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At SXSWi: Publishers are 'only innovative when they're desperate'

March 13, 2010 |  4:45 pm

Peter Miller, a publishing professional and used bookstore owner, is blogging for Jacket Copy from the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin.

As the Can You Copyright a Tweet? panel was concluding at 1:30 p.m. today, it wasn't clear what the answer would be, or whether publishing would bring lawyers to bear on that kind of intellectual property.  However, the last questioner took a potshot that caught my attention, saying publishers were at heart “a slow-moving, retarded group of people.” Here was the kind of quote I couldn't pass up.

Waiting my turn to talk to the critic, I overheard other gems: “Publishers are square-dancing on a sinking ship.” Jason Scott is generous with those kinds of assessments and they didn't let up even after I told him of my role in the industry. "Book people," he said, "are slow, only innovative when they are desperate."

But I liked Jason. Whiskered, sporting a fedora and a sly grin, he is the kind of attendee conferences love to have. He's here because of his popular Twitter stream, Sockington, in which the travails of his cat, Sockington, are meted out 140 characters at a time.

Jason is very protective of “Socks” and swears he will never sell her out to promote a brand of kitty litter.  I asked if turning the stream into a book would be selling out -- a not so uncommon practice these days.  Not necessarily, but only if her fans demanded one, he explained. He polled his followers recently to investigate their openness, and many of them said they would buy a book if it is mostly photos of Socks, priced between $10 and $15. He has been approached by several agents and even offered a few thousand dollars (far more than he can make from Sockington-related T-shirts), but he still can't see the purpose.

Though Jason is not shy to share his opinions about publishing and books -- which he said are “codpieces” that don't reflect our times -- he is by no means anti-books. As we talked further, it turned out he was a “digital historian” who studies technologies that are on the brink of being forgotten, like the gaming industry of the 1980s, Web forums, and the soon to be unfashionable FTP. One would even peg him as a nostalgist.

Trying to define what he meant by a “sinking ship,” Jason explained that publishing can't admit that books are no longer the center of the conversation, but “just another voice in it.” He sees the expensive “sandstone buildings” housing these behemoths of editors, marketing, sales, and publicists tumbling down to be replaced by boutique houses like Taschen, which lavishes all sorts of print bells and whistles (glossy pages, special binding). They may charge $300 but deliver the quality you can't get in a tweet.

Maybe then he will let Socks sell out.

-- Peter Miller

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