Literary Culture Thrives at Annual Book Fair
by brett sokol
So much for the “death of print.” Last year saw the US publishing industry release nearly 350,000 new freshly bound books on paper—an all-time high, as well as a more than 61 percent increase over the number of titles issued a decade earlier, according to the Bowker research firm. Yet a steady drumbeat of financial woes continues to emanate from publishers—from the bankruptcy of the Borders bookstore chain to revenue jitters as low-margin e-books begin to eclipse higher-margin hardcovers. So how to square these dueling paradigms?
If you want to muddy the overall picture even further, just look around Miami. From a cramped Coral Gables nook that first opened 30 years ago, Mitchell Kaplan’s Books & Books store has not only dramatically expanded (now with an in-house restaurant and adjoining courtyard), it has sister Books & Books in Miami Beach, Bal Harbour Shops, the Miami airport, Fort Lauderdale’s Museum of Art, the Cayman Islands, and Westhampton Beach, New York. Meanwhile, the Kaplan-cofounded Miami Book Fair International launches its 29th annual edition this month as one of the largest such fairs in the country, drawing a crush of top-shelf authors and packed-room crowds for a week’s worth of programming. Literary culture is dead? Apparently South Florida has yet to receive that memo.
“What we’re in the middle of is a distribution issue,” explains Kaplan. “What’s happening now is that you’ve got writers and publishers publishing marvelous books. You’ve got readers who want to read them. How books are going to be distributed to them is the issue of the day. Film and literature are dealing with the same thing, and the jury is still out on how it’s all going to end up.” Yet regardless of how the process unfolds, Kaplan sees his own role as remaining constant: “You need people to help weed through all these selections. The beauty of independent bookstores, the reason we still have to exist, is that we’re all about selection. We’re all about having a point of view. In some ways, the Internet has taken the pressure off of stores to carry everything. That’s one of the reasons the big stores have fallen on hard times—they’re paying for real estate they don’t need.”
Moreover, for all the growing biz chatter surrounding the rise of e-books (which a BookStats study pegs as comprising 15.5 percent of overall publishing revenues), Kaplan is already looking farther ahead. “E-books could simply be a transitionary period,” he muses. “There’s no guarantee we’re not going to look back on e-books the same way we’re now seeing compact discs or cassette tapes.”
If Kaplan’s outlook seems unusually sanguine despite the teeth-gnashing of many of his industry peers, he only has to look back on his own 30-year history of bookselling for reassurance. “1982 was a very bleak time in terms of the world’s view toward Miami,” he recalls of an era seemingly defined by race riots, cocaine cowboys, and the highest murder rate in the country. “But when we opened our bookshop then, I saw, counterintuitively, people were buying very interesting and wonderful books. Serious books! As serious as anywhere else!
He was greeted with much the same dubious response when he began the Book Fair two years later. Publishers in New York balked at sending A-list writers. This was Miami, after all. Wouldn’t Kaplan be more interested in their new diet guru or exercise expert? “Deep down, one of the things that drove me was to show the world that Miami could support something sophisticated and literary,” Kaplan says. His faith was more than borne out: 1985 saw full houses for readings from Allen Ginsberg, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Mario Vargas Llosa. Such has been the fair’s pattern ever since: “The structure remains the same. The beauty of it is that the change comes from the different authors who arrive each year.” Which is exactly how Kaplan likes it. “As we get more and more distracted by everything digital, the considered life is under attack. The fact that people can still gather and reassert the value of reading is something very important.” The 29th annual Miami Book Fair International begins November 11. For a complete schedule, e-mail: email@example.com
photography courtesy of mbfi (crowd); Books & Books (kaplan); courtesy of Miami dade college (obama, batali)