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BookExpo America:

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As long as you're asking (you are asking, aren't you?), I spent last weekend in New York City at BookExpo America. The trip wasn't entirely successful: because of my schedule, I had to show up on the last day. So, I missed the Big Name openers - you know, Jon Stewart, Barbara Streisand - but still had a dash of time to schedule interviews, find new ideas, and report in to you, dear audience, about the state of all things books.

But, alas, when I got to press registration, my name wasn't on the press list. So, I raced from place to place (make that hobbled, as I had a backache) from supervisors who didn't exist to employees who couldn't help. The journey was rather like a hike in the Grand Tetons, which had high exercise potential diminished by the stress and bad back. At long last, the guy-running-the-show (for media, anyway) appeared: a good looking guy, with an earring and sporty attire. Very New York. You know, the guy who sent those e-mails inviting me to attend. Who I e-mailed accepting the invite. Who could help me get in fast because my professional clock was tick-tick-ticking. My savior!

I thought.

He greeted me with a curt and hurried "What is it?" I explained the situation which (it appeared) was simple enough. In a tone inspired by desperation was it? mania? that a. I should have had some form of i.d. (I did); b. I should have signed up online (I didn't know, sorry); and c. I shouldn't have brought my fourteen year old son, who was helping, what with my back and all.

Why I shouldn't have brought my son, and why he had to shout this in front of the coliseum-size room (and my son), I don't know, but the-guy-running-the-show said I could have a pass this once only, as he dashed across the room. "Then I won't come next year," I said. Which makes sense, don't you think? "Fine, then no press pass!" he shouted. "No press pass!" Never mind, I just drove all the way in from DC. Never mind I had people to meet, features to produce. That was that. So, with a scant few hours left, I paid for two tickets and went in.

I mention this saga because in some ways the guy-running-the-show represents the book industry--without the attitude. The conversations I've been having of late are tinged with panic, a feeling of racing out-of-control. And, there is much to be concerned about. The book-reading public has dwindled down to a handful. The numbers vary depending on the source, from most Americans read only one book a year (during summer vacation) to most women read nine books a year and men only one. The most popular books are in the romance /thriller genres, great for escapism, and how-to's. Nothing against either venue (I have authored numerous how-to's, myself) but they're not much at doing what books do best: challenging us, bringing us closer to all corners of reality.

I posed the issue to the aforementioned fourteen-year-old who motioned to his iPhone. "We don't need books," he said. "We can get them here. Or on the iPad. Or on Kindle. You can access more books there then you can read in a lifetime," he said, vaguely reflecting the iPad ad.

But build it electronically and will they come? Or, more to the point, will they stay? As any marketer will tell you, speed is everything, the virtual universe demands it. The average visitor forms an opinion of a Web site is less than a second. Most people read a few lines, maybe paragraphs, of an online publication and move on. So, what is the likelihood that they'll tune in for days, indulging in a 350-page narrative? Besides, most online mediums for the printed word are loaded with links to other sites, YouTube videos, and possibilities of signing up for the author's (gasp) 140-word twitter. Who wants a medium that takes you nowhere but it to its own inky self? Granted, the industry is on an upswing, at least according to Tina Jordan of the Association of American Publishers. She says publishers are "cautiously optimistic" much, I'm sure, as real estate developers are today.

Which brings me to why books, especially the paper and ink type (with apologies to Al Gore), matter so much. Books demand the reader's ultimate attention: when a book is in your hands, it is singularly yours. No keys to press, no links to distract you, no ATT or Sprint-type conduits for the information. I guess you could say the relationship is monogamous. Don't want the book? You have the more formal process of putting it on a shelf somewhere and finding a new one.

Besides, books are quite possibly the last bastion of marketing-free purity. Each day most people confront between 5,000-6,000 marketing messages a day. They're everywhere: on grocery receipts, bank statements, and the posters at doctors' offices. They're in schools, loaded in to movies and TV shows. And, thanks to the wonders of neuromarketing (which uses tenets of neuroscience) is beamed into our brains.

Not so with books. Books are one of the few relationships we have with the media that is untarnished by the looming and distracting presence of logos, links, or search engines. You flip the pages, put the book down, and no virtual presence passes the information to a waiting marketer. You pick up the book and see the cover: title, author's name, and possibly price--but no ads for something else.

After the Expo, I was speaking to an editor from a French publishing house. She mirrored the thoughts of many in the business: books must change radically, she said, to survive. Maybe, but change into what? And who or what will fuel that change? And how long do we have? The questions may seem endless and the answers evasive.

Regardless, it's important to remember that plenty of book-lovers are out there, among them women in book groups, blogger/reviewers, students discovering great ideas for the first time, industry folks, and the media. So, it's important that we find each other, keep talking, and above all, folks like the-guy-running-the-show aside, be nice.

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Biography Communications expert, author, and entrepreneur Susan F. Benjamin is founder of Greater Voice Enterprises. Her short features and interviews with everyone from Hollywood celebrities to leading thinkers are aired online and on am/fm (more...)
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