Book Expo America is the large annual convention of the book publishing industry.  For the past few days, thousands of people descended on the Javits Center in New York for the annual ritualistic gathering of the tribes of this 500 year old business.  As regular readers know, this year I have attended the Consumer Electronic Show, the NATPE television convention and the Chicago Auto Show.  Once again I found myself navigating an annual convention of a business that targets the consumer [BEA is primarily for the ‘trade’ or consumer part of the book publishing industry].  I look to see what the industry trends are, and how the business is reflecting and adapting to the radical changes going on in society today. Finally, as a futurist, I look at the business through my own filter of what I see the future to be to gauge whether the business is doing what might be necessary to expand and thrive in this new age we live in. 

The book business is a mature business, which would be expected since Gutenberg initiated it more than 550 years ago.  It is certainly not a growth business.  I attended a Trends 2007 presentation which provided a detailed snapshot of the industry today.  Year to year revenue growth, current and projected out to 2011, is in the 2-3.5% range, but year to year unit sales over all is less than 0.5%.  In other words, any growth is due to increased prices.  Factoring in population growth, and inflation rates, the business is now, and projected into the future to be flat to down.

The cultural, social and economic reasons for this are fairly obvious.  There are many more entertainment options available than ever before, the Internet has significantly altered information and intellectual property consumption for anyone under the age of 30 [and many of us of all ages] and we live in a faster paced world where attention spans are shorter and everyone seems to be multi-tasking [“I wish I had time to read a book other than when I am on vacation” is something I hear all the time].  So, fundamental change is reorganizing large segments of the cultural landscape outside the convention center.

Inside the convention center it felt like a time warp.  Except for prominent Google and Amazon booths and some sophisticated computer screen technology, this convention could have been held in 1997, or even 1987.  This was a gathering of people whose lives revolve around books; reading, writing, distributing and selling books.  There was almost a palpable underlying sense of wanting the old days to come back.  There was a sense of being under siege to today’s technology led changes, but without a clear discussion or strategy to innovate along with them.

The best way to describe it is that there seemed to be two macro forces that were colliding at this convention and there was not clarity and consensus at all about what the outcome might be. The first force is the centuries old dynamic that writing and publishing a book is what defines authority or being an expert.  More than almost anything else, being an author of a book, certainly in the area of non-fiction, instills an authority [where do you think the word comes from?] to the writer.  For centuries, the book has been the highest level of expertise or talent in western culture.  Books are at the center of our intellectual and cultural history. 

The second force is the technologically led transformation of the world that is now underway.  We are in one of those infrequent periods when the world gets fundamentally reorganized within a span of 50-60 years.  There are few areas of society that are not going to be influenced by this force.  What will this force do to the publishing industry?  Will books go away?  Will books increasingly be read on screens?  How much must the centuries old structures and processes of the book publishing business change to incorporate the new technologies and ways of communication?  In times like this, hopefully, wishfully holding on to the past ways of doing business will be a failed approach.

This was an odd juxtaposition for me.  I love books.  I love to spend time just browsing in a book store.  It is hard for me to enter a book store and not leave with a newly purchased book. It is one of the reasons I always have stacks of unread books around my home.  I feel good when surrounded by books.  I am, in fact, writing two books about trends and the future. I want entry into a business that is oddly ill at ease about the future. 

In the next column I will take a look at what the future of the book publishing business might be, and compare it to other content and media businesses that are also trying to negotiate the shifts going on in the world today.

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