is attached. Writing, that most intimate of public pursuits, is now often outsourced as well.

But for those still willing and able to take the time to write a book, there exists a plethora of tools designed to get your effort out there, from traditional review outlets to new online book promoting sites like Bublish or Net Galley, which both provide sorts of writer's gathering places where authors can reach their readers in new ways. Bublish promises to let writers reach their readers directly with "thought balloons" and enhanced writing about uploaded book excerpts. It's sort of writing about the book already written then. The interface looks clean and a bit sweet. It may also serve the purpose of creating a book-specific website which every author is supposed to have now (and when did wordsmiths become skilled website designers as well?) Does any of this translate into more books sold? It's hard to say, though 4,000 writers are giving it a go for $9.99/month.

Few of these products are free, and publicists are the least free of all. I stopped by the booth of Smith Publicity towards the end of my journey (by this time, Rob and I had separated into different aisles). They are "Public Relations thought-leader branding" specialists, according to their brochure, and their peppy Sales Associate/Publicist was very encouraging and helpful in explaining their services. But in spite of the encouraging words, it remains to be seen how impressive my credentials as president of the New York metro chapter of the Georgist group Common Ground-USA, New York Coordinator of the Public Banking Institute, and teacher at the Henry George School (with an upcoming seminar on my book) really are if a publicist from Smith Publicity tries to get me on the Rachel Madow Show, on CNBC, or on Democracy Now! etc. There are no guarantees in the writing world of course, and never were, but when did paying to be published, or at least, paying to be publicized, become the norm? As the first publicist asked "Just how does an author make money when all information is free?" A follow-up to that might be "Just how does an author know when the money he spends will not be recouped by book sales?"

I would be remiss in this report if I didn't point out the largest exhibitor, by far, at the expo -- the country of China. It's a bit odd for American readers to see an entire country featured in an exhibit instead of individual publishers, authors, etc. but perhaps this reflects the collectivist mentality of the Chinese. Or maybe it's just because they don't like the star system of celebrity-authors to which American publishing has fallen prey. But in any case, the Chinese pavilion was stocked like a library full of titles in Chinese, none standing out from the others. But, as Rob said, it's hard to know what they expected to get out of the show. Certainly exposure, since they were literally the front of center of the expo, but perhaps there is such a thing as being too equal? Where are the star Chinese authors"oh, that's right, they don't like stars. The exhibit seemed a bit directionless and tired. Poor China.

Other countries made their presence known too, from Saudi Arabia (did you know they have a king? And that he writes books? It's true!) to Italy, Korea, etc. I'm sure all of these are of great interest to industry professionals.

If one starts the show at the downtown end where the main entrance is, and dutifully follows the descending aisles to the end, which takes most of a well-spent day, one comes to the convention "bookstores." I don't know if it was the lateness of the day, or everything that came before, but for some reason I had the thought that this is where all books "come to die." I asked one of the exhibitors how I could get my book included in their offerings (I haven't been able to get any bookstores to carry it, and apparently neither has my publisher), but she said "Oh you wouldn't be happy with it here, at the remainder price." I told her I am not happy with it anyway, since it is not selling at the price it has. We laughed a little like two books that pass in the night. I went on my way. I get overwhelmed at huge collections of books, not knowing where to start. And anyway, my two bags were loaded with free books already by then and I was already dreading the long walk back from Manhattan's under-served mid-west side to the train home. (Next year will be better, when the #7 train is extended to the Javits Center, providing a continuous ride from midtown east.)

The expo was both intimidating and inspiring. I came away with lots of good contacts and lots of reminders of how hard it is to succeed in this business, as well as the Croesus-like rewards for those who do.

Addendum: The show must have inspired me more than I realized. Last night, I dreamt quite a dream. I won't go into details here, but it involves three nerdy 12-year olds (a girl and 2 boys, though the second boy is not an ally at first) hopping across an action-packed multiverse, artifacts and sets from many recent action movies, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and his show Science Now, a simple televised experiment to detect the presence of the multiverse also hosted by DeGrasse Tyson, and even a little bit of his snot. NeitherWorld started with a dream too. I feel another story coming on...

Authors Bio:
Scott is a Senior Editor and Writer at Op Ed News, a top 100 blog, and author of Neitherworld -- a two-volume novel blending Native American myth, archaeological detail, government conspiracy, with a sci-fi flair.
Scott is a modern-day Renaissance Man with interests in economics, astronomy, history, natural sciences, psychology, philosophy, Native American culture, and all future-forward topics; he has been called an adept syncretist by Kirkus Discoveries for his novel, NeitherWorld. Scott grew up in New York City and Pennsylvania. He graduated with honors and a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from Pennsylvania State University and was a member of the Psychology honor society PSI CHI.