At SXSWi: when publishing meets new media


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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.

At SXSWi on Saturday, I heard panelists state that publishing was now in the customer service business. These days, so much pressure is being brought to bear on authors and content providers to sell themselves that they can be made to feel like failures for not employing all the digital marketing tools at their disposal. Videos of lectures by AIDS researcher Hans Rosling get downloaded more often because Rosling knows how to entertain for the camera and the crowd, while oldsters like Nobel prize winner James Watson blows his chance by wandering around a TED conference stage scratching his head and muttering, ‘I thought there would be a podium’ (the clip made the SXSWi crowd chuckle).


It was nice, then, to end the day with a panel of publishing experts who were neither reactionaries nor doom-sayers. The centerpiece of the New Publishing and Web Content panel was the Amanda Project from Fourth Story Media. An experiment in bridging the best aspects of Web and print, the site invites young women to contribute to an ongoing book series about a character named Amanda.

The project doesn’t spell out the end of traditional book publishing as much as demonstrate another avenue. Lisa Holton, whose tenure in publishing often crossed over into new media, suggested that we should all take a step back from bashing publishers simply because they can’t turn on a dime. Holton and her co-panelists (including Web design guru Jeffrey Zeldman) pointed out that the publishing process may seem unwieldy and redundant from the sidelines, but it holds tremendous intrinsic value beyond nostalgia. The world hasn’t necessarily passed publishing by, it just has created multiple new intersecting markets. What’s wrong with that?

In nearly any discussion of books these days, the argument usually devolves into either/or. Either the publishers get with the program or else. That ‘or else’ can be a monotonous drum beat at SXSWi that drowns out genuine dialog. But for a moment, it felt in the convention center as if the attendees forgot what the program was or how it might be implemented. It felt like, briefly, all was forgiven.

-- Peter Miller