The Last BEA of The Second Millennium

Book industry trends revealed at the 1999 Book Expo of America--including some major new directions and technologies for publishers.

After several years in Chicago, the 1999 Book Expo of America was held in Los Angeles. Next year's is back in Chicago, and the year after, New York.

Technologies: Books Are More Than Paper Now
The most noticeable trend this year was the momentum behind alternate formats. Not so many years ago, a book meant something printed on paper on a traditional press, in either hardback or softcover form. Of course, audio books have been around for a while (and continue to gain strength)--but this year, new technologies have reached critical mass.

For a few years now, Print-On-Demand, a short-run production method more like photocopying than traditional offset printing, has allowed publishers to economically produce tiny editions--50, 25, or even single copies. What's new this year is a big leap forward in quality. the best printers can now produce P-O-D books that look just like traditionally published books, except to the truly expert eyes of a professional printer or book designer. One of the larger P-O-D printers, Lightning Print (a division of Ingram), now has 2500 books from 200 publishers in its system. Lightning's two print arrays run two shifts per day to keep up. The feasibility of very short professional-quality print runs has major implications for the future of publishing:

  • Books that would have gone out of print can be kept alive indefinitely--and out-of-print titles (including those that have fallen into public domain) can be brought back at any time
  • Specialty publishing firms can bring out books for very limited audiences and still make a profit
  • Publishers no longer have to sit on large amounts of inventory
  • While the unit cost is higher, there's no need to come up with a large amount of capital

    Meanwhile, the long-awaited Era of the E-Book has begun. Numerous vendors now offer electronic book technologies, running either on a regular computer or on a separate hand-held device. According to the CEO of RocketBooks (one e-book vendor), e-books offer a number of advantages over traditional books: you can read them in the dark, adjust the font size if you have vision disabilities, look up words or references with a built-in dictionary, hold 10,000 pages at a timeŅand get new material almost instantly over the Internet. And, of course, e-books share many of the advantages of P-O-D, but the cost of production is shifted to the consumer. So e-books can be profitable at very low price points, even under $5--because there's no cost of paper, printing, distribution, or warehousing.

    Of course, paper books have some advantages too: ink on white paper is easier on the eyes, you can take it to the beach without worrying about sand or water damage, it's less of a problem if it's stolen or destroyed--and the entry cost for a paperback is far less than for an e-reader.

    Book Trends
    Surprise, surprise--Y2K books are big this year! Also inspirationals, Feng Shui, gender studies, multicultural art and fiction (still rising, as in past years), and pull-out-all-the-stops full-color art books with in-your-face design and high pricetags. Last year was notable for the jump in quality of cover art; this year the big marketing push seems to be around punchy titles.

    A lot of smaller publishers who might have had one or two subject niches before are branching out, becoming mid-sized, releasing 5-20 books a year, and trying to market to many niches at once. This implies that these houses have grown strong of late, and are feeling better able to take more risks. As the super-giant Simon & Schusters and Random Houses consolidate, and the death knell is sounded for once proud publishers that have been swallowed up and regurgitated as mere imprints, it's refreshing to see such publishers as Adams, Champion, NTC, and DK expanding to fill the vacuum--and, unlike the big houses, these smaller ones know to keep their backlist strong.

    A new trend in children's books: many, many picture books with far more words on a page and depth of story line than has been common. Does this mean very young children are reading more and increasing their attention span, or does it mean older children are being dumbed down, presented with heavily illustrated books and simple story lines? I'm hoping for the former!

    Trends Outside the Book Covers
    The non-book aisles were big on "opoly" games--taking the Monopoly motif and changing it from real estate to pharmaceutical sales or agribusiness, for example. There was even a 3-D monopoly variant. Construction toys were also big--and so were non-books disguised as books--little tiny things with lots of white space and few words, selling for $5 or $10.

    Still, there was no shortage of real books to read, on every conceivable subject, in every possible genre. As the new century approaches, the printed book is far from dead.

    Shel Horowitz is the Editor of Down to Business, Global Arts Review, and Global Travel Review magazines at http://www.frugalfun.com. A writer and marketing consultant, he is the author and publisher of Marketing Without Megabucks: How to Sell Anything on a Shoestring and The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook. To read his report on the 1997 BEA, please click here.


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