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Publishing’s Brave New World: Reflections from the U.S. Book Show

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Last week was the inaugural U.S. Book Show, Publishers Weekly’s three-day virtual conference. Taking place during the late-May slot traditionally held by the now-defunct Book Expo of America, the Book Show carried forth many BEA traditions, and felt something like a digital reconstruction of the late, lamented expo.

BEA was always a time for reflection on the state of the industry, and the U.S. Book Show was an overdue reckoning for publishing’s longest, strangest year, with panel discussions on the issues that continue to reshape the industry.

 On Tuesday, “The Future of the Publishing Office” looked at how companies will return to in-office work after more than a year of telecommuting. Panelists were bullish on the transformative possibilities of the new normal. As Harvard Business School’s Tsedal Neeley pointed out, “87% of employees want to retain the work flexibility found in the digital/work-from-home dynamic.” She also said “the last year has smashed managerial control,” with employees in a strong position to negotiate greater autonomy and more flexible schedules.

But the panelists were also clear-eyed on the difficulties ahead. As Neeley pointed out, most workplaces will take a hybrid approach, which will be more challenging than full in-person or full remote. And proposed solutions like “hot desking” (which HarperCollins is pursuing) come with their own downsides.

As Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners International explained, hot desking is when employees have no dedicated workspaces, instead bringing laptops and working in whatever available space suits them. It’s an elegant solution to reduced office space and asynchronous work schedules, but audience members in the chat spoke passionately about their love for their own book-lined cubicles. And panelists noted that hot desking can present serious obstacles to employees with disabilities, who might find themselves without the physical accommodations they need to work effectively.

The workplace panel was followed by a discussion on an issue that has certainly drawn more attention on Twitter: the battles over whether publishers should cancel book deals for former Trump administration officials. In “Political Books: What Does the Post-Trump Landscape Hold?” two agents and two editors debated the issue. All of them agreed that the last few years were a bonanza for political books, primarily due to the “sugar high” of Trump administration dysfunction and outrage on all sides. (2020 was, in fact, the biggest year for political books since modern sales tracking began in 2004.)

But the panelists were divided on how major publishers should work with conservative authors. Eric Nelson, VP of conservative imprint Broadside Books, argued that driving conservative authors toward fly-by-night publishers only means that they’ll produce less edited, filtered, and fact-checked books. He also pointed out that “deplatforming makes a book a hot item for conservatives,” ultimately leading toward higher sales and a bigger megaphone for fringe beliefs.

Simon & Schuster’s Eamon Dolan agreed on the advantages of a cordial but rigorous editorial relationship, and invoked his own experience editing Pope Francis, saying that he was able to respectfully press the pontiff on areas where they disagreed. He also floated a rationale for Simon & Schuster’s decision to drop Senator Josh Hawley but continue working with Vice President Mike Pence. As one of the few figures to endure through the entire Trump administration, Pence was “a witness to history”, whereas Hawley was dropped almost immediately after what was widely interpreted as a call to violence.

When moderator Jimmy So followed-up with a question about the fact-checking process, however, the picture quickly became muddier.  It’s an increasingly inconvenient fact that most books are not fact-checked at all. The editors on the panel pointed out that fact-checking is contractually an author’s responsibility, to be done at their discretion and expense. And the agents said that they did not fact-check their client’s work, as their principal responsibility is to sell their client’s writing, not verify it. Javelin’s Keith Urbahn questioned the value of the process for many authors, noting that “many fact checks become opinion checks.”

The panelists concluded on a note of optimism, saying that they expect the genre to remain vital even as sales ease down from their Trump-era high. Chief to the category’s appeal is the power of books to explain “the unprocessed history of the U.S.” (per Tanya McKinnon) and provide a respite from the churn of the 24-hour news cycle.

Perhaps of most interest to authors themselves was “Is Literary IP as Valuable in a Postpandemic Hollywood?” And the answer of the assembled agents and scouts was an unambiguous “Yes”. The pandemic lead to an explosion in adaptation deals, which the panelists attributed to the competitive streaming marketplace and COVID-related production shutdowns, which led execs to focus on development instead. As Pragmatic’s Mac Hawkins explained, their market went from maybe one major deal a month to “5-10 hot projects a week,” a deal-making pace that has left the attendees exhausted but happy.

One of the biggest changes in the current market is that books are no longer pitched exclusively as movies or TV shows. As UTA’s Mary Pender explained, agents can now simply present books as themselves, then see if the project draws more interest from movie studios, TV networks, or streamers. The ever-increasing variety of cable and streaming show formats also means that any book can be adapted into a series of different lengths, whether two or eight or ten or twenty episodes.

Although the panelists noted a slight decline in deal flow since January, they remained enthusiastic about the market and its upsides for authors. Film options sometimes pay more than a property’s original book deal, and can give a sustained boost to book sales and an author’s entire backlist. And even if book sales don’t budge, an adaptation gives an author a calling card. As Angela Cheng Caplan put it, an adaptation means that a studio is paying millions of marketing dollars toward increasing your name recognition.

Another trend discussed was the recent surge in diversity in movies and shows, driven by the social justice movements of the last few years. The attendees spoke personally of the power of representation, but some were skeptical of how long these changes will last. Hawkins, who wrote a widely-circulated article on how Hollywood should increase support for Black creators, said that it remains to be seen if this is a sustained transformation and “not just the usual cycle at a different volume.”

The last thing the panelists agreed on: an imminent return to blockbuster four-quadrant entertainment, as families long deprived of Marvel movies and similar spectacles return to the multiplex. In this, at least, it seems our future will resemble our past.

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