02 April 2009

Old Think from New Publishers

Peter Miller's recounting of the "New Think for Old Publishers" panel at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival offers an unusual perspective on the event. If it weren't for the honor of being a panelist, it seems...

A little after 5:30 pm, Deb asked questioners to line up behind a microphone in the center aisle. Quickly five or six sprang up. The first one cut to the chase. Where are the new ideas we were promised? Why were we taking up precious time with this prattle? Did we have a clue? We weren't startled by the sentiment as much as the audience's spontaneous reaction. They erupted in a giant applause that must have made neighboring panels think we were scoring with the crowd.
Miller bravely interspersed this account with the critical commentary from Twitterers in the audience. And this week he added some advice for future panelists who wish to avoid the same response.

Most of the complaints point out that the panelists represented large New York publishers still wedded to the safe ways of making money through books, while the audience included writers and digital publishers trying new things and eager for the secrets of making enough money to feel secure quitting their day jobs.

Kirk Biglione at Medialoper groused:
I suppose these publishers could be forgiven for not knowing the SXSW protocol, but usually you don’t *give* a presentation unless you have something interesting and innovative to share. SXSW is the place to be if you’re looking for new ideas, but usually those looking for new ideas *attend* sessions held by other people.
(For the record, the panel description ends by stating: "Audience members are invited to speak up about what they think book publishers could/should be doing to better provide relevant information and content to blogs, websites, and online communities. Come tell old media what you want and how you want it." So the audience could hardly have been surprised to hear from the "old media" they think is clueless.)

Kassia Krozser (who's also a founding partner of Medialoper) provides her perspective as one of the audience members.
As the panelists expounded upon their lofty roles in the world of publishing — and I’m sorry to say that it sounded as if they worked on a mountain high, whether intended or not — they seemed oblivious to fact that they were speaking to a room filled with publishers. It was as if we didn’t understand the rigors the job.
At the risk of aligning myself with the fuddy-duddies on the panel, I'm not convinced that their critics do understand the rigors of the jobs those panelists have. Editors and publicists aren't paid by large corporate publishers to reinvent the economics of book publishing. They're paid to play a particular role in squeezing the most out of the current economics.

Of course smaller outfits, technology, and the market are going to drive change; they always have. In the meantime, large companies will continue to put most of their resources toward proven methods to make money, until those methods don't work so well and then a little bit longer.

I detect some of the panel's critics wishing for too much. For instance, William Aicher says:
publishers need to stop trying to be tastemakers. . . . Find content or creators that already have a following (and sometimes take risks on ones that have a potential to be big), cultivate those creators and their content with your professional editing staff and then get the content out to people.
How are today's big corporate publishers "trying to be tastemakers"? Those companies decided long ago to follow the market and mass media; they don't try to elevate literary tastes at the cost of sales. And as for deciding which writers appear to have enough potential to invest in, as Aicher suggests, that's what publishers have always done.

Back to Miller's account:
The last questioner delivered the parting shot. If, as an author, I can design it myself, write it myself, publish it myself, why would I bother going to a publisher at all? What purpose do you serve? Clay Shirky reiterated one of his mantras that publishing raises the signal and separates it from the noise. Aren't you merely a filter? the questioner retorted. Raising his voice Clay boomed into the microphone, "the filter is the single most important function on the internet today." And with that the audience was briefly back on our side.
Because all of us believe ourselves to be not only authors worth publishing, but filters worth listening to. Yet there really isn't any great secret to be found.


Elizabeth said...

"the filter is the single most important function on the internet today."

Word. And quick thinking on the panelist's part.

Lee said...

"the filter is the single most important function on the internet today."

Yes and no. Yes, if as a writer you're aiming for numbers. No, because viral effects don't always depend on filters. Think black swans.

J. L. Bell said...

Writers, or other people creating for an audience, usually aim for numbers of some kind.

As for "viral effects" and "black swans," can we have real-world examples instead?