Monday, March 10, 2003

South by Southwest 2003 XIII

Carrie Bickner, Ben Brown, and Kevin Smokler: Book Culture

Bickner works as assistant director for digital information and system design at the New York Public Library and runs Rogue Librarian. Brown co-founded So New Media. Smokler works as a book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and runs Where There's Smoke. Here is a rough transcript of the panel discussion:

Smokler: Please address all publishing questions to the publishing panel at 5 o'clock this afternoon. Thank you.

Brown: Bling bling.

Bickner: Happy happy.

Smokler: Joy joy. Good morning, everybody. My name's Kevin Smokler, and I'll be your moderator this morning. We'll be talking about books and the Web. Are they friends or enemies? Friends or lovers? Friends with benefits?

When I came to South by Southwest in 2000, I was a failed writer and looking for something literary. I was looking for something book related, and they had an e-books panel. That was three years ago. The e-book issue has largely been put to rest. It's more or less considered a failure in publishing circles.

We never think now about publishing and the Web in terms of the Web supplanting books. We're looking at how the two relate rather than will one dominate the other.

Bickner: I am with the New Your Public Library digital library program as the assistant director for digital information and system design.

Smokler: Ben Brown is a Web rock star, personality, and all-around good guy. But for our purposes today, he's the co-publisher of So New Media, an exciting, interesting new model of publishing. The very definition of being published has changed thanks to the Web.

Bickner: I am by training a librarian, but I'm also a writer. How I got into librarianship, initially I thought I'd be a special collections librarian, an archivist. It turned out that I actually knew a lot about technology. Now that I'm in the digital library program, my job is almost what I started out to do. It's preservation. How do we preserve our digital cultural heritage? 50 years from now, how are we going to be able to find these objects?

Brown: I'm a Perl programmer by trade, but I have a creative writing degree. When I started doing a lot of writing and looking for places to publish, it's not a great market for the kind of stuff I write. I was living in New Zealand at the time and I pitched a lot of articles about book culture. Magazines there just weren't interested. So I started a magazine. I did it myself. I did it punk-rock style, and we sold several hundreds of copies. When I got back, my partner and I started So New Media to primarily focus on writers who mostly publish online.

Smokler: I'm a book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and until last week was working on Central Booking. We also used that forum format and software interface to have authors come visit. Our readers would post questions and the authors would answer them.

Where should we start? The four main areas we've brought up in terms of where books and the Web intersect in interesting ways are promotion, dissemination, preservation, and selection vs. publishing. Three years ago, there was a lot of talk about print on demand. Before we could do that, seeing your book was some mark of quality, some mark that you had in fact made it as a writer. Your book had passed through some sort of selection process no matter how good or bad it was.

The Web has turned that entirely on its head. What does that mean? Now that everybody can be published, what does it mean to be published? Now the question isn't who can get published and is that worth reading, but, as a reader, how do we select what's worth reading?

Brown: We have a pretty rigorous selection process. We get hundreds and hundreds -- OK, many many -- submissions every week. We've done 12 books or something. We can't read all of the submissions that we get already. One of the major things we evaluate is: Does this author already have somewhat of an online following? Beyond that, it is very much my personal tastes in books. My hope is that the people in our audience will have tastes similar to what I have and just buy everything we put out. We've done everything from personal narrative to science fiction. But they all fall in moderny categories.

Another thing is dealing with the authors and how enthusiastic about the book. Some people are like, "Yeah, yeah, I'll put out a book." And other people are like, "Yeah! I'll go on a world tour, I'll visit 200 cities and put on a circus act in every city." Those are the people we publish.

The first people we published were members of the high-click personal Web site community. They had a decent audience. Our goal was not to sell books to viewers of the Web sites. The goal was to get writing on the Web already into the hands of people who buy books at the bookstore.

It's not new, but there are thousands and thousands of books being released every week into the bookstores. There's no distinguishing between your book and another. You've got to get out there and do a little song and dance for people.

One of the first people we did was Greg Knauss. He did a 40 Web log tour. Every day he'd do a virtual reading and write a piece for all these different sites. He got a lot of press because nobody had ever done that before. It was a tremendous promotional vehicle, and Greg could stay at home with his kids.

Smokler: that’s a more creative promotional effort than 90% of New York publishers have thought of. Until the last year and a half, very few publishers' Web sites had anything other than the season's catalog. If you've ever been to a reading, you know that readers just salivate over any information about the writing process. The Web is able to hone in on that in ways that other media cannot.

Neil Gaiman did a blog while he was writing American Gods. Robert Olen Butler wrote a short story live on a Web cam. The science fiction community has embraced that first for obvious reasons, but it's only the beginning.

We know how the Web has changed how books are made. Let's talk about the reverse.

Bickner: One of the most exciting things that happened in my career took place at the New York Public Library. We took in a box of papers from Malcolm X after his trip to Mecca when he rethought a lot of his ideas. These ideas have been unexplored because of a lack of material. This box was found in a storage locker in Florida. The storage owner sold the stuff, and it eventually ended up on Ebay. Through a lot of negotiation and other work, the New York Public Library acquired the collection.

That the box survived was an accident of the stuff the material was written on. Once we got the collection, we started getting calls from people who also had boxes of Malcolm X materials. I began looking for the analogous accidents and the analogous materials in the Web world and it's not there.

Let's say Josh Davis has a flood in his basement. Does someone save his CPU? We're not taking steps now to preserve digital materials. 20 years from now, how are we going to understand Cory Doctorow's editorial process?

Smokler: The way authors compose their books is changing. The number of authors who compose their books with pencil and paper is shrinking. There's a group of people called the Pencil and Paper Society, but those writers are rare.

Bickner: This is something that we just photographed at the New York Public Library to digitize. It's Walt Whitman's copy of Leaves of Grass. The pencil marks you see are his editing comments for the second edition. This physical object shows you what his process was like.

My own manuscript shows tracked changes in Microsoft Word. The Walt Whitman book is physical. With this, it's not just about saving the Microsoft Word file, it's about having the technology to read these tracked changes. 20 years from now, is someone going to want to see the email that I sent Tanya, a friend who helped me with the book? What do you save? What part do you save? Do you really want to save it for later? What is the digital object?

Smokler: In the future, will a rare books library be a collection of G4's? What if its format isn't compatible? What if Microsoft Word doesn't exist? Pens and pencils doesn't get evolved out of existence.

Brown: You're going to kill me. We do one print proof of our books. We delete all the changes and then we use that file to publish the book. That's all there is.

Smokler: Do people like Ben, Carrie, have the resources to do this sort of thing?

Bickner: Some of the resources are less expensive than you might think. Publishers do have a responsibility to preserve a part of their cultural heritage. Publishers print books on acid-free paper. Open standards are a pretty good bet. It's difficult. If you have to exchange with people working in proprietary software like Microsoft Word, it can be difficult to collaborate.

Brown: We just have to start saving everything instead of emptying our trash every morning

Bickner: Or find someone to save it for you. The collectors are the people who are going to have this stuff. Josh Davis puts out a CD-ROM every year. You know someone is collecting those.

Smokler: History is an incomplete story. We save what is most illuminating and most helpful. Ben, 20 years from now you may not want the first few books published by So New MMedia.

Brown: This is one of our first books. It was done by my partner James, who co-founded the company. It's a collection of short stories, and it's bound by a used envelope that he found at the office he worked at. He made photocopies at work and stapled them at his desk. That one's wrapped in plastic.

This one is one of the later ones we did. We upgraded to having our own expensive laser printer in our house. We bought a fancy-pants German saddle stapler. The most recent books, we've finally upgraded and are doing perfect bound real books. We just send them off to printers.

Smokler: That’s Neal Pollackl

Brown: his first book was put out by McSweeney's, and he's got a novel coming out at Harper Collins.

Bickner: It's interesting to me that someone who's on both sides of the publishing world thinks that putting something in print is a way of exalting the work.

Brown: I have been publishing my work online for many, many years. It doesn't compare to holding the book in your hands or selling your book to someone. The micropayment future never showed up. We sell a book for $6, and we send the author $2 or $3. I don't make any money at all. I just sent Adam Rakunas several hundred dollars so he could pay his rent.

Smokler: We still have a bias that things printed on paper are more worthy than publishing online. We don't have the New York Times Book Review for people who publish online. It's seen as a haven for people who can't cut it in the real world.

Brown: Most of the people we publish will probably get book deals in the future. The fact that I'm willing to put the money up indicates that I at least think the writing is quality.

Smokler: I hope we're nearing a day where writers see the Web as a viable way to promote their work. Publishers just now are starting to clue into that. Publicists at most publishing houses are young, terribly ambitious, horribly overworked people. They've got 30-40 books under their tutelage, and a lot of books get swept away by the tide.

Brown: And promotional budgets are about 10% of the overall budget. Let's say your advance is $12,000. That means your promotional budget is $1,000.

Smokler: The attention to promotion needs to come from you. The Web allows writers to promote themselves.

Brown: Neal Pollack's first book was promoted exclusively online. He did online promotion and went on tour. The tour was promoted only online. He did a tour diary on his Web site, and he sold a zillion copies of the book. This book is very much the same. The power of the Web as a promotional tool for books is underestimated by people even like myself.

Bickner: I have a non-literary example of how this might play out. There was a health information publisher who specialized in AIDS and HIV information to be distributed in African countries. The publisher's question was: How do we create the content, print it, and then get it where it needs to be? They decided to create the content in PDF's, send them where they needed to be, and then print them.

Smokler: We want to do Q&A, but does anyone have anything else to say?

Brown: I have a project I'd like to talk about. You don't write and you don't do Web logs because you're a socially adept person. You also don't spend years and years of your life writing a novel because you're partying every night. We're doing these events now where they force authors into the punk-rock or indie-rock musician role. We have a monthly series now in which writers perform with bands. It changes the way people think of our company. We don't just publish books. We entertain people. You're not just interacting with the author, you might even dance.

Smokler: We used to say that the production of literature happens in private and the celebration of literature happens in public.

Question: How would you distinguish vanity publishing from what we're talking about?

Bickner: I haven't heard that term in such a long time now. It's not as costly. These alternate delivery mechanisms are getting more and more respect. We don't have those easy distinctions to make anymore. My worry about which of this stuff do we save is a confusing one.

Smokler: Most bookstores have a policy with publishers that whatever they can't sell they can return.

Brown: Or destroy.

Smokler: You have no such agreement with self-published authors.

Brown: We have run into a little about that. People say, "You publish your own books?" I say, "No, I publish other people's books." It's changing because there are a lot more independent presses. There is still a stigma. If someone comes up to me and says, "I published my own book. Will you look at it?" I'm sorry, I don't have enough time.

Also, I can't call up the newspaper and say, "Hey, I published this book by another guy." They won't talk to me. That's why I have a publicist. There's a stigma against promoting yourself in the literature world. The Onion gave us an insanely good review of Neal's new book, and it was available on Amazon yet. It is now on Amazon and in bookstores, but it was a panic.

Question: What is the place of the book critic?

Smokler: I get asked a lot by aspiring authors how do I get my book reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle. Book reviews are at best a questionable method for promoting your book. What if it's lousy?

There's still a place for experts on books. The space for those experts is underutilized. We have maybe a dozen book reviewers that a publisher would run out and slap for a jacket blurb. That is too few. Who is book blogging? The Amazon thing is a diffuse way of doing that.

Bickner: You might have one or two of your friends review your book on Amazon.

Brown: That's not an unusual thing. Log out as Michael Crichton, log back in as Joe.

Smokler: Where do you find out what to read next?

Bickner: I have to have a couple of people suggest something before I read it. It's gotta be, "Here, you really must read this." If I had more time I would probably read book reviews.

Brown: I have a pretty healthy network of people to recommend stuff. I also go to the Amazon recommendations. I do that "I have this book, and I like it," thing, so my recommendation list is a finely tuned machine. I also buy anything anyone recommends on their blog. I read Boing Boing. I read Heath Row's Media Diet. Shout out to Heath.

Kevin's already blogged about his panel experience. Carrie's posted her notes online.

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