Old Think for Old Publishers

One of the most interesting panels I went to at SXSW this week was ‘New Think for Old Publishers’, organised by the US arm of Penguin. Unfortunately it wasn’t interesting for any of the correct reasons. Here’s the description of the panel:

This is not a discussion of whether ebooks are killing treebooks, or whether it’s possible to get cozy with an Amazon Kindle. It’s about how participatory culture and the online world interact with good olde book publishing.Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, Deborah Schultz, and fellow panelists will share with the audience a variety of perspectives on what’s going right and what’s going wrong in publishing, assess success of recent forays into marketing digitally, digital publishing, and what books and blogs have to gain from one another. Penguin Group (USA), which houses some 40 plus imprints and publishes an extremely broad variety of physical and digital products — everything from William Gibson’s first ebook in the 90’s to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food to Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels (the source for HBO’s True Blood) — is deeply involved in exploring ways that old and new media might better collaborate. Audience members are invited to speak up about what they think book publishers could/should be doing to better provide relevant information and content to blogs, websites, and online communities. Come tell old media what you want and how you want it.

From this I’d guess the panel is going to be discussing new ways in which publishing can work, with room for questions from the audience at the end. The truncated version of this description at Sched, which seemed more popular than the woeful official SXSW online schedule, omits everything from “Sookie Stackhouse” onwards.

Like, I suspect, much of the audience, I mainly went to hear Clay Shirky who had written a much linked-to article on the future of newspapers a few days earlier, and who is always a great speaker. The other participants were all book publishers.

The room was packed and, after some stuff from Clay about the industry, the others introduced themselves at quite a length. About half way through the hour long session, as the introductions continued, I was getting frustrated. “Where’s the ‘new thinking’?” I wondered. “This is all about how traditional book publishing works.”

I don’t usually follow the Twitter streams for sessions — I’m easily distracted enough as it is — but I wanted to see if I was alone. So I took a look at the collective Twitters. Ouch. It was full of people wondering exactly the same as me. Everyone had come expecting to hear what things publishers were trying in an attempt to save their industry.

It was 35 minutes into the hour when the host announced that the purpose of the session was to get some ideas from the audience about what publishers should do. Cue a flurry of disbelieving Twitters. What?! We’d come to hear the publishers’ new thinking but they actually wanted our new thinking!? Oh dear. Things turned a bit nasty as a queue of people lined up at the microphone.

It isn’t that the audience had no ideas, or that they didn’t want to share them. People love being asked for advice about things they care about, and the audience cared about both books and the net. But the combination of a misleading panel description and introduction, followed by wasting more than half the session on irrelevant waffle was a very, very poor way to solicit advice.

After the initial outrage, those at the microphone did give plenty of suggestions although, to me, none seemed particularly breathtaking: Provide access to all books electronically; Let me pay a monthly fee for renting ebooks; Dump DRM; Sell music, games, etc based on books (really!?). That kind of thing. If any of the ideas given in those 25 minutes were new to publishers, if they hadn’t already had “How do we save our business?” meetings and come up with this stuff on their own, they really are in trouble.

There were also several comments along the lines of “Why do we even need publishers when anyone can publish their own work online?” To which Clay responded that publishers are a valuable filter. Which I agree with — if there were no publishers and all books were self-published then “publishers” would emerge to curate and promote the best ones. But I also doubt publishers are the only filter, or are necessarily the best filter.

The session was such a waste, a missed opportunity. The publishers seemed even more helpless than I imagined, and none mentioned any of the interesting things some people in publishing are already trying. Such as We Tell Stories, by the UK arm of, er, Penguin which won its creators, Six to Start, two awards, including Best of Show at, er, SXSW later that evening.

Really, I don’t think an industry in their position can feel “proud” that they “pissed off this many people”.

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