Last weekend's Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on the campus of UCLA could be seen as a microcosm of the publishing industry in 2010. With over 130,000 book lovers and more than 400 authors in attendance, the event proved that reading remains popular in Southern California, just as new technologies like print-on-demand fueled the release of a record number of new titles for the industry at large.
But while attendance at the festival was good, the impact of the troubled economy on publishing and bookselling was reflected in the decision of Barnes & Noble to skip sponsorship for the second year in a row.
And like the industry at large, talk of eBooks, Kindles, Nooks and iPads dominated the panel discussions and informal conversations amongst insiders. Author friends of mine spoke with envy of J.A. Konrath's success in self-publishing eBooks. Bookstore owners wondered aloud how (or if) they would be able to play the game.
The program line-up, too, reflected the industry's current priorities. Authors with a well-established "platform" outside of publishing were legion. Celebrities like Carl Reiner and Bernadette Peters read from their children's books. Two comediennes from different generations, Carol Burnett and Sarah Silverman, discussed their new memoirs. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin spoke of the moon, his own memoir and "Dancing with the Stars." Actress Alicia Silverstone shared insights from her book on a meat- and dairy-free diet, and funnyman Jeff Garlin talked up My Footprint, a different sort of diet book.
There was still room for literary heavyweights like T.C. Boyle, Bret Easton Ellis, Colson Whitehead, nonfiction writer/journalists like Po Bronson and plenty of crime fiction writers, including Joseph Wambaugh, who was paired in conversation with fellow-practitioner James Ellroy (and who told me beforehand he harbored only the tiniest bit of trepidation about the upcoming encounter with "Demon Dog" Ellroy).
But to my mind, the two authors at the festival who best represented where the industry has been and where it could be headed were Herman Wouk and Dave Eggers. 94-year-old Wouk, who took the Pulitzer Prize in 1952 for his The Caine Mutiny--the year before Ernest Hemingway won for The Old Man and the Sea--is still going strong. His latest book, The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion, was published at the beginning of April.
Wouk provoked a spontaneous burst of affectionate applause when he entered the packed auditorium where he was speaking--and acknowledged it with obvious delight. And when moderator Tim Rutten announced the hashtag for audience members to use when Twittering about the event, Wouk and the (mostly older) crowd were much amused--and bemused.
The crowd that came to watch Dave Eggers in conversation with LA Times book editor David Ulin, on the other hand, failed to be nonplussed by the hashtag announcement, and many undoubtedly made use of it during the event. Eggers was the big winner at the Festival Book Prizes, taking the Current Interest Award for his book Zeitoun and the first annual Innovator's Award for the work he has done at his publishing house McSweeney's and the child literacy organization he co-founded, 826 National.
In conversation with Ulin, Eggers recounted his experiences starting McSweeney's, noting that he knew little if anything about the industry when he began. Eggers suggested his ignorance was an advantage, however, because he didn't have any preconceived notions about what was possible.
The result has been a publishing model that is smaller scale, closer to the ground, but one that emphasizes high quality (traditional) bookmaking materials and also posits a simpler revenue model for publisher and author: net profits are split evenly between the two. Another difference is that arbitrary limits on book length are ignored. For example, Eggers has agreed to publish John Sayles' 1,000-page novel, Some Time in the Sun, which Sayles had difficulty placing elsewhere.
With the upheaval print-on-demand and eBooks technologies have brought to the industry, some have criticized Eggers' insistence on traditional "paper and cloth and glue and ink" as naive. That may be missing the point. Like the slow food movement, Eggers' real innovation may be publishing fewer books of higher quality for a select audience, eschewing the mass-market-oriented, swing-for-the-fences mentality that now grips mainstream publishing.
A kind of "slow publishing" if you like.