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WRITING ON THE ETHER: Conference Connoisseurship

21 January 2013

Porter Anderson wrote a long article, summing up the recently concluded Digital Book World 2013 Conference. It’s hard to create an extract from an article like this that is full of quotes and links from folks who were at the conference. I’m going pull out a few parts where Porter Anderson contributes his unique point of view. I encourage folks to go read the whole thing at Writing on the Ether, Anderson’s corner at Jane Friedman’s place. I will intersperse a bit of my own commentary as well, even though I only followed the conference on Twitter (#DBW13). :

Not that I would ever butt in on a conversation.
But here was Mike Shatzkin, the endlessly energetic chairman of Digital Book World Without End (it was that time of day), patiently explaining late Wednesday to an associate a key difference between DBW and the other major US publishing conference each year, O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change (TOC).

“Mike,” I said, stepping in with my two cents. “Your conference is a point of view, your point of view.”

It’s not a bad thing that DBW reflects Shatzkin’s point of view.

He’s backed by a large council of industry folks and by conference producer F+W Media’s hard-working staff and engaged, welcoming leadership, David Nussbaum and David Blansfield.
DBW (like Shatzkin’s highly praised, sold-out Children’s Publishing Goes Digital pre-conference program on Tuesday) is animated by the unified, considered Shatskinian viewpoint.

And this doesn’t mean that DBW is a his-way-or-the-highway affair, either. There’s debate—maybe more controlled explosion than wildfire, but debate.

This is the key context for the conference. This conference represents the “industry people who are serious about digital” POV. Here’s how Anderson compares it to O’Reilly’s Tools of Change Conference:

Nor does it mean that you won’t find a robust and superb point of view at TOC. In fact, you’ll find many POVs there. If DBW glows with the half-century of institutional memory that guides Shatzkin’s programming, TOC crackles with edgy peeks around corners and exhilarating leaps into the light of new understandings.

But here is where this doing of DBW is so interesting. If DBW is that statement, that expression of a POV on the industry, the real challenge for those of us watching is to take it onboard authentically.
I wonder if we are when I hear so many folks grabbing onto the phrase “settling” or “settling out,” as in a suggestion here and there that ebook pricing may be soon “settling out”—or that CEOs may be so upbeat on how the digital transition is going that they think things will soon “settle” for publishing.

“Settling out” may be wishful thinking. And “nobody dast blame these people,” to paraphrase Charley in Death of a Salesman. It’s been a long, exhausting digital disruption. We’d all like to see it “settle out.” Right now would be good.

But every time you hear one of our fine presenters slip in one of those “settling out” moments, I want you to ask yourself what else you’re hearing.

I can tell you what I hear. I hear an industry in denial. Far from “settling out”, the digital disruption has barely started. The digital disruption is exhausting only if you are fighting it. It’s invigorating to be part of it.

The very last thing DBW13 item in the column was about piracy. Anderson points to (my blogging colleague) Jeremy Greenfield’s report on a presentation about the impact of piracy on digital content. The difference between Hugh Howey’s attitude and the presentation explain why so many folks find the digital disruption exhausting. Applying the hard-earned lessons from the world of scarce, expensive content to the new networked world of abundant content will drive you to distraction.


15 Comments to “WRITING ON THE ETHER: Conference Connoisseurship”

  1. Mike Shatzkin’s customers are traditional publishers. No big surprise that that should shape his opinions on e-publishing. The trad publishers are the castle, and Shatzkin is defending the castle.

  2. The link to Brett Sandusky’s essay alone is a must read. I think he’s the first person I’ve read who not only points out the problems but actually offers some potential solutions.


    • Brett’s article is a good one. I have a comment on it that’s awaiting moderation (not complaining, I know he is busy). I have a problem with one thing he included and one thing he left out. I don’t see how Amazon can be an elephant in the room when that seems to be all that anyone in publishing talks about. I suggested bete noire would be a better term.

      I think it is more serious that he omitted the price-fixing scandal. Until the people in publishing deal with that, they won’t be able to address any of the problems he talks about. Look at this quote from Jim Hilt, vice president of ebooks at Barnes & Noble, at DBW13, talking about the ebook market:

      Publishers have opted to give retailers greater pricing control and that helps retailers think of different ways to reach the market.

      Seriously? He said that with a straight face? Publishers also opted to refund millions of dollars to consumers and that will help sell books too.

      • William, one thing I learned as mediator is to get something small on the table and work toward an actual compromise.

        The Price Fix 6 aren’t ever going to acknowledge that they did something illegal. Their apologizers are always going to blame Amazon. (Personally, I love the one about Bezos buying off the DOJ to file the charges.)

        Brett’s at least acknowledging the publishers need to take Amazon seriously and (my favorite) quite acting like the assholes indie publishers are claiming they are.

      • One thing that fascinates me is that no one in the publishing world sees the similarity between Amazon & Microsoft in the pre-Internet software industry.

        For those of you who don’t know the story, Microsoft used to dominate the computer industry exactly as Amazon dominates the publishing industry now. A lot of companies went out of business trying to compete with Microsoft & failing; having a cash cow in MS-DOS & MS-Windows definitely was an insurmountable advantage. However, a few not only managed to survive, but do quite well by simply not competing directly with Microsoft, & some are still around now. Intuit came up with Quicken, which they worked hard at keeping better than anything Microsoft created. Novell had their networking software (Microsoft never managed to dominate that sector, & still doesn’t produce the best software for networking). Lotus retrenched, came out with its Lotus Notes, which was for years a viable alternative to MS Outlook because, again, Microsoft did poorly at network-based products.

        And then there is Linux. Which thrives, in large part, because its commercial vendors focus on selling technical support — which is where the real money is in software; Microsoft has never had a good technical support reputation. (There is also the issue that hardware vendors find Linux far easier to write drivers for it than Windows or Apple’s OS, but that is secondary.)

        In other words, they found the niches where the elephant in the room could not compete effectively & made those niches their own. (Where those weaknesses are with Amazon, I leave as an exercise for the reader; but I’ve seen them often mentioned in the comments in this blog.) And until the big publishers learn that lesson, they are doomed to disaster & extinction in learning it.

  3. Thanks for distilling the information, William.

  4. Thanks for distilling all this into interesting summary points. This post is enough for me to know!

    I feel Amazon is more like the first innovator to bring some order out of the chaos of abundant content in a networked world. Ebooks & ereaders were already happening, Amazon just made it easier to search and buy, and prettier to read.

  5. William, I like your commentary. I liked this:

    “Applying the hard-earned lessons from the world of scarce, expensive content to the new networked world of abundant content will drive you to distraction”.

    Nicely put.

  6. The links to the other essays and posts from this, Brett Sandusky and Cory Doctorow in particular, are particularly useful and inspirational! Thank-you. Anyone who thinks piracy is a clear cut issue (and a lot of indie writers here in the UK do, and get very indignant if you venture to disagree, however mildly) should read and ponder Doctorow’s post.

    • I think that there are edge cases in pretty much every subject.

      But I also think that “Does the author want it given away for free? If not, are you giving it to other people for free? If so: Pirate.” is a pretty clear cut issue >99% of the time.

      I do tend to differentiate between “pirates” and “thieves.” All pirates are thieves. Not all thieves are pirates. Pirates are worse than thieves. This is a somewhat nonstandard usage.

      • I’ve been coining my own addition of “smugglers,” who aren’t putting things out on torrents — but are sharing with their friends and not-in-same-household family. It’s a very muddy, blurry sort of thing, but I’m inclined to think that “please remember that the author is person too, who would like to buy lunch” reminders are probably more likely to get the recipient of “smuggled” books to purchase their own when they get the funds to do so.

        Either that, or put a curse on unapproved copyists; I’ve seen those on some small-“press” music tapes, and believe me, I wouldn’t have dreamed of copying them for a friend! Those were scary! (Think of the “may he who steals a book from the library” quote!)

  7. Those folks are fighting a rear guard action trying to protect the lifestyle (and business model) they’ve grown accustomed to. But as in most wars, it is the things they *think* they know that aren’t so that will come back to bite them. They keep telling each other there is light at the end of the tunnel and keep ignoring the rumble that says the light is a train. (In this case, the train of consolidation and massive layoffs to come.) They’ll keep on reinforcing each other right up to the point the pink slips arrive. 🙁

    This comes to mind:
    “Groupthink: A good way to define this term is to tell you how Irving Janus (the main researcher on this topic) describes it. Janus (1972) said that groupthink is “a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.” Essentially, people within a group become so consumed with the group, maintaining group cohesiveness, and doing what is important for the group that they themselves lose their ability to think independently and make good, sound judgments. There are quite a few symptoms and causes of groupthink, but it is important to know what groupthink is and that it has been used to explain a variety of tragic events throughout history such as, mass suicides (like the Heaven’s Gate suicides), poor political decisions (like the Bay of Pigs invasion), riots, and more.


    Settling down?
    So far the disruption has been masked/minimized by the boom in genre ebook sales. The real disruption is just now starting…

  8. We regularly see these articles about how the industry should react, and how everyone should join hands for the common good. But that’s not the lesson from history. When times get tough, members of an industry double-down on their own self-interest. They may sing Kumbayah at a conference, but it’s all lip-sync.

  9. We’re at the point where the real drop off in print revenues start to kick in. I’m watching Barnes & Noble closely because the day they close their brick & mortar doors (and that day’s a lot closer than most people realize) is going to set off a chain reaction that halves industry print revenues in the matter of a few years. Digital revenue will continue to grow, but not at rates that offset the print drop. There are some who seem to be breathing a little sigh of relief and acting like they’ve survived the worst of it, but the real upheaval hasn’t even started yet. The worst thing publishers could have done was the price fixing and print protectionist strategies that slowed down the initial ebook burst. They’re going to need the higher margins on those sales even more in the not-too-distant future, and they willing handicapped more widespread adoption of digital at its crucial early stages. They cut their long-term throats to protect the short term status quo.

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