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Publishing lessons from SXSW Interactive

March 18, 2010 |  6:29 am

Sxswi_laptops

Peter Miller, a publishing professional and used-bookstore owner, wrote about the SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, for Jacket Copy.

In Cory Doctorow's recent novel "Makers," a couple of punk geek tinkerers help reinvent society through repurposement. With a little startup capital they salvage trashed Dancing Elmo dolls to perform cute tricks in a Smart car and modify garden gnomes with gait-recognition software. But their coup de grace is to give Disney a run for its money by turning abandoned big box retail space into a fun house of the imagination, a crowd-sourced museum and a memory mashup.

Flying back to New York from Texas, it dawned on me that devotees of SXSWi never hated publishing or wanted us to roll over and die: They just wanted us to repurpose. This past weekend several publishing experts suggested how that repurposing might look. While last year's future of publishing panel met with hostility, this year the response was generally civil -- a major improvement.

SXSWi can feel that way sometimes. Float a trial balloon and hope the natives don't shoot. If my colleagues on that panel are correct -- and I have no reason to believe they are not -- publishing will be put through the media grinder in the next several years. Authors will become hybrids a little like the Elmo dolls. Picture Flannery O'Connor's head on Jessica Rabbit's body. Deluxe editions of "A Remembrance of Things Past" packaged with madelaine-scented cork. Faulkner's Snope family will have separate Twitter accounts.

If, as was suggested, New York publishers become more like L.A. film companies, expanding into an author's intellectual property, then it will happen at the big houses: Bertelsmann, Macmillan, Pearson, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Harper. Random House already has a film division to develop their backlist. What's stopping someone else from crossbreeding "On the Road" with manga? Video games with "Best Friends Forever"?

Since I have worked my entire career at midsized to smallish publishers, I can't help but feel a little remorseful about this projected future. I'm not being nostalgic before the fact or protective of my job. But I have to ask, when does a publishing house stop being a publishing house and morph into an entertainment agency?

Publishers are not above the rules of the marketplace. Publishing will survive -- in some form. Beware.

On my first day in Austin, I took a detour to the Center for American Studies to look through the old clip files of the defunct newspaper, the New York Herald-Tribune. I had contacted the center a week before and asked to see their archives -- called "morgues" -- for a few categories: burlesque, lost Manhattan taverns and radio.

Most of the radio folders were from the 1960s and, oddly enough, focused entirely on TV. But change TV to the Internet and this Jan. 2, 1966, piece could have been presented at SXSWi 2010:

A technological revolution is in the making which will touch off an explosion of wired and over-the-air services of many kinds into virtually every home. In the United States, commercial television, a booming billion-dollar advertising medium, will be swept out of its seemingly intransigent programming ways in the next decade. Scores, maybe hundreds, of new TV stations will crop up. More TV networks will be born. Recorded TV "programs" will be packaged in cartridges to be inserted in home playback machines. Color TV sets will range from hand-held sizes, possibly powered by the heat of the human hand, to eight-foot living-room picture screens. The world will be linked electronically by Early Bird-type synchronous satellites beaming TV to every corner of the globe. And, in the ultimate, all media may become one.

I slipped the newspaper article into its folder and sent it back into oblivion.

-- Peter Miller

Photo: SXSWi 2010 conventioneers on laptops. Credit: George Kelly via Flickr

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