The Book Publicity Blog

News, Tips, Trends and Miscellany for Book Publicists

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.

March 16, 2009 - Posted by | Miscellaneous | , ,


  1. All excellent. But it’s people like *me* who are reading this — not those who bloody well NEED to!

    Comment by Mike Cane | March 16, 2009 | Reply

  2. Yen — thank you so much for writing this. A well-reasoned, smart counterpoint to my ranting! I especially appreciate the comment about paying attention to how messages are received and to adapt accordingly.

    Comment by Kassia Krozser | March 16, 2009 | Reply

  3. Great — but I think you might have to share the rude joke about marathon runners now.

    Comment by Jurgen | March 16, 2009 | Reply

  4. I was slightly confused by the panel (or more correctly the Twitter feed about it) because it gave the impression that readers were making demands on the publishers which were really demands on the authors. Readers want direct relationships with authors.

    Doesn’t the author have to agree to that? (two keys to start the nuclear reactor on the submarine) Ever try getting an author to blog? You may want them to but many just don’t (do it; understand it; take your pick). I have authors who have trouble with email and I know publicists who deal with authors by fax because they don’t have a computer, let alone Internet.

    And if it is the publisher answering instead of the author, won’t that just annoy readers?

    And hasn’t the publishing industry been talking about eBooks since 1996? And the DRM issue is a larger battle with Adobe and Amazon and formats? There are houses that don’t work with bloggers to review books? What?

    Comment by Alice | March 16, 2009 | Reply

  5. Thanks for the writeup, Yen.

    Alice: Yes, I can tell you that there are imprints out there — major imprints — who view literary bloggers as pond scum who they hope will go away. It’s not much of a surprise that the imprints within one such house lost serious operating income last year and serious revenue this year. It’s also not much of a surprise to learn that one of this house’s authors has spoken on the record that it is “not his job” to do publicity. This was said after the author was handed a seven-figure advance. The book is not doing well. Either commercially or critically.

    When will publishers learn that there are serious economic consequences when you play by the old rules? When will they learn that they ignore the present media climate at their own peril? The publishers at this panel were rightly called on the carpet. But it shouldn’t have to stop there. Publishers must forge relationships and understand how technologies are used to forge these relationships, or face severe economic consequences of their own making.

    Comment by ed | March 16, 2009 | Reply

  6. Appreciate your thoughts here. The days of agents/publishers as gatekeeper and arbiters of taste is so last century. Communities of interest form around topics that have potential. We don’t need someone on a mountaintop declaring ideas worthy or not based on what fits their business model or tired old formula. We now live in an era when books, blogs, ideas in general are assessed as valuable or not by those who are in the best position to judge.

    Comment by Pamela Jeanne | March 18, 2009 | Reply

  7. great 🙂

    Comment by Intranet software | March 19, 2009 | Reply

  8. […] The book publicity blog   Booksqaure and mediabistro all have discussions of the dual events. Published in: […]

    Pingback by Passing Notes Behind the Teacher’s Back at SXSW « Author-Friendly Weblog | March 19, 2009 | Reply

  9. I love to listen to authors read from their books and discuss their motivations for writing. For this reason, I’d be likely to tune in to a virtual book tour

    Comment by Seminar Projects | March 3, 2010 | Reply

  10. i Appreciate your thoughts here. The days of agents/publishers as gatekeeper and arbiters of taste is so last century

    Comment by Seminar Projects | March 3, 2010 | Reply

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