So it is inevitable that when you are involved in an unconference that it is impossible to adequately provide a synopsis of what was covered. There are too many threads, not to mention dead-ends that many of the conversations can take. But there was an enviable comraderie where everyone present felt invested in solving the problems at hand in the publishing industry. And maybe classifying them as problems is unfair when really what they are is something the human race is pretty good at solving—challenges. The challenges that the unconference hoped to address were the challenges that the shift from an analogue world to a digital world presents. There were strong feelings emoted where there was obvious career investment in the existing models that are available. But where people are more interested in what is taking shape in culture there was dynamic dialogue, and yes this dialogue was fostered and expanded by those very models that are falling apart.
“Listen to the sounds of the machine. You have to listen—we could die out here!”
This is a line taken from a great little animated film I saw called When Elephants Dream. It is obviously a story about our times and the machine and the role of the machine in our lives. This is one of the things that publishers need to do and are doing “listen, listen to the sounds of the machine and be careful.” But don’t be too careful!
If anyone is able to re-envision the new world, the new paradigm, the new publishing model—it is publishers. Publishers work with creative types, and help them to shape and package their creations so that they may be consumed by we the people, so it is publishers who can come up with the answers to the question that was reiterated throughout the day: What is a publisher for?
The question of what a publisher is for came up in almost every session I sat in on including topics about marketing, curating, and connectivity. I’m not sure it was answered in any satisfactory way. It is obvious that there is still a lot of thinking that needs to be done about the relationships that are in place and the possibilities that connection through the machine offers. This comes as no surprise.
The rights panel led by Lisa Charters was certainly productive in this regard. It really seemed that at least here you had people willing and able to re-imagine the way something is done today. Lisa and others in the position to make a difference were open to suggestions that included perhaps allowing a contract model where digital rights were always world rights and that perhaps a better solution than reselling those rights in different markets was to hold onto those rights and divvy up the earnings from downloads based on ip or some other mechanism.
During my last session of the day called “Discovering Books” there was a dialogue about who should sell a publishers books and the choices were seen to be between Amazon and Indigo or direct from the publisher. Monique Trottier from boxcarmarketing talked about how Amazon had gained the edge over publishers and I wanted to add my two cents worth about the Amazon winning the ‘drag race” as Monique put it. I don’t know if it was a drag race that Amazon was participating in at all but more of an endurance race. There is some kind of rewriting of how Amazon got into the position they are in and—it wasn’t necessarily through technology or allowing comments. Technology and comments—staff recommendations etc., if not trivial in the 90’s were at least present. The thing that got Amazon into the winning lane was straight ahead discounting and free shipping. These were both areas that independents couldn’t participate in without going bankrupt and in Canada Chapters was going bust already. Amazon had a vision and they stuck with it even through the dotcom bubble burst.
Now you may ask yourself how Amazon survived that—and again it was through a means that independents did not or could not go—investors! So Amazon became the destination for online sales and because they were a pure online player they didn’t need to worry about cannibalizing the bricks and mortar business like Barnes and Noble or Chapters. Now today it isn’t so much the discounting but the pure volume of users that gives Amazon the edge and it is no easy task to rebrand bloggers or online shoppers so that they find the alternatives—i.e. indiebound. Naturally since then other worries have rocked the book boat and now it is even harder for independents to find traction.
What was perhaps endearing and maybe also one of the signs of the demographic of our times or of the unconference was that no one questioned that people wanted to read. There was mention of attention distribution but really no one ever said “but people aren’t reading anymore!” Either this is wishful thinking or an accurate assessment of the fact that yes people have migrated online and it is merely the effort to provide books online that will provide a resurgence in reading. Reading is not really the issue. What people are reading and how they are discovering what to read and what format do they want to read it in are the questions.
The multitude of voices was the key thing about this unconference—and sure some of the discussions went down the rabbit hole but most of the talk was relevant. It was unique to have the opportunity to hear all of the different disciplines from editing, marketing to creating and publishing the work. It was great to hear the technologists and designers express the problems that exist in the trenches of this change. One thing that may have been missing was how to create the change within an organization when you aren’t the one making the decisions. This is perhaps always the issue. Where are the decision makers? What are they thinking? I think it is fair and perhaps safe to say that none of the changes being thought about are going to happen overnight, and yet many of these changes should be already well under way.