BEA and everything after

From Thursday through Sunday, I attended BookExpo America, getting steeped in most things bookish. Major industry events typically give participants an opportunity to assess their part of the business and talk earnestly of “change”. This year’s BEA did not disappoint on that front.

Several of my colleagues have weighed in on the future of BEA and the book business that supports it. I defer to their analyses; people with more experience than I have bring a weight and depth that I can only hope to emulate some day.

What I don’t quite see in the book business, though, is a sense of the damage done by our consistent use of the three half-truths of publishing: the world is changing; we need to change; and some things will never change. We pay homage to each of these (often in quick succession), but we don’t typically confront the implications in a way that would, well, scare the hell out of us.

Yes, the world is changing, but we as an industry are acting as if we can stop that from happening. Having studied the impact of piracy on book sales, I think of the constant refrain, “We don’t want to have what happened to the music business happen to us”, a half-analysis that assumes (first) that piracy hurt the music business and (second) that the music business could have stopped piracy if it had only been faster off the mark.

Yes, as an industry we need to change, but we as participants in an industry talk as if it’s the next guy who just doesn’t get it. If someone else “doesn’t get it”, perhaps there’s a disconnect that could signal a new opportunity.

And yes, some things will not change, but we each project a clear sense of what those things are, as if we knew.

It would be more than nice, more than fun, more than illuminating, if we as an industry could use events like BEA as less an opportunity to predict the future and more a forum in which to examine the options. Okay, piracy is bad, but.. what if it helped sell books? Okay, we love long-form fiction and we think it should survive, but what if the people who read it now just stopped? Okay, a trade publisher provides value in choosing and curating content, but what if the world turned upside down and everyone were a writer, a publisher, a reader… Wouldn’t that be really cool?

And that’s what I felt was missing at BEA. We debated ideas more than we explored them, and competition trumped structured inquiry. As a western society, it’s our comfort zone, but in a part of the world changing by the day, debates that are essentially positional in nature leave us vulnerable to disruptive innovations.

The structured inquiry isn’t hard, but it is different. Asking questions like “If this were true, how would we know? And if it were true, what might we do as a result?” is a bit of a step off a cliff, especially when we have to say, “I don’t know”. Folks like me get paid for knowing, not for not knowing.

Last night, I got to hear Joe Pug open for Steve Earle. He closed his set with a song whose lyrics were in part, “I’ve come to trade the harvest for the seed.” It is a beautiful line in an era of change. Whether there are many more BEAs, there will still be everything after. There is still time for us to plan for that, though not as much as any of us would like to have.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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