Book industry looks to hold steady in turbulent time

NEW YORK — Sen. Al Franken looked out on hundreds of publishers and booksellers gathered for their annual national convention, BookExpo, and summed up the news of the time.


"Say it with me, 'Oy,'" repeated Franken, author of the best-selling memoir about his years in Washington, "Al Franken: Giant of the Senate," and a liberal hero during the Donald Trump administration.

The laughter, nervous and restrained, wasn't only about politics.

The publishing industry, which from Wednesday-Sunday met for BookExpo and the fan-based BookCon at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, is anxious to remain stable during an otherwise turbulent moment. Sales of printed books are up modestly for the year so far, independent booksellers continue to expand after decades of shutting down, audiobooks are soaring and the e-book market has softened to where few talk anymore of the death of words on paper.

"When digital books were new, they were the shining penny. Everybody enjoyed them and bought stuff they never actually read," said Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy. "The idea that everyone's only going to read digital has kind of faded away."

But Trump's election and the ceaseless headlines before and after have unsettled the literary community even if the president himself has spared it the scorn he's given journalists and celebrities like Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep. He has yet to tweet about "overrated Toni Morrison," who has assailed him as a symbol of white entitlement, or labeled Penguin Random House "failing" for releasing such popular anti-Trump works as Timothy Snyder's "On Tyranny."

Publishers and booksellers say the unpredictable Republican president has opened a bull market for warnings of dystopia, whether Snyder's book or George Orwell's "1984," while disrupting the reading public's concentration and making it hard to know what will sell in the future.

Becky Anderson, owner of Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, Illinois, said she noticed "weird little dips" in sales whenever the news was especially eventful, as if customers were "too glued to MSNBC" to think about books. Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch also believes that business has been hurt.

"People are transfixed by their newsfeed," he said. "People are reading on their phones and on their screens in a way that I think is usurping some book reading."

Convention attendees heard from numerous authors and public figures affected by Trump's election. At a lunch hosted by Hachette, Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush explained how Trump's win helped motivate them to collaborate on the memoir "Sisters First," an October release the twin daughters of former President George W. Bush hope will have a positive message for women.

Louise Erdrich, speaking at a HarperCollins dinner, recalled how Trump's win drove her to take another look at a novel she had set aside years earlier, "Future Home of the Living God." The book, coming out this fall, tells of a society in which women's rights and democracy itself are endangered.

And the convention's most prominent guest would surely have been elsewhere if the 2016 campaign turned out as expected. Hillary Clinton, whom Trump defeated in November, spoke at an event hall jammed with cheering book-sellers as she discussed an essay collection she will release this September and what's she been doing over the past few months.

Interviewed on stage by "Wild" author Cheryl Strayed, Clinton said that one way she consoled herself was by reading some good mysteries, naming such favorite authors as Louise Penny and Donna Leon.

"It was very comforting because it (solving the crime) was somebody else's problem," she said.

Attendees otherwise anticipated such upcoming works as Dan Brown's "Origin," Jennifer Egan's "Manhattan Beach" and a debut novel, Gabriel Tallent's "My Absolute Darling," that has been praised by Stephen King and National Book Award winner Phil Klay among others. They also speculated about BookExpo.

Square footage for the show has shrunk noticeably in recent years and the large gaps on the convention floor at times gave BookExpo the look of an idled factory. Publishers have wondered for years whether the convention was necessary in the Internet Age, when deals once negotiated at BookExpo are now accomplished online.

"BookExpo doesn't need to be noisy, it needs to be focused," said BookExpo event director Brien McDonald, who cited "the ability to build buzz" and the chance to network as reasons to continue with the trade show.

It returns to New York in 2018.

Meanwhile, BookCon looked to a busy and happy future. Thousands of young readers, some literally jumping up and down in excitement, filled the Javits center over the weekend. They took in talks by Jeff Kinney and R.J. Palacio among others, stood in long lines for autographs and befriended fellow attendees.

Emily Frashure and teen daughter Lara, residents of Derwood, Maryland, left home early Saturday and drove for hours so they could celebrate Lara's birthday at BookCon and meet such favorite authors as Marissa Meyer. Three high school students from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, started their day before dawn and by mid-morning Saturday had purchased signed copies of Rainbow Rowell's "Carry On."

"I'm a huge book nerd," said one student, Eliza K., who declined to give her full last name. "There are so many authors that I love so much, all in the same place, that I can just go to in one day. It's just a giant day of love."

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