by J.D. Rhoades
If you've been following the publishing news site Galleycat recently, you may have read about the brouhaha that erupted at the recent South by Southwest (SXSW) conference panel entitled "New Think for Old Publishers". There's a pretty good synopsis at Medialoper, which can be boiled down further to this: Traditional publishers, joined by social-networking guru Clay Shirky, were supposed to do a panel on the changing nature of the publishing industry. It quickly became clear that the publishers didn't have any idea how to negotiate the changes brought on by technology and accelerated by the troubled economy. Eventually , the panelists asked the crowd "well, what do y'all want?" The crowd got unhappy and occasionally downright hostile, and let the panel know it via comments. Interestingly, they also shared their disgruntlement via a special SXSW Twitter feed. Some "tweets included: "publishers have no clue how to save themselves and little interest in models readers want," and "This chance for learning has become a lean back and listen for the panel. It's audience funded brainstorming!"
The Medialoper piece summed up with "As presented, the panel was an insult to the audience and a waste of time for everyone involved."
I confess I was a little startled, not only by the reaction, but by the vehemence of it. Now, I wasn't there, so I may be totally off base (and if any of you were there, let me know, I'd love to hear your thoughts.). But from what I read, it sounds to me like these were people who apparently felt they'd been cheated because someone was asking them their opinion of which way things should go.
This was startling to me because when it comes to panels, blogs, what have you, interactivity is an article of faith with me. If moderating a panel, I like to go to Q & A as early as I can get away with it. When blogging here, I like to end up with a question or two. Sometimes, as in my last two posts here, I've spent the whole time asking you questions about what worked for you, and it seemed to go pretty well for everybody. I don't think I'd even read a blog that didn't allow comments. At least I wouldn't read it for long.
I don't just do it because I'm lazy. I mean, I AM lazy, but that's not my only motivation. But a few months ago, I saw a video essay by the aforementioned Professor Shirky, who's a professor at NYU (and who, as you can probably tell, has become a major influence on my recent thinking about media). The essay is transcribed here, and you can view it here. I definitely recommend you check out the whole essay, but one of the the main things that stuck with me was the story Shirky relates about friend of his, the friend's four year old daughter, and their DVD player:
in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she's going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn't what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, "What are you doing?" And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, "Looking for the mouse."
Here's something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here's something four-year-olds know: Media that's targeted at you but doesn't include you may not be worth sitting still for.
So what I like to do, every chance I get, is hand you the mouse and let you control things for a while. It never occurred to me that asking for audience participation would actually make people angry.
Or maybe the SXSW audience was irritated because they didn't know the answers either. In the current unsettled publishing environment, if the people who are supposedly in charge don't know which way things are going to fall, then the uncertainly just gets ramped up that much higher. And fear leads to anger. And anger leads to suffering.I think Yoda said that.
But here's the thing: we are seeing a revolution. And revolutions, by their very nature, are unpredictable. No one can really say with any degree of certainty (at least if they're honest) exactly what effects things like e-publishing, Kindles, eReaders on iPhones, or even POD are going to have on traditional publishing, or even if what we've known as traditional publishing is going to survive.
In a more recent essay, Shirky describes the revolution that took place after Gutenberg's invention of the printing press:
During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.
That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing.
So in this brave new publishing world, the only way to stay on top is going to be to keep our minds–and our ears–open. To keep experimenting. And to keep asking questions. Because the next great idea could come from anywhere.
BTW, I was fascinated by Pari's experiment on Monday where everyone was invited to help write a piece of the story. It really took some unexpected turns. Maybe THAT's one potential new genre: the WikiStory.
So, today's questions:
Is interactivity important to you? For example, would you keep reading this blog if it didn't allow comments? Would you rather hear from us, talk back to us, or a little of both?
What's your idea to save publishing or if you don't want to save it, what's your idea to replace it? IOW, what models do you, as readers, want?
Here's the mouse.
That is startling about the reaction to the panel. I can understand being disappointed in a panel, it happens all the time, but that’s what the bar is for.
Sometimes it’s just not a good combination of people.
I have no great ideas on saving publishing – I still don’t even have a Kindle. For me it always comes back to the problem of using new technology for such a concrete and tactile thing as a book. New media is such an easier concept to apply to film and TV because they’re already technological. And I don’t want brick-and-mortar bookstores to go away, because going to a bookstore is like going to a museum – it’s an aesthetic pleasure in itself that you simply cannot get on screen.
Basically, I can understand how anyone else would be as much in denial about all of this as I am.
If you look up the conference program description of the panel, you’ll see that that’s exactly what they planned to do — throw it open to the audience for feedback. The irate attendees must have been too busy Twittering to even bother reading about what they were going to see! And if they can’t bother to read one paragraph…I’m not sure they’re the ones I want to listen to about the future of publishing.
If we’re going to talk about the future, we need to listen to the four year olds. We can say all we want about the need for story, the need for narrative and character arc, but these kids don’t experience them.
My daughter has a remote (or a mouse when she’s watching shows recorded on the computer). She jumps to the first act climax, maybe watches that two or three times, and then skips to the part in the middle she really likes and watches that twice. Then she goes back and watches a different part, calling me over so I can experience a certain line. Then she switches to a different show and forwards to the ending. She watches for a while and then switches to a third show.
Is she a reader? Yes. And she loves her chapter books. But even there, she often tells me to skip the first chapter. With books we’ve read before, she’ll ask me to start with chapter seven or some such.
As someone obsessed with story structure, I find this hard to understand, but it is what it is, and it might be the future.
And isn’t it ironic that the very people who were Twittering (i.e., responding) were all up i arms about being asked to… respond.
I think one of the reasons that there are more people reading blogs and there is a decline in newspapers is the very notion of interactivity. Letters to the editor, sounding off on the street corner or in the local coffee shops have gone global, and that’s a sense of power for the reader, of connectedness that I think will only escalate. I can imagine a near future where polling of opinions (like what you did in your last couple of blogs) will become the norm on every subject, every product.
I don’t have answers for the publishing industry, but there are a few common sense things I see happening. The e-book is going to end up taking off when it starts offering textbooks (every textbook) for high school and college students. Have you seen how heavy those backpacks are that kids have to haul around? They’ll jump at the chance to download their textbook, their study guide, their workbook, their sample test questions, all in one handy reader, and not have to haul as much to the classroom. Parents of kids with learning disabilities (like ADD, etc.), will finally have searchable access to everything the kid is doing in school and can help monitor work progress / assignments, etc. And when *that* happens, all of those kids are going to be used to reading on an e-reader of some sort, and buying and packing around a book is going to seem weird and old-fashioned and not nearly as efficient.
I love horses, for example, and grew up having a horse, but I was thrilled when I got my first car and it wouldn’t have ever occurred to me to use my horse for all my transportation needs… in spite of the fact that the century before, that was all anyone had–that and a coach.
Alex’s description of how entering a bookstore was like entering a museum gave me a chill–because sadly, I think that one day, that’s what bookstores will become–more museum than commerce.
J.D.,I wonder if the audience was furious because they expected “experts” and there’s always that assumption that an expert knows EVERYTHING.
I do know the delivery for work paradigm is changing but it hasn’t begun to settle out yet — and won’t — for quite a while. I suspect we’ll find books with entirely different structures, the storytelling will look different, but the creative act will be the same.
I’m not making much sense, am I?
BTW: I plan to do that story thing again as a regular feature on my Mondays — once a month. I liked the democracy of it and hope people will come to look at it as a fun way to get juices going whether they’re “writers” or not.
You (and that SXSW panel) have given me pause this morning, J.D. I didn’t realize how dependent I’ve become on the need to respond and interact. I’m with that four-year old. I want to call the shots.
Not that that has anything to do with the future of publishing. I love books, but I’m not afraid of the brave new electronic world. And I think we’ll have (we already have had) some fits and starts in sorting out what the future will look like.
Wow. Very interesting. I wonder what went wrong at that panel – I’ve gotta think there was some sort of bad mojo that didn’t get captured in the descriptions.
Interaction is hugely important to me, whether I’m participating or observing. One of the things I like best about Murderati is that most posts end with questions for both readers and writers – we’re all invited to join the discussion. And the discussions are usually thoughtful and provocative, without disintegrating into mudslinging.
As to the people who were too busy Twittering to actually participate in the panel – and without going off on a rant – it seems to me that the internet can be a place of community, or a hermit’s cave. You can either use it to reach out to other people, or just foster your own self absorption. People can become very brave behind the safety and anonymity of their keyboard. I have a very difficult time taking seriously any comment from a Twitt , er, Twitterer 😉 who’s describing something while they’re ostensibly participating in it – how the heck do they actually know what’s happening?
I agree that we’re in the midst of a revolution, and that we won’t know exactly what it all means until we look back on it later. It reminds me of a line about the 60s that’s been attributed to Grace Slick, among others: “If I’d known we were changing the world, I’d have paid closer attention.”
Audio records and tape started the ability of us to listen to programming in whatever order we wished. It wasn’t convenient, so not much jumping around was done. Think about the jukebox — any song available when you wanted it. Before video recorders, we had to watch video in order. Then the recorders changed that. I can remember starting a collection of my favorite parts of movies, sorted in order of the desired emotion. Television gave us on demand video entertainment and satellites have made the size of our world fairly unimportant. We can get news from anywhere instantly.
CD players allow us to shuffle the play order, some players over multiple CDs. Now we can do the same with books. I have almost always skimmed really long descriptive passages in books. That part may add to the ambience, but my reaction is that it impedes the progress of the story. I love to look at scenery when I ride past, and at pictures of wonderful vistas, but I apparently don’t care much for a writer’s description of it in a book. After all, it’s not me looking at it. Given the chance, I’d probably pay attention to something different than that being described.
The writing of letters, sending of cards, gathering for a coffee in the morning, is giving way to email and Facebook and blogging and whatever comes next. Stamp collecting isn’t what it used to be. Paying for something went from cash to checks to plastic. A phone call is not just a walk to the dining room sideboard or kitchen wall or bedroom night stand away anymore. We can be plugged in everywhere. We can talk or text.
For today’s youth, they can have what they want to see and hear pretty much on demand. In stories they already know, like Stephen’s daughter, they just want to get to the good stuff. With something new, they have probably acquired a fine sense of when the good stuff happens (some writing can be so formulaic), and they want to get to that part. You can always go back if you haven’t found what you thought you would.
Each of us has a unique reaction to that which we encounter. The ability to mold our entertainment to our needs has been an enormous step. Each of us will do our own thing. I worked my entire career in manufacturing. Each of the plants where I worked is closed, with the last sold to another company starting a new technology.
The publishing of books is sure to change. I hope there will still be some real books to hold, but reading on the computer is okay to me. I haven’t seen a Kindle, but some day may spring for one, or that piece of technology that has replaced it.
Our world changes now faster than the average person can keep up with it. And it is nearly impossible for an individual to know about all of it and how to best use it for his/her purposes. We need each other now more than ever — for advice and experiences and the human contact.
But to answer the question, Dusty, not being able to comment would take a lot of the fun out of reading blogs. I don’t comment often, but the ability to do so is important. Just look at the above.
As to publishing, I want good stories to read in a form I can afford and learn to use. Whatever becomes new needs to be older-adult accessible.
(Sorry, all, I really got carried away this time.)
I like the interactivity of blogs, but there are blogs I read that I can’t leave comments on, if I feel the blogger is knowedgeable and trustworthy.
As for fixing publishing, that’s a loooooong discussion I am only peripherally qualified to contribute to. I do think it needs to be run more like any other retail business in that this whole “returns” business needs to get drastically revamped.
Thanks to Neil for keeping me form making a fool of myself with this next answer, letting me know the audience should have been prepared to give input. Given they didn;t read the blurb, I wonder if part of their venom was because people are getting tired of those who are supposed to be expoerts in their field not having a clue what to do. It’s a little like going to a panel of bank regulators for an explanation of Treasury’s plans, and hearing, “We don’t know. What do you think we should do?” For years now, those in charge of every industry you can think of have been getting ever higher compensation. Now we’re seeing they don’t really know what they’re doing, and people are pissed. (Note to Zoe: I mean Pissed as in angry, not pissed as in drunk. Though some may have been both.)
Dusty,It sounds a little idiotic that they felt they were paying to voice their opinions on the ills of the current publishing, and were upset about it. I know PLENTY of people who would gladly fork over some cash to let the publishing world know what THEY think should be happening. I’d bet some of those twittering, had they stopped to really think about it, would fall into that category. They got something they’d readily like to have, and complained about it.
As far as this blog, I would definitely still read it, but I feel more a part of the community by being able to comment. You guys are all gracious, and I think all of the commenters—pubbed and pre-pubbed alike—feel our opinions are valued by some people we hold in pretty high regard. That makes a hell of a difference. It’s also a nice way for those of us currently on the outside of the industry to get a feel for being a part of it while we continue to hone our craft in the hopes of breaking in.
As far as my ideas for improving the current model? More moderate advances across the board, make returns more trouble for the bookstores (still possible, but not as responsibility-free) so the buyers will order with more accountability–which would then strengthen the independent bookseller, who can stock more of the books the bigger stores only have a few copies of. That would be my suggestion, but it may very well make things worse, I don’t know. Any thoughts guys?
Oh, and Pari, I hope you do keep that up…it was fun.
Interesting post. I do read a couple of blogs that don’t have the comment function, and like anything else I read, if the content captivates me, I don’t need/want to respond just to sound off. But blogs sort of condition the “comment” response, so I think we read them expecting to be able to do that. And it’s nice to feel the back and forth that happens w/in the comment conversation.
Toni, I hadn’t ever considered the possibilities of a Kindle for school use, but wow. The thought that at the beginning of a semester the kids get all their materials downloaded and it’s all in one place, easy to carry, right there, wow.
I’m thinking of college texts too – how expensive they are and how you generally only use them for one class, one quarter or semester. That too would be a great use.
For novels… it’s still a hard sell for me personally. I like my books. But you never know. 🙂
If at the end of your post you didn’t allow me to comment, I would have felt cheated. People want interaction, the ability to ask questions, to argue, to correct, to amplify, or even just to thank the blogger. In a panel discussion, the Q&A is the good part.
Does the publishing industry need saving? It’s going through an evolutionary process with more print on demand, more ebooks, more democratization, all of which mean that the bar is becoming lower for writers who want to get in the game. Whether that is good or bad doesn’t matter; this is the reality, and the industry can try to save itself by adapting. Individual publishers can adapt or die.
I played by industry rules for twenty years, signing with three agents over that time. A small publisher said he would publish one of my novels if I would split the publication cost, and I declined on the grounds it smacked of self-publishing. That was a mistake I won’t make again. I’ve since self-pubbed twice and have done well so far. Life is too short to wait for strangers to recognize me and deign to approve of my work.
Although I love reading a good best seller, I am more and more discovering the little books self-published by nobodies who turn out to be decent writers with good stories to tell. And today I am more likely to read a best seller on my Kindle than in a hard-bound book.
Excellent post, J.D. Thank you.
Alex, I’m with you on the experience of going to the brick and mortar store…maybe if they were marketing THAT aspect as much as the books, they’d be getting more people in. to some extent, a lot of stores both chain and indie, are providing some experiential jollies, with things like adding a coffee bar, plenty of comfy chairs to sit and read, etc. So push THAT in the marketing.
“if they can’t bother to read one paragraph…I’m not sure they’re the ones I want to listen to about the future of publishing.”
Heh. Good point, Neil.
Stephen, B.G.: both of you said similar things that brought me up short, because both of you talk about experiencing media in a non-linear fashion. I was particularly interested in BG’s mention of “starting a collection of my favorite parts of movies, sorted in order of the desired emotion.” That’s wild. I’ll have to consider how that sort of thing might be applied to what we do. Stephen, your mention of your daughter jumping around inside the story…does she do that with thing she’s never watched all the way through, or does she do that with new-to-her material as well?
” it seems to me that the internet can be a place of community, or a hermit’s cave. You can either use it to reach out to other people, or just foster your own self absorption.”
But here’s the thing, Rae: they weren’t being hermits. They were interacting with each other. They were forming a whole new ad hoc community, but it wasn’t the community the panelists expected…and that community was ticked off.
“If I’d known we were changing the world, I’d have paid closer attention.”
If they’d have been conscious of it, it wouldn’t have worked. Assuming that it did.
Jake, I was talking to a very knowledgeable person just yesterday who felt that the “no returns” or ‘harder returns” policy would actually cause bookstores to order fewer books because there’d be bigger risk for the stores. It would worsen the problem of stores only wanting proven bestsellers, not make it better.
As for lower advances…good luck selling that idea to people who make their living writing, or want to :-).
Totally agree with both your points, Dusty. My comment about the internet was really about Twitter, not about that panel, which still has me scratching my head….
If the stores order fewer books, won’t they have more room to stock more authors? I mean, they’re sending the books back as it is. Even if they just limited returns, wouldn’t the publisher’s accounting be easier to track if they shipped 10,000 books and knew no more than 2,000 could be returned; or shipped 10,000 books and only knew somewhere between 1 and 10,000 would be returned?
I don’t think we should be looking to four year olds to teach us how to tell stories. Four year olds are lovely and lively and wildly imaginative but basically incoherent. All kids are tripping all the time until about age seven – not called the age of reason for nothing, after all.
I enjoy the experience of incoherence well enough at times, but not when I’m reading or watching a movie or TV show or play. Then I would like some design and order, thank you very much.
Dusty,I’m not talking about lower advances for the people scraping by. I’m talking about the bidding war over who gets to pay 7 figures so some celebrity moron can tell us all what a long, drawn out, horrible life they’ve had as a multi-millionaire when they are only 20 or so.
Trust me, I think the people who actually work at their writing for a living would benefit from some of THAT insanity coming to a close.
Sorry if I was unclear, I can see how poorly that would have come across to real writers like the ones in this little community.
I’m all for interactivity. I like being part of a conversation that can go any which way.
I think we’re going to continue to find that fluidity of social norms and tech changes are par for the course and with all things human occasionally take a dark turn.
I was a trifle aghast though at today’s New York Times article by John Schwartz, ‘As Jurors turn to the web, Mistrials are popping up.’
Jurors are researching outside the dictates of the court using blackberries, twittering,blogging…
As for publishing, as long as I still have access to quality reading I’ll be ok. I enjoy holding a book, but can also see advantages to e-delivery systems. I love Toni’s idea of loading up all textbooks and planning programs to an e-reader.
we have a coupla fire pits that we use during the summer months…..sometimes it’s just our family ..but other times we have friends over, as well.Now, we could start a fire..and just let it burn until it burnt itself out….but usually what we will do..is feed it…a log here, a little later, another log there..and not all the logs are uniform in size or shape….That fire…reminds me of blogs with comments sections….you start with a basic fire and sometimes, they just take off…they feed off those logs being thrown in…otherwise they just burn themselves out.
The audience in Austin was not angry *because* publishers were looking to the crowd for new ideas — that’s what SXSW is all about. The audience was angry because 1) the publishers had no new ideas (it’s just rude to come to a party and not bring anything), 2) the publishers spent 40 minutes of a 60 minute session explaining their jobs and talking about the importance of the book publishing industry. Frankly, who cares? This was SXSW not BEA.
The situation was made worse by the fact that most people were there to hear Clay Shirky, and he was a very small part of the session.
Here’s the irony. Just hours after the panel ended Penguin’s “We Tell Stories” project won best in show. Strangely, there was no mention of that project on a panel that included two Penguin employees. If they had just spent 15 minutes talking about “We Tell Stories” before opening the panel up to comments, we would be having an entirely different discussion about this event.
For those of you criticizing the activity on twitter, you’ve missed the point entirely. At SXSW twitter is part of the conference. Quite a few panels monitor twitter throughout the session and respond in real-time — especially those panels that are looking for audience participation.
I attended the panel in question, and, yes, participated by queuing for the microphone. Unless you were there, you cannot begin to imagine how awful it was for the publishing industry. I had publishers tell me afterward that they snuck out in shame. Other publishers who remained in the room were appalled by the performance.
This panel was simply not prepared for the audience, unable to retool when it became apparent that they were in a room filled with publishers, and incapable of responding to what the audience had to say. I said it in the post I wrote afterward, and I’ll say it again, there wasn’t an ounce of new think going on. Frankly, that’s the job of the panel.
It’s important to note that 300+ people chose this panel because they want the traditional publishing industry to succeed. The number of people in that room who read at least one book per week was in excess of 25%. There was incredible goodwill toward this panel and session, goodwill that lasted despite the tone deafness of the panel. It was only after it became apparent that there was no new think coming from the publishers that the anger rose.
I’ve actually never felt that before. I was sitting in the middle of a row, among strangers, and I felt the mood of the crowd change around me. It’s a bit scary. I’m not sure the panel got it.
(For the commenter who suggested we didn’t get the purpose of the panel, I’ll just say that the printed material, including an advertisement in the conference book, pointed to something very different from the online material. People come to content in various ways. The ad actually made it seem like a Clay Shirky presentation, which I suspect was what the vast majority of the audience wanted. If it was supposed to be a roundtable discussion, SXSW provides a clear format for that, and I participated in several great conversations of this sort on various topics.)
You noted that you try to bring the audience into the conversation early. There is a vast difference between interactivity (allowing questions and back-and-forth) and one-way conversation. This panel started in a promising manner — in fact, my Twitter followers were jealous that I was there and begging me to post more because of said promising start — stalled when we were subjected to job descriptions delivered in a (likely unintentional) condescending manner, and then we got to talk. There was no interactivity. No back and forth. No discussion. No plan on the part of the panel to guide conversation (and I spoke with several afterward without much success)
As I stated in my article, I felt like my comment was added to a checklist that will be filed in a drawer of conference ephemera. The panelists were not able, or maybe not willing, to form cogent responses to audience comments and question. In response to your suggestion that we didn’t know the answers, I’d turn that around by saying we’ve been saying these things for years without response. Until we fix the basics, how can we fix everything else?
I would also note that many of us who stepped up to the microphone are experts in this business. I cover it extensively, am in constant dialogue with both readers and publishers, and make it a point to keep current on what’s going on. Since I knew others who spoke — it was interesting that the room was so crowded that I didn’t even know Kirk or other people I know were in audience until I stood up to speak — the expertise was there. It was the response from publishers that was lacking.
Finally, I would also note that anytime you enter someone’s house, you respect their rules. The hashtag structure — a great way for people to follow conversation threads on Twitter, and not a special feed — has been in place for some time, and was used extensively at the Tools of Change for Publishing conference held in New York in February. Smart publishers at SXSW were using said hashtag effectively (it’s #sxswbp). It’s a given that moderators at SXSW check the backchannel — while Twitter dominated the backchannel, checking that conversation has been commonplace as long as I’ve attended SXSW (2004). The moderator was a social media expert. She knew this.
(I see that in Kirk’s comment — he wrote the Medialoper piece, a far more moderate post when compare to mine — he notes that the “We Tell Stories” project won two major awards about two hours after this conference. Not a peep about this from the Penguin folks, despite this massive achievement. Imagine a publisher taking Best of Show Award in a situation where they are up against major web and gaming talent. Absolutely incredible. I wish more book people talking about this amazing achievement.)