New Think for Old Publishers: SXSWi for the Bookish

SXSW InteractiveBy Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Chief Executive Optimist, Digital Book World

I’m a firm believer in publishers as “idea advocates“, and the annual SXSW festival in Austin, TX is widely regarded as a can’t-miss gathering of  musicians, filmmakers, web designers and other creative types sharing innovative ideas that often bubble up into mainstream consciousness a few years later. (eg: Twitter launched there in 2007.)

As a result, SXSW Interactive is firmly engraved on the conference calendars of many of the savviest (and from a budget perspective, luckiest) digital professionals in publishing. Billed as “five days of compelling presentations from the brightest minds in emerging technology”, the lineup of speakers is undeniably impressive but the program can be overwhelming for a first-timer to navigate.

This will be my first year attending, and while a few presentations immediately jumped out at me as must-sees (eg: You Are Not a Gadget author Jaron Lanier; see our review here), I decided to ask other people in publishing why they are going and what/who they are most looking forward to seeing.

“I believe it’s important for publishers to attend conferences outside of the traditional industry forums, to gain perspective from other industries, become inspired by innovation, and collaborate with unique partners,” says Kate Rados, Director of Digital Initiatives, Chelsea Green Publishing. “It’s my first time attending, so I’m very excited to get a healthy dose of digital brain food.”

“I’ve never been to SXSW before, but I’m looking forward to hearing from creative, smart people (bookish and not) about topics very near and dear to my work-online-heart,” says Maggie Hilliard, Marketing Manager, DailyLit. “I’m also excited about getting inspired by unexpected places/people/panels–something Debbie Stier mentioned she’s experienced at SXSW.”

“I love to fish in a different pond,” explained Debbie Stier, Senior Vice President & Associate Publisher, HarperStudio, and Director of Digital Marketing, HarperCollins. “I had a great time last year and learned a lot in the least likely places.”

“I’m looking forward to meeting people outside of publishing, since I’m a big believer in cross-discipline networking,” says Pablo Defendini, Producer, Tor.com. “‘I’d like to get a good sampling of the state of the art when it comes to the social web, of course. I’m also looking to get a bead on the emerging trends in tech, as well as maybe discover some good new music!”

“I’ve attended SXSWi for many years now,” says Kassia Krozser, Publisher and Chief Crank, Booksquare.com. “I love that what people talk about today becomes the mainstream conversation a few years down the road. I also leave energized thanks to the creative, can-do energy of other attendees.”

Stier, Defendini and Krozser will be bringing their own “can-do energy” to the panel “A Brave New Future for Book Publishing“, along with Matthew Cavnar (Vook). Organized by Kevin Smokler (Booktour.com), it is being billed as the unofficial sequel to last year’s controversial “New Think for Old Publishers” panel that put traditional publishers under an uncomfortably harsh spotlight when reaction to it exploded on Twitter and across a number of industry blogs.

Among the many reactionary tweets and blog posts that panel spawned, one of the best and most thorough was from Peter Miller — Publicity Director for  Bloomsbury USA; co-owner of Freebird Books in Brooklyn, NY; and, most importantly, a participant on the panel:

A little after 5:30 pm, Deb asked questioners to line up behind a microphone in the center aisle. Quickly five or six sprang up. The first one cut to the chase. Where are the new ideas we were promised? Why were we taking up precious time with this prattle? Did we have a clue? We weren’t startled by the sentiment as much as the audience’s spontaneous reaction. They erupted in a giant applause that must have made neighboring panels think we were scoring with the crowd. Deb attempted to calm things down by saying we never misrepresented this–that the point of the session was to open up the dialogue and hear what they wanted from old publishing.

kirkbiglione: Let me see if I understand this. The audience is a focus group for the panel? #sxswbp

SXSWers do not just value the DIY ethos, they revel in it. Any number of times I heard how users need to eliminate the middleman, bypass the system, build a better mousetrap. Do-it-yourself isn’t only an agent of change. It’s outlaw. It’s punk…

One person made an intriguing suggestion about applying the digital jukebox idea to books. Another complained how authors had to do their own publicity without support from their publishers. Some pitched their own websites before sitting down (a particularly common practice at SXSW). A conference handler at the back of the room signaled we had five minutes left. The last questioner delivered the parting shot. If, as an author, I can design it myself, write it myself, publish it myself, why would I bother going to a publisher at all? What purpose do you serve? Clay Shirky reiterated one of his mantras that publishing raises the signal and separates it from the noise. Aren’t you merely a filter? the questioner retorted. Raising his voice Clay boomed into the microphone, “the filter is the single most important function on the internet today.” And with that the audience was briefly back on our side.

–“How to say f*ck you in 140 characters

In the aftermath, there was a call for publishing to better represent itself at SXSW 2010, and while Smokler’s is one of the only panels specifically focused on book publishing that made the cut, there are several intriguing panels and presentations for bookish types to consider for ideas and inspiration.

I’m participating on one that is especially relevant for authors, editors and marketers: “Why Keep Blogging? Real Answers for Smart Tweeple“. We’ll be looking at where blogs fit in a world of status updates, tweets and shortened attention spans, and besides me, the panel includes veteran bloggers Josh Fruhlinger (The Comics Curmudgeon), Lizzie Skurnick (Old Hag; author of Shelf Discovery), and Scott Rosenberg (cofounder of Salon.com; author of Say Everything); it’s moderated by Emily Gordon, former Print magazine editor and founder of EmDashes.

“It has been a long time since I entered into the world of anonymous, off-hours, should-quit-my-job pre-print-crash blogging,” says Skurnick, also a columnist for Jezebel and Politics Daily. “I’m looking forward to seeing what those who always thought of it as a real thing are doing!”

Other notable sessions of interest include:

“At a glance, Battledecks 2010 sounds good,” suggests Stier. “I’m a big fan of Anil Dash.  And I definitely want to check out Danah Boyd’s Opening Remarks: Privacy and Publicity.  I saw her speak last year at the Web 2.0 conference and it was a disaster, which led me to investigate who she is, and I discovered that she seems like a really cool, interesting, and smart person who had a really really really bad day at the Web 2.0 conference.  I definitely want to give her another chance!”

“Branding is fascinating to me, and publishers don’t do it nearly well enough, so I’ll check out Brand 2.0: Elevating an Icon Using Next-Gen Technologies,” Defendini declared.  “And A Conversation with Gustavo Santaolalla; Santaolalla is a legendary music producer, and a partner in crime for one of my favorite bands: Cafe Tacvba.”

“I’m looking forward to the DIYU: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education (full disclosure:  one of our authors!),” recommends Rados, “and We F*cked Up:  Happy Cog and Friends, Exploring Failures, Together. And for the REAL geek in me, Moon: 2.0: The Outer Limits of Lunar Exploration, which focuses on generating interest in Moon experiments via social media.”

You can view my full SXSW schedule, but along with the aforementioned Lanier presentation, I’m especially looking forward to What Are Analytics? A Guide To Practical Data and Zombies, Vampires & Monsters: Fostering Loyal Genre Communities.

If you’re attending SXSW Interactive, what are you looking forward to and why?

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is the Chief Executive Optimist for Digital Book World.

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