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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Book Publishing Lessons Found On The Highline

Having grown up in Brooklyn and living most of my life around or in New York City, I can say that it always amazes me to see something seemingly left for dead to come back to life. Two decades ago I was surprised to see Times Square get Disneyfied. They cleaned up the red light district. Gone are the street-walking hookers (you can find the escorts in the phone book or online), the crack dealers by the bus depot (Port Authority), and virtually all of the peep shows. It actually feels safe and friendly to tourists. Big business and local government teamed together to reclaim what had been a decaying part of the city.

And now the city has reclaimed abandoned train tracks and with them, an entire stretch of neighborhood. The Highline is a mile-plus long example of how new things can grow from what was no longer alive. Until last year the elevated tracks running near 11th Avenue on the West Side of Midtown (from around W. 4th - 30th streets) were just an ugly reminder that the city was not using its space well. They'd become a cemetery, with weeds growing on top of the abandoned, rusting eyesore. For three decades the rails had stopped being of use, though for the half-century prior to that, factories and ships made use of the short rail line to shuttle goods. All of the local factories closed down and airplanes replaced some of what the boats shipped in. Times changed and the property took 30 years to transition into something else.

Now it's wonderful. The old tracks are covered with plantings and benches and it's become a destination spot, for tourists and locals. Restaurants, hi-rise condos and other businesses are coming in to support the reinvigoration of a once dying neighborhood. It is so nice to see something come from nothing, and to see what once was something useful and vibrant to once again be as such, albeit, in a new form.

Book publishing should learn from this. Perhaps the Highlline, as a reclamation project, should give hope and serve notice to the book industry. It's time for book publishers and retailers to retool and re-launch themselves, before the weeds grow and the sense of abandonment takes over. The book industry has a clear choice: it can stay on its current course and likely become like the abandoned train tracks, or it can skips the part of the process where the industry is abandoned and left closed for many years. It can just become something new and fresh right now. Yes, part of it is the move towards e-books and authors publishing themselves; but now we have to strengthen the printed book and the brick and mortar store before it's too late.

I can't wait years to find out what replaces all of the Borders stores. I wish it would be a new bookstore chain or a bunch of independents sprouting up to fill the needs of consumers. But I don't see that happening. We need to market to society the need for books to exist, for the need to have them read, for the need to have physical gathering places for readers and for the need for a publishing community to exist off line.

As I walked the Highline this weekend I marveled at how I was witnessing the rejuvenation of an entire area, and how it can be set on the right course for the next 30-50 years -- if not more. I now have living proof that promising things can grow from the ashes of what was. I just hope the book publishing industry can somehow skip the phase of being dead and dormant and just start the comeback as if there already was a death. It is a funeral I couldn't bring myself to attend.

Some of the people walking the Highline today may simply enjoy it on its own merits -- a public space that is clean, safe and providing a view of the water surrounding the great city. But for those who realize that the real marvel here is the fact that something --anything -- good can come out of what was lost and down and out, it is a celebration of hope and redemption.

Is the book industry watching and listening?


Interview With Publishing Perspectives Editor-in-Chief Ed Nawotka
Book Marketing Buzz Blog recently had the pleasure of interviewing a publishing visionary,
Ed Nawotka, editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives. He founded
Publishing Perspectives in the Spring of 2009 with two colleagues from the German Book Office, which is affiliated with the Frankfurt Book Fair. For the past dozen years he has been involved in book publishing. Prior to PP, he was a book columnist for Bloomberg News and the daily news editor at Publishers Weekly, responsible for putting out PW Daily along with John Mutter, who went on to start Shelf Awareness. He started in the book business in college, working at Doubleday Book Shops in Boston (they were subsumed by Barnes & Noble around 1990. He went overseas for graduate school and spent several years working in Europe, Asia and Africa as a business reporter.

1. Who should be reading Publishing Perspectives and why? Writers, editors, agents -- anyone interested in the book business, and today, that is a lot of people. Publishing Perspectives focuses on the developments in the international book business. We try to take a global perspective, which has led people to refer to us as the "BBC of the Book World." We have correspondents in most major markets and some of the most original and interesting publishing reporting from across the globe. The world is flat, as they say, so US writers and publishers should be aware of trends overseas. You know the old cliche "Big in Japan" -- well, that is turning into "Big in China," "Big in Brazil," "Big in India." There's a lot of opportunity for Americans who know how to work with these markets. We're rolling out a series of market-specific publications in the next year to help people learn more. The first of these is PublishNews Brazil, which focuses on the Brazilian book market and which we've been publishing since the spring. I encourage everyone to take a look at both, you'll be delighted by what you find. And look in the archives -- we have more than 1,300 feature articles on all aspects of publishing.

2. Where do you see book publishing heading as an industry? It is becoming far more democratic and inclusive than it was in the past, which I see as a good trend. There was a time when publishers saw the digital revolution as a sinkhole, but now it’s viewed as a portal. People are emerging from that portal and finding a new world, one populated with far more books and, as a consequence, far more readers. In the near term, publishers are going to need to remind authors what value they add to the publishing experience: professional editing, marketing, and sales, all of which are key to a book's success.

3. Why do you love being a part of the publishing industry? The fact that if you don't like what one book says, there's always the opportunity to choose another that says just the opposite. You have a myriad of perspectives. Also, no one threatens to kill you, which happened to me several times as a business reporter covering some shady stories. The worst that has happened is I've had some awkward cocktail party moments with writers I've reviewed poorly. Then again, the comment threads on Publishing Perspectives can get vitriolic and personal. We called our publication Publishing Perspectives for a reason: it's all about points-of-view and if you don't like what someone has said there's always the opportunity to put your own opinion forward.

4. Where do you see self-publishing going? It has gained an enormous amount of credibility in the past year, which is good to see. I suspect it is going to become increasingly professionalized. It's not quite as maverick an occupation as it once was and as new publishing models emerge, the best self-published writers are going to be working in a way that more closely resembles the traditional publishing house. The genesis of this new credibility isn't a surprise. We have millions upon millions of college graduates in this country, all of whom should be able to write well. That they might want to publish a book is natural, but they should ask themselves whether or not they have a story to tell that will be meaningful to others. I also work as a critic and I find there are an awful lot of well-written books out there that don't say anything. They seem to have no real point. That said, I am delighted to see self-publishers gain more and more credibility and self-respect. That means they are having a better publishing experience. Self- and traditional publishing are becoming symbiotic -- and if managed properly, it should become a virtuous circle.

5. What impact is technology having on book publishing now? The greatest impact technology has had on publishing is that it has democratized distribution. You can now publish a book instantaneously online, send it around the world, price it the way you want and market it. For a long time traditional publishers had a monopoly on distribution, but that is gone. Technology is also making it easier for people around the world to sample and experience other people's cultures in a way never done before. That is tremendously exciting and something we cater to at Publishing Perspectives.

6. Do you think we’ll see a consolidation of major book publishers? It's impossible to say. Those are enormous, publicly owned corporations, so consolidation is up to the boards of those companies. If that happens it will be based entirely on financial conditions -- and if I was any good at predicting those, I would have gone with my college roommate to work at Goldman Sachs. I do think you'll see the Big Six streamline their lists, but I'm not convinced that that -- in the near term at least -- will be any less influential. I don't like the combative attitude that positions Indies as being against the Big Six who are fighting off self-publishers -- that's silly and destructive. It's all complementary and part of the publishing ecosystem.

7. What will replace Borders? Nothing, unfortunately. I think you may see a smattering of new Indies, but the role Borders played in the 90s when it was booming was taken over when big box retailers like Costco, Wal-Mart and Target began selling bestsellers in huge quantities as virtual loss leaders. Borders tried to compete with huge discounts on those books as well, but it didn't work, and they could never lure those customers back.  B&N scaled back discounting years ago and moved aggressively into digital, which has helped them survive. Borders was always perceived as the more "literary" of the two stores -- largely because after failing with discounting on bestsellers, they put more focus on paperbacks. It's a damn shame what happened. Losing 10,000 bookselling jobs is a tremendous blow to the profession, but let’s hope some of those booksellers move on to open their own stores.

Brian Feinblum is the chief marketing officer of Planned Television Arts (www.plannedtvarts.com) but the views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and are personal and do not reflect the official viewpoints of PTA. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com

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