Many, many thanks to Shauna McKenna for providing the following on-the-spot reports from last weekend's Los Angeles Times Festival Books.
The Future of Publishing
Moderator: James Atlas, president of Atlas Books and founding editor of the Lipper/Viking Penguin Lives Series
Panelists: Georges Borchardt: Co-founder and president of Georges Borchardt, Inc., a literary agency representing over 200 distinguished English-language writers. Sara Nelson: Editor-in-Chief of Publishers Weekly and author of the memoir So Many Books, So Little Time. Dana Gioia: Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and National Book Award winning poet. Charlie Winton: Chairman and CEO, Avalon Books
To begin, Atlas ticked off a list of the generally cited signs that the horsemen of the publishing apocalypse are on the way (cue Ride of the Valkyries); evolving technology, the squeeze of book review sections in even the most prominent newspapers, the viability of conventional distributors, etc. etc. Each panelist delivered his or her prognosis, with a general consensus that the way literary content is packaged and sold to readers needs to keep up with technology.
BORCHARDT: “The good old days were not all that good.” With wit and charm, Borchardt put the current crises of literary publishing in the larger context of a business that has never been particularly lucrative. A sign of hope is that international publishing has skyrocketed, but a sign of trouble is the low interest in books of young people.
NELSON: Claims that in spite of their apparently diminishing relevance, books remain central to how we think and relate to each other as a culture. Also noted the “conglomeratization” of the publishing business, with its attendant increase in expectations for a publisher’s rate of return.
GIOIA: Discussed results of the NEA’s “Reading at Risk” report, which evidences significant decrease in the numbers of Americans reading books. Feels that books are almost invisible in contemporary culture. Enumerated the competitors that the pursuit of reading faces, and warned that the “silent, measured critical response” to reading could be lost. Got on his fiery steed and challenged a television to a joust.
WINTON: The number of midsize publishers is decreasing, but the big technology companies are developing ways to sell content direct to consumer, which will then make them big players. Internet has upended the way books are sold via massively branching networks and, of course, Amazon. Winton seemed the most sanguine about how evolving technologies can be an agent of change in the business of publishing and deeper literacy, not necessarily destruction.
Q&A Highlight: Questioner suggested that the publishing industry is too civil, maybe people would care more about book review sections if there was a little heat, a little snark, some sizzle. In the panel’s only nod to the literary blogosphere, Nelson pointed out all that snark and nastiness is right there in the blogs. Niiiice. (See! Just like that.) She elaborated that it’s unwise to discount bloggers or pop culture reviewers, because the populist media is the voice of the target audience.
Litblogs: Words Online
Moderator: Tod Goldberg: Los Angeles blogger and author of several books, most recently Simplify.
Author/Blogger Panelists: Ron Hogan: Beatrice and Galleycat blogger, author of The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane!; Andrew Keen: Former Silicon Valley venture capitalist, blogger, author of Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture; Carolyn Kellogg: Publisher/podcaster of Pinky's Paperhaus
After threatening to deliver a lecture on barium in deference to the oversized periodic table behind the panelists, Goldberg led the group in a spirited conversation about whether the democratization of literary criticism is a bad thing.
Andrew Keen: It’s a bad thing to get people feeling like they’re entitled to free stuff.
Everyone Else: Andrew Keen! You so crazy!
Okay, there was a lot more to it than that. But there was no doubt that the group had its Simon Cowell, replete with accent and an air of vague irritation bordering on disdain. Ron Hogan mentioned early on the value of bloggers forcing traditional media outlets to put their game faces on, and that’s exactly what Keen required of the bloggers.
Keen’s overriding concern was with the absence of a sustainable business model in the blogosphere, and the problems inevitable for institutional media once the audience gets hooked on free content. As a corollary, when the institutions falter, the superiority that Keen claims for professionalism disintegrates. He claimed that a form of expression that anyone can do is so easily imitable that the risks of corporate corruption and abuse are huge, and the reader is vulnerable not only to some weak-ass literary criticism but out-and-out fraud.
Everyone Else: Booooo!
Highlights for me:
1. Hogan drew the distinction between a book enthusiast and a book reviewer, and when asked how the audience is supposed to recognize the quality criticism amidst the dreck, responded that we too often undervalue an individual’s bullshit detector.
2. Kellogg described the conversational nature of blogging, which adds a new dimension to criticism heretofore left to the dust-gathering correspondence of Bunny Wilson and his crew. (I’m paraphrasing.)
3. Hogan’s candor about the benefits for an individual writer in creating a readership online, even if that labor is unpaid at the outset. The many successes of LA’s own Elegant One and Maud Newton were cited as shimmering examples.
4. Kellogg begrudgingly admitting the relevance of business models, and defending the current lack of revenue in the blogosphere by saying there’s a “jungle” of business models being tried, and it’ll take time and patience while the chaos sorts itself out.
5. Goldberg’s charisma (TEV Note: Oh God, don't encourage the man.) and persistent wise-assedness, Kellogg rolling her eyes openly half the time Keen talked, Keen being generally a good sport about being the designated foil.
Shauna’s major WTF moment:
When a questioner asked the panelists if they thought a distribution model like E-music might work for literary content, Goldberg responded that there isn’t really actual content on the internet, and all the other panelists agreed that they don’t really like to read things on a computer.
And then they sat uncomfortably and realized what they were saying, and Ron Hogan nicely backpedaled and explained that it’s an issue with the technology for e-reading not being there yet as compared to iPods, and of course many literary journals have online components, etc. etc. Which was a nice save, but still, that collective shrug over the question of there being actual things to read online made my former online editor’s soul hurt just a little.
Additional LATFOB coverage can be found about town at BookFox, Pinky's, and more. Shauna McKenna is a fiction writer, essayist, and occasional literary shindig coordinator. She relocated to Los Angeles last October.