The Year of Female Empowerment: 2017 Book Expo Show Report

Publishing has a long cycle. It’s certainly possible to rush a book into print to capture some hot news trend—think about the rash of instant books out just weeks after Princess Diana’s fatal accident, and that was before we had all this cool technology to make things so much faster. And some houses, such as Morgan James, shift some preproduction functions (especially editing) to the author, allowing a much faster cycle once the manuscript is accepted. But typically, it takes at least six and as much as 18 months between the author’s submission of a final manuscript.

And that’s probably why, for the most part, this year’s Book Expo not only didn’t address the surprise election results, but seemed to be rooted in the assumption that the US would have its first woman president. Which is why I call this year’s show “The Year of Female Empowerment.” Dozens of books for adults and children, fiction, nonfiction, and memoir, touched on the empowerment of women and girls—but the contracts for these spring and fall 2017 releases would have been signed in 2015 or pre-election 2016.

Some of these may have been published in response to Trump’s misogyny but seek to broaden their audience by not calling him out on the cover. Others were probably commissioned earlier in the election cycle, when most reasonable observers expected the United States to have its first woman president. Some of the relevant titles: The Mother of All Questions by feminist essayist Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket Books), Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back by former Miss America Gretchen Carlson (Hachette’s Center Street imprint), The Girl Who Ran by Bobbi Gibb (Compendium), The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman (Kensington), Hey Mom Can I Be Big by Cari Pointer (Storybook Genius), Girls Who Code by Reshma Saujani (Penguin Random House).

This trend continues. Two weeks after the show, Publishers Weekly reported a book deal for Krista Suh, creator and spreader of the Pussyhat Project (all those pink hats at the Women’s March. Grand Central will publish her DIY Rules for a WTF World in early 2018. Her agent, Sara Crowe, called the work a “manifesto for every woman to create her own distinct and original path to joy and success and impact.”

Despite the technical ability to get into print very quickly, only a handful of books coming out were clearly finished after the election. The near-total absence of books specifically directed toward the election results was a shock. I saw exactly one book existing or advertised that was about Donald Trump directly, either pro or anti: No is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, by Naomi Klein, also forthcoming from Haymarket Books. And Klein is a deep researcher who puts out quality books, so she was likely working on this already and just made a slight pivot after November 8th. I also saw exactly one climate change book geared toward adults, despite the accomplishment of the Paris Accord: We Rise: The Earth Guardians’ Guide to Building a Movement that Restores the Planet (Rodale) by 16-year-old climate activist and hip-hop artist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez.

This absence of up-to-date titles reflects poorly on the industry as a whole. In today’s world, you can’t publish current-events and politics books that are up to two years out of date. The show should have had at east a few dozen titles reflecting such momentous shifts as the Brexit vote, the Paris accord, the Syria crisis, the resurgence of terrorism around the world, and the US election. Coverage of all these areas was conspicuously absent.

This doesn’t mean the book industry is ignoring social issues. One especially popular galley was Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young (Graywolf Press). Smaller publishers are bringing out niche-focused books with a clear social mission, like Clear Insight Publishing’s 2016 An Unprecedented Evil Persecution, an accusation against China of murdering Falun Gong religious dissidents to harvest their organs for medical transplant (an anthology prepared by Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting, http://dafoh.org). And Green Kids Publishing was once again showing (and signing) its 2014 picture book The Bicycle Fence by Tom Noll, illustrated by Brandon Fall. There were also a fair number of titles, especially from new, self-publishing authors, addressing issues of racism and cultural prejudice, often in children’s books.

I started reading Building the New American Economy by Jeffrey Sachs, which I picked up at the show. Clearly, this book was completed in response to the 2016 election—and published (by Columbia, where Sachs teaches) on a fast track that got it into bookstores before the inauguration. It lays out a sustainable blueprint for the promised infrastructure rebuild and warns of the dangers of focusing on the dead end of fossil-fuel infrastructure (which, unfortunately, is exactly what the new president has chosen).

Another big shift is in the size of books. After years of diminishing page counts, Big Books—400 to 1000 pages—were all over the show, in many genres and from a diversity of publishers.

Time travel was big in YA, and graphic novels were everywhere. One author-publisher was piloting a title that spun out a graphic novel into more traditional narrative fiction, using the original illustrator. And there seemed to be a rash of moralistic children’s books, well-produced but not likely to go far.

Also lots of books from established authors, building on previous work. Rich Dad Poor Dad author Robert Kiyosaki was signing his new More Important Than Money at several sittings during the show. The Blue Ocean Strategy folks are back with Blue Ocean Shift. Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer had a children’s book.

Changes in the Show Reflect Changes in the Industry

One enormous shift is the consolidation of small-press distribution vendors under the Ingram banner. Perseus had bought out a number of its competitors, and now Ingram—already a powerhouse in book wholesaling, digital printing, ebooks, and content development—bought out Perseus/. While it is keeping the brands separate, Ingram now owns Perseus, Publishers Group West (PGW), and Consortium. Others, including NBN and Midpoint remain independent.

A lot changed in the show format, venue, and feel—adapting, no doubt, to a world in which books have to compete with thousands of other stimuli for our attention, and yet a few celebrity authors are becoming rockstars:

  1. The number of vendors is clearly shrinking (and many past vendors have told me they’ve dropped out because it can cost as much as USD $60,000 to have a booth, counting travel, staffing, etc.). Ten or so years ago, the show filled both exhibit floors at New York’s Jacob Javits Center and the highest numbered booths were well into the 4000s. It’s been on just the main floor for several years when it’s in New York, but this year, the aisles were wider and they stopped at 3000, with some huge unsold areas scattered in not just on the edges but in several central areas. Yet attendance actually seemed larger this year than in 2015 (I did not make it to the 2016 show in Chicago because of a family event.)
  2. The first day was only for conferences and (only in the afternoon) the Remainders area. This was not clearly communicated, and a few hundred people were wandering around looking puzzled on Wednesday and complaining about a lost day of work, many going to conference sessions they hadn’t planned on. 
  3. The layout in several of the distributor pavilions was at 90 degrees to the main aisles, meaning you couldn’t see the whole show just by going up and down each aisle; it was necessary to make a 90-degree turn and go down these extra aisles..
  4. The trend of the last few years to de-ghettoize certain verticals and spread them around the floor continued. Remainders, non-book product lines, the self-published area (now renamed Author Marketplace), and rights sales all had their own areas, but foreign publishers and printers, children’s book publishers, religious houses, and digital companies were among those that could be found all around the floor. Even some self-publishers had small complete booths (there are always a few, although nearly all of them only do it once), rather than the tiny tables of Author Marketplace.
  5. The consumer/fan oriented Book Con has shifted from a simultaneous event to the weekend, after the Thursday/Friday Book Expo has closed, getting the non-book-professionals off the show floor (and, presumably, out of the giveaway lines). Book Con in 2015 was simultaneous, and the fans were all over the show floor, snapping up free copies. I didn’t stay for Book Con this year so can’t report on how it went in the new format.

Three New Vendors Typify Cool New Services

In the past, I’ve found that the show provides a big opportunity to monitor very big trends when they’re still quite small. I’ve watched the unveiling of everything fr     om Overdrive, a digital distributor quite popular in the library market, to the Espresso Book Machine, an on-demand printer for bookstores capable of creating one-off copies while a customer browses in the store (though when I saw the Espresso, it never occurred to me that it would become a publishing venue for unknown authors and poets; I saw it originally as an easy way for bookstores to supply customers with rare or out-of-print books).

In this year’s crop, three impressed me enough to include here:

Publishizer shows that Big Data techniques don’t always have to serve corporate masters; individuals can gain the benefit too. Originally started as a crowdfunding platform for book projects, this service matches authors seeking publishers with houses seeking authors, and has already done 50 deals, according to Tian Daphne, Head of Community. Several similar services exist, but what makes this one unique is that authors can presell copies, so publishers can see winning trends and acquire titles that are already selling but haven’t been published. The firm charges nothing for an author to list and nothing when a deal is signed. The revenue model: it takes a 30 percent cut on preorders. Wiley and Weiser are among the larger publishers who are on the platform, though Daphne notes, “we’ve been very attractive to hybrid publishers” whose authors pay some or all of the costs in exchange for higher royalties.

Two booths away, Story Rocket’s primary goal is to match authors and filmmakers, bypassing the frustratingly difficult film agent process (which makes finding a good book agent look like a romp in the park). Story Rocket does not take a commission and funds itself through a fremium model, with up to 10 free projects and then a fee. According to booth staffer Ian Karasz, the platform can be used to highlight and repurpose content in several other ways.

And Dartfrog Books allows self-published authors of quality to get directly into bookstores, without dealing with the difficulties of a traditional distributor or wholesaler. Co-Founder Gordon McClellan explained that the company charges a $350 evaluation fee for either finished self-published books or manuscripts, and no fee to resubmit a revision based on the evaluator’s suggestions (or a finished copy of a book submitted in manuscript). Those that pass the vetting process become distribution clients

All of these typify the imaginative cutting-edge thinking that has been a part of the show’s tech vendors for at least 20 years. But all have revenue models that strike me as insufficiently robust; if I were these companies, I’d probably build in a commission on deals as well, figure out some additional revenue streams for Dartfrog while keeping the cost to self-publishers where it is, and knock the number of free projects in Story Rocket down to three or five. Not that many authors have more than 10 books they’d like to make into movies. I’d love to be wrong on that and come back to next year’s show to find that these companies are thriving on the revenue paths they’ve already identified.

 Shel Horowitz’s coverage of Book Expo since 1997 can be found at http://frugalmarketing.com/dtb/dtb-publishing.shtml. His award-winning 10th book is Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World.

Click to read the rest of Shel’s reports on the 2017 Book Expo:

The “Elena Ferrante” Model: How Independent Publishers Excel In Promoting International Literature

When Does Nastiness Cross the Line From Free Speech to Hate Crime?

A Bold Move to Redefine Publishing in Asia and Africa: The Sharjah Initiative


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