The Future of Book Publishing from South by Southwest
It’s that time of year again, when thousands of people with Macbooks and iPhones migrate to Austin for the annual South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival. Following up to last year’s trailblazing but ill-fated New Think for Old Publishers panel, this year’s A Brave New Future for Book Publishing brought together a stellar line up — and some of my favorite publishing bloggers — including Booksquare‘s @booksquare, HarperStudio‘s @debbiestier, The New Sleekness‘ @pablod, Vook‘s @vooktv and Booktour.com‘s @weegee. Among other issues, they discussed the iPad (of course), ebook pricing issues and the importance of an author’s online platform (or “tribe”).
You can follow the original Twitter stream of the panel at #futurebook (although there were so many tweets flying back and forth, it left my head spinning). For a more concise wrap up of the panel, I recommend Peter Miller’s post for the Los Angeles Times‘ book blog, Jacket Copy and GalleyCat‘s compilation of some of the best tweets.
Since the future of publishing is a particular interest of mine (if you have a chance, check out some of the Future of Publishing Blogs on my blogroll) and since I must admit I enjoy naval gazing as much as the next New York City media type, I thought I would weigh in on one issue that always looms large: what is the role of the publishing house in a world in which self publishing platforms are ubiquitous and the Internet has turned the traditional retail model on its head?
I work for a large publishing house (“legacy publishing” as some call it), so don’t let it take you by surprise when I say that I believe we, i.e., publishing houses, do indeed play a vital role in today’s cultural marketplace. Publishing isn’t perfect — even most in the industry aren’t shy about admitting that — but not acknowledging our role in bringing books to readers even in this 2.0 world is naive and short-sighted at best. Here are a couple reasons why:
The Filter: It was interesting — and not a little amusing — to see people in the #futurebook Tweet stream clamoring for “slush pile software” that will trawl through writers’ submissions and pick out the best ones. (Coincidentally — or maybe not — I received a press release yesterday about WeBOOK , a site that matches up writers and literary agents.) There are a lot of would-be writers, some of whose writing could use, shall we say, a little work. Until that slush-pile software is developed, it’s publishing houses (and literary agents) doing the filtering.
The Distributor: If you self publish a book and no one reads it, are you an author? Publishing houses also help turn words on a page into a book in someone’s hands through advertising, marketing (bookstore events, media coverage, etc.) and sales (distribution to and placement in stores). Granted, we’re not the only “book funneler” — the Internet being another — but we still get lots of books to lots of readers.
You get my point. I think we’re important. On the other hand, if we don’t acknowledge that readers today are looking for ebooks and vooks (video books) and POD (Print on Demand) and not, say, Gutenberg bibles, then we’re being naive and short-sighted. The truth is that most publishing houses do indeed recognize the need to change and adapt. The crucial question, though, that has yet to be answered, is that in this changing marketplace, how exactly is the role of a publishing house changing and how can that role(s) best be executed? For the answer to that, you’ll have to, um, check back next year.