Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Book Expo America gets underway this week and the "buzz" is all about what's not happening.

Worried Book Industry Gathers For Convention

NEW YORK (AP) - This weekend's BookExpo America will be a good time for promoting, predicting, mingling - and worrying.

For example, the audio market.

Except for e-books, sales are down throughout the publishing industry and the numbers have looked especially steep for audio sales. The Association of American Publishers has seen a 47 percent drop this year: Just 14 publishers reported to the AAP, but they include Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and virtually all the major New York companies.

The numbers at Nielsen BookScan, which covers about 75 percent of sales (although not audio downloads), are down 20 percent this year from 2008. Data compiled by the newly founded Institute for Publishing Research Institute projects a 4.7 percent fall in 2009.

Anthony Goff, president of the Audio Publishers Association, doesn't know the exact figures (the APA is assembling its own statistics). But he is sure they are bad.

"We know all too well what's happening in the marketplace," says Goff, the publisher and director of audiobooks at the Hachette Book Group USA, among those reporting sales to the publishers association.

Goff and others cite a few reasons for audiobooks' troubles. Sales of physical audiobooks, dropping for years, have been especially poor and the relatively steady, but still emerging, digital audio market has yet to compensate.

With the economy shrinking, fewer people work, and fewer people drive to work; many audio customers listen in their cars. Audiobooks also tend to cost more. The audio download for the country's hottest title, Mark R. Levin's "Liberty and Tyranny," has a list price of $29.99, nearly $5 higher than for the hardcover.

"There is a sense that audiobooks are a luxury item. The gut feeling is that, 'OK, sales are down and the price points are of concern.' Publishers are trying to bring it down, but the cost of audio book production is so expensive it's hard to bring the cost down very far," says Goff, who estimates the cost can run as high as $40,000-$50,000, especially if a celebrity has been signed up as the reader.

The state of audiobooks will be among the countless topics - from Google to Arab publishing - at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, where around 25,000 publishers, booksellers, agents and writers are expected at a time when sales are falling, and advances and print runs have been cut.

Like the industry itself, this year's booksellers convention seeks to be smaller, more economical and more committed to a digital future.

The show will likely cover 20 percent to 25 percent less space than last year and cocktails, rather than dinners, will be the standard for after-hours gatherings. E-books, after years of being sidelined from the convention floor, will be centrally showcased at a New Media Zone, which will feature the Kindle and other e-book devices, and provide space for the growing number of bloggers.

"We're attempting to shine a light on the Internet and digital content
," says BookExpo show manager Lance Fensterman. "And we see BEA as becoming increasingly interactive."

Featured authors include Pat Conroy, David Baldacci and Richard Russo, along with Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, actresses Julie Andrews and Julianne Moore, and the country's favorite airline pilot, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger. There won't be many major celebrities, but a good number of minor ones: Kathie Lee Gifford and Mary Jo Buttafucco, Oliver North and the Amazing Kreskin, Emeril Lagasse and "Sneaky Chef" Missy Chase Lapine.

Endlessly criticized as too expensive and even irrelevant, the booksellers convention remains the industry's best chance to meet in person, although some may prefer to be kept apart.

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