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How will publishing perform at SXSWi?

March 12, 2010 |  8:29 am

Austinriver
Pete Miller will be blogging for Jacket Copy from the SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, Texas; it begins Friday.

Last year I was invited to join a discussion at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival about the future of book publishing. An offshoot of the more famous music conference, SXSWi has built a sizable reputation of its own. Designers, programmers, futurists, bloggers and marketers convene each March to compare notes on new innovations, fresh uses of old technologies and the state of the community. They are consumed, to put it lightly, with the social implications of our digital future.

Unlike the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, SXSWi isn't, at its heart, a trade show. There is little or no corporate hoopla (yet). Attendees are here to foster debate and celebrate the do-it-yourself ethos. When it launches a product, it is usually of the grassroots, open-source wiki variety. Twitter broke out here -- something the festival is especially proud of.

The publishing panel was organized by colleagues of mine at Penguin publishers, and their invitation a kind of nod to my dual identity in the business. A bit of a rare bird, I work weekdays overseeing the publicity department for Bloomsbury, a midsized Manhattan publisher, and weekends behind the counter of a used bookshop I own in my Brooklyn neighborhood. While others would discuss the marketing and editorial and authorial aspects of the publishing process adapting to the digital upheaval, I would speak on behalf of the promotion and retailing of books.

SXSWi is as innovative and influential as Penguin is venerable and global. That I was asked to join a panel of other publishing executives and media experts (including their author, Clay Shirky) was in itself a peculiar decision. There were far more qualified strategists within the profession working for Penguin and other large publishers. I don't want to portray myself with false modesty as a boob in the woods, Pa Kettle touring a human genome lab. I have been in publishing for 20 years, long enough to straddle the two eras without being blindsided by change.

It turned out my role was not to explain what Bloomsbury was doing to face a paperless future, but to explain the industry challenges of promoting authors into a more disarrayed digital marketplace. Books are still around and will be so in multiple formats for the foreseeable future. How do we make readers aware of them if authority (a.k.a. book criticism) is slipping in the print media and migrating with middling success online? Is bottom-up social networking (a.k.a. consumer reviews) the only solution?

On the other hand, as a bookseller (albeit a low-wattage one) I suppose my comments would be judged with some sort of gravitas. I mean, reading is all about the end user. But can the bricks-and-mortar indie coexist with e-retailing? Shaky ground, indeed.

It isn't necessary to rehash the ensuing hijinks (I did that then), but let's just say we made a spectacularly bad impression. Perhaps it was the ambitious program name, “New Think for Old Publishers.” Perhaps it was the lack of a PowerPoint presentation instead of our single slide saying "The Internet is the largest group of people who care about reading and writing ever assembled in history. Now what?" Maybe it was the mere presence of “industry” types on stage, extolling the virtues of the publishing process to an audience of cool self-actualizers.

But as each of us cluelessly rattled on behind the comfort of our analog microphones, a flurry of keystrokes below were pounding out a parallel dialogue, one that was playing out live via Twitter feed across the lit-blogosphere and making my colleagues Back East blanch in embarrassment.

Was this a fair first impression? The playing field in Austin wasn't exactly level. We were labeled arrogant insiders, but new to the SXSWi scene we felt more like pimply teenagers on a prom date with a surly cheerleader.

Undeterred, publishers arrived back in New York bruised but better equipped for punishment. According to Kelly Leonard, executive director of online marketing for Hachette, it appears there are 20% to 30% more representatives from the industry converging on Austin. Last year she practically begged Hachette to let her attend. Now her retinue is five. Collectively, they are intent on demonstrating that publishers can adapt with the times, that we are not just music execs in tweed jackets.

This year, I am back in Austin to absorb the creative impulse celebrated at SXSWi and to enter the open dialogue about technology's relevant opportunities for the written word.

Yet I can't help but carry with me a seed of skepticism for that blind valedictory spirit. Jaron Lanier -- the acknowledged father of virtual reality and no slouch in the innovation department -- laments in his recent book "You Are Not a Gadget" that the open-source movement far too readily dismisses traditional media as dinosaurs. He calls it the "blaming the victim" syndrome; I call it the "I told you so" mentality.

For the next few days I will be looking for the kind of conversation that is about solutions and not about blame. My questions about the crowd and cloud publishing remain; hopefully this time I will find the answers.

-- Peter Miller

Photo: Austin, Texas. Credit: treasuresthouhast via Flickr

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