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BookExpo signals new chapter in publishing business

Monday, June 05, 2000

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

CHICAGO -- Rumors of the decline, if not the death, of traditional American publishing vanished at the close of BookExpo America here yesterday.

This annual gathering of booksellers and publishers had been looking shakier and less relevant in the 1990s with the growth of superstore chains, the Internet market and conglomeration of established American imprints under new international owners.

The changes had strained the relationship between the independent bookstores, which sponsor the trade show, and their traditional partners -- publishers and authors.

While changes continue to alter the look of the business, this expo reflects a return to "the core values of bookselling," said Patricia Schroeder, the former U.S. representative from Colorado who now heads the Association of American Publishers.

"The vibrancy is back in publishing," she said yesterday as the expo's third and final day opened. "All of the negative talk about takeovers and fewer titles is over. In talking to everybody over the past few days, I've got to believe that we're headed in a great, new direction."

Backing Schroeder's comments was the strong presence of the nation's major publishers paced by Random House, whose takeover of Bantam Doubleday Dell last year made the biggest U.S. publisher even bigger.

The owner, Germany-based Bertlesmann, retained the individual imprints of both companies, names such as Anchor, Villard, Bantam and Knopf. Each imprint was represented at the expo.

"I was never worried about the conglomerates," said Schroeder, whose organization represents 300 publishers. "In these really big houses, there is no top-down management. They recognize that publishing a book is an individual enterprise; it's authors working with editors and marketing people. That's why they've kept the different imprints because each imprint has a unique quality to it."

Also reflecting the economic vitality was the publishers' willingness to bring many of their authors to the expo to showcase their books.

The collection covered the spectrum of American publishing from celebrities -- Katie Couric, Jerry Stiller and Sammy Sosa -- to the literary -- Michael Ondaatje, Russell Banks and Kent Haruf.

The Pittsburgh region was represented by Lewis "Buddy" Nordan and Tawni O'Dell. Nordan, who teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh, is gaining national attention through his novels and memoirs set in his native Mississippi.

Saturday, his reading about bizarre moments in his life at a symposium at the Printers' Row Bookfair south of Chicago's Loop brought down the house. And, yesterday, Sherman Alexie, poet, fiction writer and filmmaker, said he's just finishing his screenplay based on Nordan's short-story collection, "The All-Girl Football Team."

Alexie also will direct the film.

Indiana, Pa.'s O'Dell went from a respectable debut with her novel, "Back Roads," to best seller after Oprah Winfrey picked it for her TV book club. O'Dell, who now lives in the Chicago area, was encountered Saturday night at a promotion party for gossip columnist Liz Smith. O'Dell said she's still "in shock" but looking forward to releasing her next book, which, like her first, is set in territory based on Indiana County, early next year.

"The one thing everyone remembers from my time on 'Oprah' was my different hairdos," she joked. "You'd wish they'd talk about my book."

Smith's upcoming memoir, "Natural Blonde," was generating much of the buzz at the expo, as the longtime newspaper tattletale hints at revealing several celebrity secrets. None was disclosed, however. The book is embargoed until its September release.

Other celebrity authors getting a push here were ABC's Ted Koppel, Stiller, Couric and Julie Andrews. Authors with a more legitimate claim to the title included: Rosellen Brown, Martin Amis, Armisted Maupin, June Jordan, Thomas Lynch, Anna Deveare Smith, Sister Wendy Becket and Roddy Doyle.

Given true star treatment was Ondaatje, author of "The English Patient" and the new "Anil's Ghost."

Reserved and diffident, the soft-spoken writer read from his latest novel before a hushed, reverent audience yesterday. "I write my novels as if I were a reader," he prefaced his reading. "I have no plan; I expect to be surprised by the next page."

Joining him at the reading was Sister Wendy, the British nun whose PBS programs on art have led to a series of books, including her latest, "Sister Wendy's American Collection," a fall release.

She said she limited her book to New York's Metropolitan, Chicago's Art Institute, the Los Angeles County Museum and Fort Worth, Texas. She chose one more from a list which included Pittsburgh's Carnegie, but instead opted for the Cleveland museum.

While authors and their books received traditional treatment, BookExpo also focused on the digital era in publishing. Setting the show's tone was Jeff Bezos, founder of the online merchant Amazon.com, who told a full house of small booksellers that the only way to succeed is "to get big fast."

The computer offers more than book-buying however. Expanded to nearly 30 percent of the exhibits were companies offering digital publishing, either through digital devices such as Palm Pilots or electronic readers like Rocketbooks or a hybrid of the digital and old-fashioned paper, print-on-demand.

Jumping into this new stream with both feet is Warner Books, which pushed its new ipublish.com division.

"The impression has been that mainline publishers haven't been stepping to the plate on technology," said Hilary Liftin, who works in Warner's electronic business department. "Now, we're into it full scale."

Warner is now converting its previously published, or "backlist," titles as well as current ones, into a digital format.

Liftin explained that this operation will make all of Warner's books available for purchase over the Internet.

Next year, she said Warner will also open its ipublish Web site to potential authors who can submit their work online for consideration.

"Warner's trying to achieve a direct relationship with both authors and readers," she said.

Surveying the hall of digital exhibitors yesterday was Frank Lehner, a digital publishing consultant who started his book career with the University of Pittsburgh Press.

"Everything now is a content grab," he said. "But, the art is making that content accessible. Eventually, this digital technology will save publishing, not kill it."



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