As I reflect on 2009, there is one author who continually comes to mind as a thought leader for the publishing industry, and that is Clay Shirky. In March, I attended the South by Southwest Interactive conference (SXSW) in Austin, TX. SXSW is an uber-geek fest where the best of the best come to geek it up and muse on the state of the internet, culture, and technology. Us plebs listen intently, take notes and then report back to the unwashed masses via our blogs, Facebook and twitter streams. Ok, it’s not as stuck up as that, but it is an expensive conference to attend and, as an attendee, one expects a certain, exalted level of thinking.
The panel that disappointed me the most, and which led to a firestorm amongst the online book geeks, was New Thinking for Old Publishers. This panel was nicknamed “No Thinking for Old Publishers.” As much as Clay Shirky was the heavy weight on the panel, he was not the main attraction. The audience was full of bloggers and book lovers intent on spreading the word about exciting developments in the publishing industry, intent on hearing directly from the editors, publicists and publishers who they so rarely have access to.
But to say that it was a disappointment is an understatement. It was a disaster. What resulted from the disaster of that panel was a grassroots movement to create a better dialogue on the future of publishing. I experienced that better dialogue at BookCamp Vancouver, a self-organizing conference on books and technology. Here’s a little about how BookCamp Vancouver originated. In my post-SXSW rant, I vowed to organize a panel in Vancouver. That panel quickly became a full conference. With generous sponsorship from SFU and BookNet Canada, the organizers were able to offer free registration to 300 people. (Organizers included me, John Maxwell from SFU Master of Publishing program, Morgan Cowie from BNC, Sean Cranbury from Books on the Radio and Nick Bouton from Protagonize.) We wanted a different conversation than what we usually heard at book conferences.
As an internet marketing consultant, the last couple of years have no longer been about convincing publishers that digital is here. It made no sense to have any rah-rah “ebook” conversations or to bring in big headline speakers. What made sense was to bring together the book geeks and the tech geeks to talk directly about the problems. The sessions at BookCamp Vancouver included such topics as “Using Open Source Models in Publishing,” “The Optimal Use of Social Media for Authors and Publishers,” “The State of the Electronic Book,” and “Making Content King.” It was my first book conference that was attended by people in the book industry as well as those in the technology industry. And I was thrilled. But back to Clay Shirky.
The problem with the SXSW panel was that there was too little Shirky. This was also the case with the former BEC conference: there were too few people involved outside of the publishing industry to offer insights into where the industry could go in terms of technology. As publishers scramble to catch up, to figure out ebooks, to work with ONIX, others have been steaming ahead—readers, in particular.
In January 2005 while working at Raincoast, I attended the Blogging for Business Summit in Seattle. At that time, I felt that the publishing industry was behind. In April of 2005, I started SoMisguided.com to talk about books, online marketing and technology. It took me until November 2005 to launch the Raincoast blog and podcast program. Desperately trying to ride at least the tail of the online crest, in retrospect we were ahead, Raincoast became 1 of 3 publishers internationally who were podcasting and blogging. We all have our Cassandra moments. Since 1997 when I got my first hotmail account, and then signed up my friends, I have been watching the culture of reading change. I was, and continue to be, obsessed with reading culture and the information revolution.
Such is the case with Clay Shirky, and it is particularly evident in his March 13 blog post called “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” It was Shirky’s post that led me to buy his book Here Comes Everyone and to attend that SXSW panel. In “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” Shirky manages to take 20 years of conversation about the digital nature of our culture and distill it into something that people in the newspaper industry are willing to hear and understand. Book publishing folks, please read this article. Why? Because book publishers, like newspapers, are content producers and we have taken similar approaches to digital copies and electronic sharing of content.
The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift. As a result, the conversation has degenerated into the enthusiastic grasping at straws, pursued by skeptical responses.
There is no general model for newspapers, or books to follow. The internet has broken the model and there is no one-size-fits-all fix. Print and the web are alternate modes of distributing information. We have internalized that this is happening, but what’s missing is for each house to create an individual, cohesive plan. Publishers need to go back to their business models and create new plans and new models for new realities. A few folks in the publishing crowd are sentinels. They have been saying for years, “Hey look what’s going on, people are sharing, participating, writing and publishing their own books.” “These people are crazy, are you seeing this?” “Don’t they know how much work is involved in writing and editing and producing a book, and then distributing it to stores.” This type of response to those observations is part of the problem.
Industrial production destroyed the viability of scribes. Such is the case with digital, it has destroyed the old economics that worked for how books are produced, distributed, sold and read. We need new models because the core problem publishing solves—“the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public—has stopped being a problem” (Shirky). Instead of investigating how to drastically change and adapt, we’ve stuck to our old business models, which has left us arguing about what Google can and cannot index, what the price of ebooks should or should not be, and whether we should or should not have someone on staff dedicated to Facebook and Twitter. Yes, old systems are going to break before new systems are in place. Such is the case with revolutions. We are publishing in a time of experimentation where nothing will work, but anything might. Whether it’s keeping our nose to the grindstone, burying our heads or navel gazing, we have forgotten to look up. Look up now, to that to top left corner of ceiling and think about all the “yes, buts …” you’ve said over this conversation. Where are the “yes, ands …”
How can we work this year on creative planning and reinventing our businesses? Jay Rosen recently interviewed Clay Shirky and one of the discussion topics was of research done in the 70s and 80s by social scientists who studied how newspapers, such as Time, Newsweek, CBS, NBC, made decisions. Their common observation was that the sociology of the newsroom was based, not on the best way or the journalistic way to do something but rather, on what the production process demanded. They discovered that as newsrooms internalized the production routine, their decisions accommodated that routine. They eventually believed that they were doing things that were required or necessary rather than recognizing that they were making decisions on what the production routine demanded. In publishing we have reps selling in the books from tip sheets and advances, we produce catalogues seasons in advance, we store and ship products between warehouses, the number of pages in a book is divisible by 4 to accommodate printing presses. What happens when the production routine changes? If the entire business is shifting and the nature of how the public informs itself and acquires reading material is changing, then why are we not changing at the same speed? What if you had to start from scratch? How would you make more money than you spend (yes, on every book)? This is a new year. A time for new beginnings. We can’t reverse the flow of time. Micropayments, subscriptions are not the answer. Set aside ebooks. Stare at that top left corner of the ceiling more often this year. Innovate. Read some Clay Shirky. Create your own future.