The art of the conversation a la SXSW
By now, most people in book publishing have heard about what happened at South By Southwest’s New Think for Old Publishers panel Sunday evening. The gist: while the panelists were talking, a second discussion among audience members transpired on Twitter. Many people in the audience follow each other on Twitter–the book publishing community being fairly insular–so when one person posted a Tweet about the panel, others saw. Within minutes, a spirited debate had emerged.
If you have not already done so, you will want to check the #sxswbp-tagged tweets. If a blow-by-blow recap of the panel isn’t your cup of tea, you can also read summaries of the online (and offline) discussions in Monday’s Publishers Lunch newsletter, or online at Austinist; Kassia Krozser’s invaluable publishing industry blog, Booksquare; Freebird Books & Goods; GalleyCat; Medialoper; or So Misguided, among other sites.
On the one hand, the conversation on Twitter was related (and a reaction) to the offline panel discussion; on the other, it took place without the involvement of the panelists—the Web 2.0 equivalent of passing notes behind the teacher’s back. Welcome to the New Think.
For authors attempting to connect with readers—and book publicists guiding authors attempting to connect with readers—there are a few lessons that can be learned from this experience.
— Relinquish control of the conversation. At a time when the Internet allows anyone and everyone to participate in a discussion, no one person can control the direction or tenor of a conversation. It’s like when movie stars insist they won’t discuss their personal lives with journalists. The stars may not talk, but we’re sure still devouring all the juicy details of their lives.
— Know where readers are and what they are saying. Is there a Facebook group dedicated to an author or a book(s)? Or a Twitter hash tag? Which websites and discussion groups come up when an author’s name / book are Googled?
— Adapt. You as an author / agent / editor / publicist may view a book in a certain way. Readers might not. Pay attention to the reception of a book and its messages. Be prepared to adapt your message in order to connect with anyone who might come to the book in any fashion.
— Roll with the punches. When you initiate a discussion, realize you’re opening yourself up to all manner of reactions, from sympathetic to vitriolic. I would say not to take negative reactions personally, although, having once been practically threatened with bodily harm for making a rude joke about some marathon runners, I realize that’s easier said that done. What’s important to remember is that there are benefits to publicly speaking up, to starting a conversation, to interacting with and listening to people (particularly when others don’t). This is how bridges are built, how change is made.