At SXSWi: A panel on the future of publishing


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

This morning I was chastised for suggesting that last year’s publishing panel unearthed the depths of SXSWi’s anger and resentment towards the book industry. She had been in the audience that day and watched our performance on stage: My ‘takeaway’ was all wrong. The audience was just expressing their love for books in a different way. The opposite of love, I have heard more than one person utter around here, is indifference -- not hate. But as someone who earns his living as a publicist, I knew a PR disaster when I saw it.


This afternoon, the much-anticipated ‘Future of Publishing’ panel filled a large ballroom of the Austin Hilton with twice as many listeners as last year. Kevin Smokler of moderated a very prepared panel of publishing experts: Pablo Defendini from Tor and, Debbie Stier from HarperStudio, Matthew Cavner from the book-and-video company Vook, and Kassia Krozser from Booksquare. Rather than belaboring a question like, ‘Are publishers laying the roadwork of their own oblivion?,’ Smokler kept the discussion focused on concrete examples of progress within the industry and future opportunities that are closer than the audience might realize. By the size of the crowd that swarmed them afterward, they were a resounding success.

Apple’s new iPad, pricing issues, licensing, transmedia, author self-promotion, print on demand, and the role of the editor were all touched upon during the hour allotted. There was little disagreement among the panelists about the brightness of publishing’s future.

The fight between Macmillan and Amazon (which Defendini jokingly called ‘Macmillazonpocalypse’) pointed out a disconnect between readers and publishers that has existed for too long. Traditionally publishers have viewed their audience as the professional buyers from bookstores -- Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders and independent booksellers. But publishers, Defendini said, ‘can’t take the pulse of the readers’ by giving over the authority to a intermediary like a retailer. Price shouldn’t be dictated Macmillan or by Amazon but by the market; the next few months, as iPad enters the game, will be a fascinating and experimental period for pricing.

The role of the author would be forced to change radically: No more E.B. Whites tucked away in a Maine writer’s shack. The new author, Krozser suggested a little scarily, ‘has to prove their worth’ from now on. According to Stier, it is no longer acceptable for authors show up by themselves; instead they must come with their virtual ‘tribe.’ Authors will need to demonstrate a facility with social networking, or foster an ongoing relationship with the text that continues beyond the official publication, through crowd sourcing and customer feedback (imagine Thomas Pynchon adding chapters to ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ as a premium to loyal fans).

And editors, too, can no longer view their red pencils as the only tool in the kit. They must start thinking of manuscripts or proposals as intellectual property, a kernel of an idea that could be launched into multiple formats. Publishers should stop emulating the old music industry and start picturing themselves as movie studios and books as film development. Max Perkins, meet David Selznick.

To a panelist they were all upbeat about this future, and the publishing figures in the audience shared that enthusiasm. Thomas Minkus, a vice president of marketing and sales for the Frankfurt Book Fair, loves the interplay of thought. SXSWi, he says, ‘is one of the most interesting conferences if you want to think about the future of publishing.’


-- Peter Miller