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Just the books, please: Public shrugs off Amazon-Hachette spat at BookExpo

NEW YORK, N.Y. - Publishers and the public met this weekend at BookExpo America, the annual industry convention, and seemed to speak in different languages.

If you were part of the book business, "Amazon" was a dirty word and "Hachette" an applause line as editors, booksellers, writers and agents pondered, fretted and but largely refused to discuss the well-publicized and sharply-worded standoff in negotiations between the online retailer and Hachette Book Group.

With terms for e-books sales reportedly at the heart of the conflict, Amazon.com has departed from its usual emphasis on customer service, slowing delivery on such older works as Tina Fey's "Bossypants" and removing the pre-order button for such upcoming releases as J.K. Rowling's latest detective novel, "The Silkworm."

"Amazon ... wants to control book selling, book buying, and even book publishing, and that is a national tragedy," Hachette author James Patterson warned as he spoke before hundreds of independent booksellers. "If this is to be the new American way, then maybe it has to be changed."

But if you were among some 10,000 readers who paid $30 apiece and crowded the aisles, conference rooms and banquet hall of the Jacob K. Javits Center, Amazon likely remained a favourite Internet destination and Hachette a name so unfamiliar that it needed to be repeated.

"We just pay attention to authors we read the most, books coming out, things like that," said John Castaldi, a building manager from Garwood, N.J.

BookExpo began last Wednesday as a traditional publishing trade show and shared billing Saturday with the first-ever BookCon, organized by the producers of New York Comic Con and dedicated to the union of books and popular culture. As publishers looked on both hopefully and nervously, guests — many of them teenage girls wearing "The Fault In Our Stars" T-shirts — filled shopping bags with advanced editions of Lauren Owen's "The Quick," Charles Martin's "A Life Intercepted" and Ryan Graudin's "Walled City" among others.

With some attendees complaining of long waits and erratic organization, lines extended through basement-level hallways and food courts for such speakers as John Green, Veronica Roth and Amy Poehler. So many fans wanted the autograph of actor Cary Elwes, who has written "As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride," that police were on hand if needed for crowd control.

Suzanne Wendolski, a bank employee from Johnstown, N.Y., was more interested in the chance to meet romance author Sylvia Day than in any industry controversy.

"There's a lot of people who are battling Amazon," she said.

Hachette and Amazon found it hard to avoid each other. Amazon officials attended a Hachette-sponsored author luncheon and Amazon and Hachette meeting rooms were in close proximity on the convention floor. Amazon even featured two Hachette titles in its list for recommended June releases, Megan Abbott's "the Fever" and Tom Rob Smith's "The Farm." As of midday Sunday, neither could be pre-ordered from Amazon.

For the publishing world, Amazon's fight with Hachette upends an otherwise stable moment for the industry. Independent booksellers appear to be opening more stores than closing them and growth in the e-book market has eased to a more manageable pace. E-sales are believed to be around 30 per cent of overall sales, well below what Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy and others expected a few years ago.

"I was obviously over-impressed," Reidy said during the convention.

The industry would be grateful if the convention helps any of the new books sell as well as some older releases. The hottest books of 2014 have so far been releases from other years, including Green's "The Fault In Our Stars" and Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Goldfinch," a Hachette publication from last fall still so in demand that those buying from Amazon have so far not encountered any problems.

Prospects for the next few months include Hillary Rodham Clinton's "Hard Choices," Rick Riordan's "The Blood of Olympus" and Lena Dunham's "Not That Kind of Girl," for which the creator and star of HBO's "Girls" reportedly received more than $3 million. Dunham, a breakfast speaker Saturday, cracked a few X-rated jokes and previewed her book of personal essays by reading the introduction and its forbidding opening sentence: "I'm 20 years old and I hate myself."

But Dunham, now 28 and more successful than she ever imagined, summed up her message as "hopeful dispatches from the front lines" of having it all.

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