Over at the "Remainders" section of the industry's annual national convention, BookExpo America, publishers of discount books have noticed two strong trends in recent years. Fiction sales have fallen sharply, while children's books have taken off.
"We've definitely taken a hit on adult books, around 30-40 percent, especially adult fiction," says Jordan Lubberts, a sales representative for Book Depot, a Canadian-based wholesaler of bargain books. "But we've really made up for that on children's books."
Remainders are unsold copies of books that publishers turn over to companies such as Book Depot, which in turn might offer a Stephen King novel or Mitt Romney's "No Apology" for discounts as high as 90 percent. Like everyone else in the book world, sellers of remainders have been affected by the e-revolution, a topic discussed obsessively this week at the Jacob K. Javits Center.
The three-day convention, attended by tens of thousands of booksellers, publishers, writers and librarians, ended Thursday.
Publishers in recent years have been cutting the number of adult books they print as e-sales increase, reducing the leftover copies a store might return to the publisher. New fiction releases are especially popular in digital format, with half or more the million-selling "50 Shades" trilogy and other hits sometimes selling as e-books during a given week.
Meanwhile, a strong and sometimes overwhelming majority of picture books and young adult novels are still sold on paper. And print runs can be enormous, like the 6.5 million copies just announced for Jeff Kinney's latest "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" novel, which comes out in November.
That often leads to more volume for remainders companies, although sales also have been strong the first time around. According to the Association of American Publishers, revenue for children's books was up by more than 70 percent in early 2012 compared to the same time last year.
At Bookworks, in Albuquerque, N.M., owner Danielle Foster recently moved the children's section to the front of the store.
"It's a neighborhood store and they're a great impulse buy. Parents come in and see a title they want for their kids," said Foster, who mentioned James Dashner's "The Kill Order" and Lois Lowry's "Gathering Blue" as books she anticipated selling well in the fall.
The reigning heroine of children's literature, J.K. Rowling, has written one of the adult books most discussed at the convention: the mystery novel "The Casual Vacancy." Others favored by booksellers included Jon Meacham's biography of Thomas Jefferson and Junot Diaz's "This is How You Lose Her." More than 1,000 attendees filled a banquet hall to hear Neil Young and Patti Smith exchange compliments and chat up Young's memoir, "Waging Heavy Peace."
The 66-year-old Young wore a heavy poncho that he seemed to have retrieved from his years with Buffalo Springfield, decades ago. He also wore a poncho the night before at a reception hosted by publisher Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA). Saying that finishing the memoir was actually easier than recording an album, Young disclosed that he was already working on a second book, about the cars he has owned.
"I've had a lot of cars," he said.
Steven Colbert, presiding over a breakfast panel that included Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz and best-selling crime novelist Jo Nesbo, promised the moon for "America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't." Not only will his book top the charts, but, just like the latest movies, he's releasing it in 3-D.
"It's like the pages are turning right at you," he said.
Shakespeare was a favorite muse. At a lunchtime gathering, Ann Patchett recited the "band of brothers" soliloquy from "Henry V" as she celebrated the independent booksellers' improbable resilience during the digital age. During a morning panel, novelist Zadie Smith praised "Measure for Measure," considered one of Shakespeare's "problem plays" because its meaning is unclear.
"Problem plays seem closest to the reality of our lives," said Smith, whose next book, "NW: A Novel" comes out in September.
The publishing industry itself is a long-running problem play, at times as contradictory and nonsensical as the title of Colbert's book. Optimism and dread can appear equally irrational as everyone tries to figure out whether e-books will revitalize the industry or kill it.
The mood at BookExpo was positive, even as publishers absorb the downfall of the Borders superstore chain (a special blow for paperbacks, noted Penguin CEO David Shanks) and brace themselves for any effects from the government's lawsuit against Apple and five leading publishers, alleging price fixing of e-books.
"The industry is a lot healthier than we would have predicted," said Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster. "Certainly people are focused on books for lots of reasons, from the fact there have been a series of huge blockbusters like 'Hunger Games,' Steve Jobs and the 'Fifty Shades' books, to curiosity about ebooks and what they mean for the industry. Because our business is changing, we're in the news much more often. To the extent there's a widespread conversation about books, it's a good thing."
BookExpo is a reminder of how opposites can coexist under the same roof, or even side by side. At the Penguin booth, a poster for Young's "Heavy Peace" hung right next to a poster for a story of war, "My Share of the Task," by former Afghan war commander U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Near the back of the Javits hall, Natalia Solzhenitsyn, widow of Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, solemnly presented a slide show of her husband's papers. Across the aisle, a New Age booth promoted K.S. Krueger's "Traegonia: The Sunbow Prophecy."
In the autograph section, Molly Ringwald signed copies of her story collection "When It Happens to You" and took in the sprawl.
"I feel like I'm in Costco," she said.