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The U.S. Book Show 2024: Artificial Intelligence, Audiobooks, and Movie Deals
by
Posted On June 4, 2024
I had been a BookExpo attendee for decades, so I have tried to be a keen observer of trends in evolving events for publishers, booksellers, and, later on, librarians. When the pandemic hit, there was a feeling that it might all be done for good, but Publishers Weekly came through with a substitute conference called the U.S. Book Show—first as a virtual event, then as an in-person conference. In covering it the past couple of years, I have made a number of predictions about where things might be headed. Sadly, much of that was wrong, but my attempts call to mind a quote from Yogi Berra: “It’s hard making predictions, especially about the future.”

Welcome to the Village

The day before the conference, attendees received a stern message from the security team at host venue New York University (NYU) that we must expect difficulties getting into the event, as NYU was the scene of pro-Palestinian student protests over the Israel-Hamas war. It turned out that the reality was a fairly easy entry after all. Kimmel Center was the site of last year’s book show, so I had no trouble finding the right floor, but we had to go to the overflow room to see the first panel, which was a quartet of publishing CEOs.

The speakers were Simon & Schuster’s Jonathan Karp, Scholastic’s Peter Warwick, Baker & Taylor’s Aman Kochar, and Abrams’ Mary McAveney. Warwick got the technology ball rolling by calling generative AI the elephant in the room. This led to a sharp rejoinder by Karp who countered that AI is the “cicada in the room, with lots of buzzing and screwing.” He brushed aside doomsday scenarios but admitted that there are authors and publishers whose works are being used without compensation. He did, however, say he believes that the dozens of lawsuits on the matter will lead to some kind of reasonable solution.

The overflow room was itself overflowing, but I soon found out that as a member of the press, I had a reserved seat in the front row. This was useful information because I later heard that the conference was sold out, with more than a thousand paid attendees. Between programs, we went to the 10th floor, where there was a generous spread of coffee and pastries:

The 10th floor break room, where coffee and pastries were offered

Later I was spotted by Christi Cassidy, the show’s publicity director, who always makes it a point to make reporters feel welcome.

AI Solutions in Publishing

Keith Riegert, CEO of independent publishing company Ulysses Press, delivered a tour de force presentation about AI. After explaining that he uses AI in every facet of his company’s work, he said that he would prefer that this revolution had never happened. He noted that as useful as AI is today, what is coming will make the current capabilities look like child’s play. He cautioned us to remember that the AI we are using today is the worst that will ever be.

Currently, Riegert said, using the technology to help with routine tasks increases efficiency by 20%. That is the equivalent of having a sixth staff member for every five employees in his company. ChatGPT is helpful in reading long messages and making useful summaries. For example, a 500-word press release would take about 30 minutes to create, but ChatGPT can produce usable copy in 10 minutes. He even used ChatGPT to draft his company’s AI policy. Riegert said that although he is proficient in using Python script, he now eliminates hours of tedium by instructing ChatGPT to write a Python script for him. He noted that he inspected the coding that came out and found it superior in quality.

Riegert said that AI graphics programs do fantastic work these days—they allow you to refine all layers of an image, greatly reducing the manual labor of doing this in a standard graphics program. His example was using a stock photo of a backyard grill, placing the grill at a beach rather than next to a picnic table, and then adding a sailboat. All of this was done using simple verbal directions. For graphics, he recommended Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, and DALL•E. Other useful publishing tools included Storywise, which automatically looks through submissions on the slush pile and alerts the editor to possible gems. Shimmr takes your materials about a new book title and creates a fully developed ad campaign for social media. I took a photo of the Shimmr reps in attendance:

The Shimmr reps at the U.S. Book Show

Riegert also mentioned that Copilot is a very useful product to enhance Excel files. Overall, I was highly impressed with the amount of helpful information that Riegert packed into a half-hour session.

Other Technology Sessions

Owen Smith, VP of product and technology for audiobooks at Spotify, gave an eye-opening presentation about Spotify’s massive new audiobook program:

The Spotify presentation at the U.S. Book Show

Premium members of Spotify now may listen to 15 hours of content from its vast collection of audiobooks. Smith said that the idea is to open the audiobook format to subscribers who are mainly used to listening to music or podcasts. Looking at Spotify’s webpage, the number of titles seems almost preposterously vast. The service, launched in fall 2023, claims to have 250,000 titles, but also says that 100,000 have not been accessed. Users may listen to any of them for 15 hours each month, and unused minutes do not roll over. I checked my OverDrive account to see how many titles I could view and found the number to be about 60,000. Out of curiosity, I opened a trial subscription to Spotify, and I can only access seven titles so far, including George Orwell’s timely classic 1984. To be fair, I have read positive testimonials from other subscribers who use the service, so it was likely a case of me doing something wrong.

As an enthusiastic user of Libby, I was interested to hear CEO Steve Potash’s talk about OverDrive’s state of affairs. He said that with 175 million card holders at their disposal, public libraries can leverage OverDrive to help the publishing industry in ways that are a win for all concerned. For instance, library book clubs that make a certain title available to all patrons for a certain period actually stimulate sales of that title.

Books Into Movies: Happy Endings or Development Hell

The last panel I attended before Spotify’s cocktail party was called Greenlighting 2.0, which discussed the state of book-to-movie deals after the recent strikes of writers and actors. Given that the television and movie industry is a complex minefield to begin with, adding a book deal makes it that much worse. The plain-spoken and witty literary agent Lucy Stille said that your author might be tempted to write their own screenplay. Her advice: “Don’t.” The presenters said that some authors want to get an extra check for being named as associate producers on a movie. We were warned that weighing down the budget like this adds to the chances of the whole project collapsing or sinking into endless purgatory—a status they describe as “development hell.” With all of the streaming services producing new content, there are opportunities—but for every success, there are dozens of projects stuck in the mud.

Conclusion

This year, I was surprised at the decision to eliminate book buzz panels that had been hosted in the past, but I also saw more than enough technology presentations to make my visit worthwhile. At the closing party on Kimmel Center’s 10th floor (with stunning views of Washington Square), the hundreds of people networking showed that the U.S. Book Show is alive and well.

The view of Washington Square from the 10th floor


Photos by Terry Ballard


Terry Ballard is a former systems librarian, retired after a 50-year library career. He is the author of three books and more than 100 articles, mostly about library automation. Further information can be found at terryballard.org, and he can be reached at terryballard@gmail.com.

Email Terry Ballard

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