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Cracking the Industry

Insiders predict 2007's publishing trends



From James Frey's reinvention of the memoir with "A Million Little Pieces" in January, to the cancellation of O.J. Simpson's "If I Did It" in late November, the publishing industry had its share of the spotlight in 2006.

As surely as the book business has evolved since Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450, we can count on change in the year to come. The turbulent political climate and rapid advances in technology all have an impact on who's reading, who's writing and what's selling. Style asked an editor, a publisher, a publicist and two booksellers to pontificate about expected trends for 2007.

"Every year it gets harder to publish fiction," says Josh Kendall, senior fiction editor at Viking Penguin. "More and more novels are competing for less and less space." He attributes this epidemic to newspapers selling fewer ads and being forced to cut back on book reviews. And reviews, he says, are the conduit between publisher and reader.

"We, as editors, are being forced to look for new avenues of writing," Kendall says. He believes that the lines between commercial and literary fiction are blurring as a result of this trend, and he hopes to discover writers who blend genre fiction, such as spy novels, or whodunits with more substantive literary concerns.

"I'd love to find someone like Frank Herbert, who wrote 'Dune,' a sci-fi novel, treated like a literary event," Kendall says.

With fewer reviews to recommend books, readers are relying more heavily on the credentials following an author's name when shopping around for their next read.

"Awards are becoming more and more important," says Russell Perreault, director of publicity for Anchor Books and Vintage, divisions of Knopf Publishing Group at Random House. "Authors are almost like brand names that people can recognize. People want to know what to read, and an award is like an endorsement."

Although novels are becoming more difficult to sell, they're increasingly popular in the movie industry. In 2006 about 13 books from Vintage and Anchor paperbacks were turned into films, including Somerset Maugham's "A Painted Veil," Patrick Suskind's "Perfume" and P.D. James' "Children of Men." In 2007 it is expected there will be even more movies derived from literature, including Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men" and Jon Krakauer's "Into the Wild."

As a result of so many books being made into movies, an odd phenomenon has occurred: People are using big-screen titles to determine what they will read rather than vice versa. Since they've hit theaters, "Running With Scissors" and "The Black Dahlia" have been jumping off shelves, according to Alan Ouellette, Barnes & Noble Libbie Place's current events department manager.

While first books by new authors and new hardbacks by old authors fight for space, the memoir and other genres of nonfiction are more in demand. With the 2008 election looming, Barnes & Noble readers are flocking to books about politics and current events, Ouellette says, hence the overwhelming success of Barack Obama's "The Audacity of Hope" and Bill O'Reilly's "Culture Warrior." Self-help and diet books such as "You on a Diet" and "Younger Next Year" are also popular, leaving fiction behind.

While a large number of Barnes & Noble clientele are devouring the The New York Times' best-seller lists, shoppers at Carytown Books on MacArthur Street tend to search out lesser-known titles.

"Most of the people in North Side focus on particular issues, not the best sellers," bookseller Rose Marie Rambo says. "A lot of people come in and say, 'Did you hear about such and such on NPR this morning?'"

Like independent bookstores, alternative presses rely on readers who are looking for something different. Richard Nash, the publisher of Soft Skull Press, is more certain about what won't be part of his 40-some new releases this year.

"An independent publisher can't really afford to chase the latest trend," Nash says. "I'm trying to avoid tying books to current events. In the next few years I'm not looking for any books linked to the 2008 election."

Nor is Nash looking for authors riding on the tide of popular culture.

"We exist to do the books no one else wants to do," Nash says. "I'm so much more interested in the book rejected by 35 publishers than the book with two other offers." But with all of the recent publishing scandals, Nash knows he can't rely on shock appeal alone for a book's success.

"In 2007, I think there's going to be a bit of scandal-jadedness," he says. "Mainstream media has seen so many scandals this year that I don't see any way for us to use controversy to sell books this year."

With so many advances in technology, e-books and the declining popularity of the novel, it seems reasonable to wonder whether computers are more of a boon or a threat to the world of publishing, and whether the written word is possibly in danger of extinction. But when asked about the effects of technology, the response from the book world is overwhelmingly positive.

"The Internet allows us to do everything from e-mailing reviewers PDFs if we don't have galleys [unedited proofs of soon to be published books], blogging, and finding bloggers and Web sites that cover narrow topics we might be interested in doing," Nash says. He credits the Internet with not only helping him find his niche markets, but also enabling those niches to exist in the first place. For example, "The Amputees Guide to Sex," a poetry collection scheduled for release in 2007, has already found an audience through listservs that have brought together hundreds of "amputee devotees."

In December, Random House was able to publish the "Iraq Study Group Report" in a mere five days, and although it was available for download online, more copies sold in bookstores because people wanted to have a copy they could hold in their hands.

"The publishing industry has been relatively slow in embracing new trends because of the relatively old-fashioned methods of book-making," says Viking Penguin's editor Kendall, who believes that asking a literary society of "shut-ins" anything about expected trends in popular culture is highly ironic. But he says he's excited to learn how the publishing world can capitalize on technology.

"I'm not worried at all," he says. "Reading is an emotional experience. Anything that comes between the reader and the emotional experience will not be embraced. The tactile experience of holding a book is an integral part of that." S

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