Book bizzers seeking tech support

The print media need iTunes, too.

That’s the message — not to mention the hope and the fear — permeating the book biz as it kicked off its annual BookExpo America confab in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

Industry vets fretted over how to harness — or at least cope with — the onslaught of new platforms and windows.

“We’re talking about content, not books, and ways to get it out to people,” said Jerome Kramer, editor of trade pub the Book Standard, while moderating a panel on Web 2.0.

Around the confab, which runs through Sunday, execs, authors and agents wondered if new media and new platforms would prove the industry’s salvation.

An exec with mobile entertainment firm Motricity urged publishers to “put a free book on every cell phone,” while former Warner Bros. licensing exec Skye Van Raalte-Herzog flogged ExpandedReads.com, which offers video shorts promoting tomes in venues such as iTunes.

“We have a real opportunity to sell books to a whole generation coming up through the ranks who live their lives digitally on MySpace,” Andrew Weinstein, an exec at electronic publisher Lightning Source, told a panel.

Publishers went through some of this before with the great hype — but eventual disappointment — of e-books more than five years ago.

Confab shows how questions affecting all of entertainment are hitting the most print-centric media businesses.

But tech also gives hope to a business that’s seeing the average age of readers grow and sales increasingly concentrated in a handful of releases.

Industry is fearful enough about the latter issue that confab brought in the originator of the “Long Tail” theory, Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson (promoting his new book about it, natch), to discuss the ability of Hollywood new-media companies like Netflix to reach smaller auds with arty fare. Anderson’s point: The anti-tentpole model is the future of all entertainment. “We need to shift from hit thinking to niche thinking,” he said, to rousing applause.

Elsewhere, there was talk of actual books … sometimes.

Confab is a strange hybrid of media circus, industry reunion, crystal ball-gazing and lit talk.

Several publishers are making noise with big and surprise launches, including books by Mitch Albom and Charles Frazier. But often, it’s appearances from media celebs such as Anderson Cooper and Tim Russert that are drawing attention.

On Thursday evening Russert promoted his new tome “Wisdom of Our Fathers” to an adoring crowd of thousands by reading letters to fathers that readers had sent to him.

Show also had one of the first wide Stateside screenings of “Da Vinci Code” as pic screened for booksellers Thursday night in a gesture of publisher Doubleday’s gratitude (and possible reminder to market tie-ins), though early critical panning could dry up publishers’ hoped-for wave of tie-in sales.

Debate over the state of American fiction took centerstage when the New York Times Book Review threw a panel to hash out judges’ recent choice of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” as the best American novel of the last 25 years.

Event brought surprising juice when novelist Cynthia Ozick said the choice had her “flabbergasted.”

“It would fit well into the political science department. but the question is whether it would fit into the literature department,” she said.

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