Nutshell analysis of the “New Think for Old Publishers” panel at South by Southwest 2009: there was a not a single new think in the room.
Let me be clear. Absolutely clear. Not one word spoken in that session, either from the panelists or from the audience, was new or innovative.
(This is ironic given the fact that Penguin UK/Six to Start won two awards for the brilliant We Tell Stories project later that night. Congratulations to everyone involved, with a special shout-out to Jeremy Ettinghausen!)
Let’s back up. The panel — fronting a room of about 300 people — was supposed to be about how “…participatory culture and the online world interact with good olde [sic] book publishing”. The printed material suggests that we were supposed to learn what is going right and wrong in publishing…to learn how books and blogs can work.
Setting aside the very 2005 nature of this notion, the panel came nowhere near achieving these goals. At the very end of the web description of the panel, it says that audience members are invited to speak up on this topic.
If you’re going to hold a session called “New Think for Old Publishers”, you gotta come with some new thinking. Either that or tell the audience that it’s a research session…and the audience is supposed to bring the new thinking. Good idea, needed better execution. Nobody read the panel description to mean “we want the audience to tell us what we’re doing wrong and how we can fix it”.
Especially considering the number of people in the room who charge good money for their consulting services. We’re actually attending the conference to hear words of wisdom from the panelists, not the other way around. I missed Gary V for this show because I so wanted hear about publishing success.
We knew we were in for a bumpy ride when the panel responded to the audience question about the hashtag — a Twitter notation that helps aggregate related comments — with befuddlement before hastily assembling a response. This tells me that most of the panel hasn’t been attending other SXSW sessions. The backchannel conversation is here. I won’t pull punches: it was brutal.
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.
Approximately 25% of the people in that audience read a book a week. Amazing, considering the reading habits of the public at large, and I think it’s indicative of the fact that we wanted this panel to rock. We get a lot of information from online sources. But from the panel, we received subtle put-downs: the idea that blurbs from nearly-defunct newspapers have more credibility (with whom?) than well-read blogs, the notion that we didn’t get the curation function you provide.
(Aside: I suspect many of the audience were there just to see/hear Clay Shirky, and his comments about long-form writing, online culture, search versus serendipity, and the tension between selling and sharing — within the first five minutes of the panel — set the stage for a very different panel than the one we witnessed. If only…)
(Second aside: Did the publishing people on the panel realize how many attendees were part of the competition, and not in the traditional manner? Just curious, because if you’re going to show your underbelly, is it smart to do in front of the sharks?)
Then the conversation was flipped: the publishing people on stage said, essentially, tell us what we’re doing wrong and how we can fix it. You have 300 people who give up an hour of their lives to hear the cool things the traditional publishing business is doing…and you can ask them to consult on your business?
It was a bit of a surprise, I imagine, to encounter that level of audience hostility: they want us to tell them how to fix their business? And the comments, including mine — a simple plea to stop forcing your customers to become pirates by getting over the format/DRM war — were generally met with nods rather than engagement. If Clay Shirky hadn’t rebounded by mentioning that Thomas Nelson had recently done this, I would have felt like I was speaking into a black hole.
Let me be clear. Absolutely clear. Not one word spoken in that session, either from the panelists or from the audience, was new or innovative. The panel, well, we’ve all heard job descriptions before. The audience? That was one very long line of people saying the same things we’ve been saying to the publishing industry for ten years. And yet the publishing people treated our comments as if they were items to be added to a list.
A list that will be filed in a drawer along with other conference ephemera.
I talked about selling books not formats. Kevin Smokler of Booktour.com asked the same simple question he’s been asking for a long time. He wants an efficient way to get your author tour data into his system so that the readers who have signed up to get notifications about signings in their area get those notifications. That is all. He wants to help you, but you’re not helping yourselves.
Another person asked you to stop suing writers of fanfic and maybe work with them. Others wanted more engagement from you, more outreach, more information. One author noted you publish 3500 books a week…how does her book even begin to stand a chance in the market? And more and more and more.
We barely got started, and time didn’t allow all of us to speak. You gave us an hour to answer a question you’ve been spending over a decade on?
It just gets worse. At the after-party, one panelist told me that “this is all new to us”. Give. Me. A. Break. It’s only new for those of you who’ve been pretending change is something you get from a dollar bill. Now you’re wondering how to interact with blogs? Now you’re learning that there’s an entire conference devoted to change in the industry?
I’m so sorry, but it must be said. The future of publishing is already happening. People are doing it and they’re doing it really well. If you’re still worried about engaging bloggers, you are worrying about the wrong thing. And if you really want to know how to engage in new thinking, it would be awesome if you started by acknowledging and addressing the issues we’ve been raising in the past.
(Aside three: Might as well address the blogger question. It’s quite simple. Find the bloggers big and small in your various genres, develop a relationship with them, understand their tastes, like, dislikes, deadlines, lead time, preferred method of communication, preferred formats for books [remember, they are publishers too and have many of the same issues you have]. Treat the bloggers with respect — you need them more than they need you. And note, the publishers who are already doing this well are leaps and bounds ahead of you.)
Updated Monday a.m. to fix typos and add a third aside.