Reporting from New York — About a year ago Mary Ann Naples had a holy-cow moment. If she'd been a cartoon character, she would have smacked her forehead until stars came out.
She was standing atop an escalator at Book Expo America, the publishing world's spring jamboree in New York, surveying a convention hall of sullen faces. Many of the 30,000 booksellers, publishers, authors and agents were looking like well-heeled passengers on a leaky cruise ship.
The rise of digital books and online retailing was upending book publishing's business model. Publishers facing higher costs and less revenue were signing fewer authors; advances and royalties were declining; and bookstores were vanishing, leaving big American cities such as Laredo, Texas, without a single one.
And not least among the sky-is-falling signs, it was tougher to persuade a book editor, here in America's publishing capital, to buy lunch, never mind underwrite a book party for an established author.
Although everyone agrees stories need to be told and distributed — most still through words in the form of sentences that make paragraphs that make chapters — the industry remains uncertain about future ways to turn a profit.
Naples' escalator epiphany was that authors couldn't rely on publishers and agents to sort out the future. They had to harness the Internet on their own, to find new ways not only to draw audiences but also to keep them, and make money at it too. She'd observed how musicians were sidestepping the major labels by using online tools to connect with and sell their music directly to fans.
"There's something through direct selling that can make a difference in an author's career," she remembered thinking that day.
A year later, the Ivy League-educated Naples made a leap. After 20 years of birthing books — first as an editor and later as a literary agent — she joined OpenSky, a tech start-up in lower Manhattan that is developing an online platform for established authors, bloggers and celebrities to sell products they believe in and can endorse right off their own websites.
The site, which goes live this week, has so far signed up 1,000 such "tastemakers" and a slew of suppliers, and is designing tools to connect them with one another and shoppers as well as take care of all the messy details of commerce like warehousing, sourcing, shipping and billing.
A cookbook author, for example, not only sells books through OpenSky but also hawks a favorite barbecue sauce and grill. The author pockets 50% of the profit, with the rest going to OpenSky and others involved in the transaction.
This spring at Book Expo, instead of bearing a nametag that said "literary agent," Naples' read "retail." And this time, standing atop that same escalator, she thought book publishing's future looked a lot rosier.
In fact, it is still divided among pessimists (hoping to retire before the industry is unrecognizable), nihilists (contemptuous of books on paper and copyright laws) and optimists (eager to reinvent a digitized literary landscape).
Naples has decided to throw in her lot with the optimists.
Her recurring challenge at Book Expo, however, was to prove to literary pals that she was still in the same business they were: publishing. After one of those hair-tearing panels with big shots debating whether e-books hurt authors, Naples ran into moderator Simon Lipskar, a literary agent.
"You're doing the smart thing," Lipskar said, half-teasing, half-serious, "getting the hell out of this business."
Looking New York chic in a simple gray dress and dark brown clog boots, Naples gazed at Lipskar through the tools of her trade — dark, heavy glasses that dominate her face. (They're like something you'd expect to find on the nose of Henry Kissinger, not a 43-year-old freckled woman with a voice that hints at an inner Lauren Bacall.)
"Simon," she said, "I am still in this business. I'm just helping authors develop their brands.... A little less editorial work, a little more positioning."
In between seminars and schmoozing, Naples pitched OpenSky to a series of publishing contacts. Most, like her, were reinventing themselves. She met with a former book editor who'd become a publishing "coach"; a savvy blogger with the title "chief executive optimist"; and a 56-year-old Boston publisher and his 24-year-old former intern, who were expanding their business with parenting and cooking websites.
David Hale Smith, a Texas literary agent, was about the only one who hadn't morphed roles since Naples last saw him. After they sat down at a table near that escalator, Smith immediately handed her a copy of a client's newest novel: "So Cold the River" by Michael Koryta. Smith mentioned that it's set in an old hotel in central Indiana known for its Pluto Water, believed to have healthful effects.