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Tina Brown's bigwig publishing panel

May 29, 2009 | 12:16 pm

Tinabrown Tina Brown may be one of the most glamorous women in publishing, but that’s probably not the only reason the CEO Round Table Panel was packed late Thursday afternoon, before the conference had even officially begun. The book world wants answers.

During the discussion with Brian Murray of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide, Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster, John Sargent of Macmillan, and David Steinberger of Perseus Books Group, the talk was of the straight-up, Chicken Little, “The sky is falling” variety.

“Magazine articles are the new books,” Tina Brown said, referring to the public’s shrinking appetite for long-form publishing and looking like Lady Di in her chic bob and magenta power suit.

When she asked the executives about Amazon’s big push for e-books and Kindle, their response was muted. “The danger is of having a monopoly,” Steinberger said. He doesn’t expect anything about e-book pricing (set by Amazon at about 10 bucks) or e-readers to remain the same over the next few years. Brian Murray reminded the group that sales of e-books make up just 2% of HarperCollins’ revenue, so they're not a huge priority. When e-book sales revenue hits 20%, he promised to be more interested.

Sargent warned the others that piracy was another concern on the horizon. He’s seen an uptick in illegal file sharing in the college textbook market this year, both overseas and among domestic students. But they won’t be using the Kindle; college students prefer the computer, he noted.

Currently the editor in chief of the curated news website the Daily Beast, Brown asked the publishers about their viral marketing techniques. Their answers, such as they were, after the jump.

The CEOs didn’t offer much in that department. Sargent said that he encourages authors to create as much additional information as possible to put on the Web. Twitter and MySpace were the only social networks listed by name by Carolyn Reidy. Sargent pointed out that it’s difficult to measure the efficacy of an online marketing campaign. Sargent’s company put up a video on the homepage of YouTube and sold 200 additional books. That’s not even a blip on the radar for Macmillan.

When pressed, Murray said that what’s really working for HarperCollins is placement in bookstores and national publicity. With national media shrinking and rumors of Borders headed into the rocks, it looks like a rough ride ahead. They all agreed that it has become more and more difficult to reach consumers directly. The Internet has not replaced their previous marketing channels.

Halfway through the panel, Brown’s voice gave out and her husband, journalist Harry Evans, stepped in.  The talk turned to suing Google. “What we want is that if you are going to make a copy and use it and monetize it, you have to pay for it.” Sargent said.

I can sympathize with the publishers. Sure, they want to protect their business, but I have a feeling that, when it comes to the Internet, timidly is not the road to success. And after all that kerfuffle in the music industry a few years ago, we should be a lot farther along.

-- Elizabeth Khuri

Photo: Tina Brown. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times