Writing on the Ether: Digital Book World

The CEOs panel, moderated by F+W Media CEO David Nussbaum, was onstage Tuesday at the Digital Book World Conference + Expo.

“Ether” / Or?
Started out strong
Don’t try this at home
Good moves on the inky side
A proposal: Crossover Day

Note: Since publishing this column, I’ve had lots of good input from many folks, thanks. One especially keen comment comes from our good colleague Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, and I’m adding a link here to it in hopes that after you read my initial entry here you’ll check Guy’s very worthy counter-view and my comment that follows his. There’s more below, too, in this section. Thanks.

“Ether” / Or?

Just as the round tables were rolled into the Metropolitan Ballroom for the pre-conference DBW Marketing Summit

Just as the chillers cooled the low-pile carpeted pitch, slammed so bravely in those third-floor meeting halls…

Just as publishing industry stakeholders talked of achieving the “impactful discovery of niche markets through metadata”…

A small door at the back of the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers … clicked shut again for another year.

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Did you hear it? Shhh. Listen. Hear that? Nah.

No more than you could hear DBW’s Publishing Innovation Awards’ new QEDs announced over the din of Monday evening’s cocktail reception.

Barry Eisler speaks at WDC Jan. 21, 2012 / Photo by Dan Blank
That author standing in darkness is Barry Eisler at WDC (Jan. 21, 2012) / Photo by Dan Blank

No more than you could read the big-screen displays of the good Jack McKeown’s Verso Advertising slides about book-buying behavior Wednesday.

No more than you could be sure that it was really Barry Eisler on Saturday as he spoke in the annual darkness of the Sheraton’s New York Ballroom place of honor. The speaker in the middle of that room gets less limelight than a Rockette shopping her memoir.

In fact, NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty also spoke in that dim location. I might have guessed it was either John Malkevitch or Seth Godin on Viki Noe‘s shoulders, ship it.

Gathering for the first plenary session of the 2012 Digital Book World Conference.

If  you have a “wait — what?” sensation when I mention bookly events on Saturday and Sunday — or if you look at the well-lit stage (left) at the Digital Book World Conference + Expo and wonder if you’re in the same business — then your hearing is improving.

Wasn’t that the pitter-patter of writers leaving the building?

And they missed such a good panel of literary agents Tuesday, some handsome candor at the table. Here was Brian DeFiore mentioning that “indie” just isn’t the right term for a self-publishing writer. He’s right, it’s a euphemism. And Liza Dawson described her project with two existing clients — “we’re the guinea pigs” — to explore together the ins and outs of self-publication.

Then there was the take-no-prisoners sass of Ginger Clark saying that if an author insists on self-publishing a project, “Ultimately? The client is my boss. I get out of the way or I lose that client.”

Clark, who works with the Association of Authors’ Representatives as does  DeFiore, got off another good point: “If my client self-publishes, I’m not the publisher. The author’s name is on that contract, not mine.” At a time when the arrival of the agent-publisher is worrying a lot of us, Clark’s clarification is right, and timely.

I’m sorry our writers didn’t hear this panel and many other sessions of DBW.

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Started out strong

I’ve just live-tweeted a series of conference events produced by F+W Media across six days at the Sheraton. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the staffers on this reductio ad tweetum and I found these colleagues and conferees focused and committed, always ready with a laugh. These events were full of good cheer and sound intent.

I also appreciate the heads behind the programming of #DBW12, especially Mike Shatzkin, the conference chair and architect of the confab. In his opening tone-setter, Remaking an Industry: What publishers need to be thinking about in 2012, we heard him lay out a series of issues to be addressed. He showed clean-as-a-whistle slides to keep us on track as he went.

In some other parts of the world, Kindle does not start with the dominant position it had in the US (although it has the money to market and promote in a major way, so they might still get it.) Publishers need to cover all the ebook accounts and learn how to maximize sales in each of them.

By confab’s end, things seemed less clear, of course.

This is not unusual in times of complex change and when the progressive discussion format of a conference “migrates” the perception of topics. Some points had outweighed others heavily in 48 hours.

DRM went from gum on a shoe to a rebel yell once Matteo Berlucchi was given the floor.

Talk turned to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s deal to publish Amazon’s New York adult line of print books. Other issues seemed never to get off the ground.

The words “partnership” and “collaboration” popped up early and often at DBW, as publishers, agents, editors, marketers, retailers, technologists, researchers, journalists, and consultants were treated to panel chats and presentations — one by the excited futurist David Houle on what he calls the Shift Age. You can download his ebook free, thanks to Dominique Raccah‘s Sourcebooks, which will publish a new Houle work later this year.

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A surprise where I didn’t expect it: Oren Teicher of the American Booksellers Association in his address, “Booksellers Without Borders,” sounded genuinely moved as he assured the assembly Sunday that independent bookstores, overall, aren’t as bad off as many think they are.

The unparalleled role that indie bookstores play in discovery…this unique role that we play…is an essential catalyst.

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A subtle lesson showed up when executives of several romance publishers went over best practices from their viewpoints, their publishing houses standing among pioneers in the industry for digital-first production. Raelene Gorlinsky of Ellora’s Cave spoke as the veteran of this group when she talked about success with ebook prices up to $8 and more, her company resisting the “race to the bottom” in pricing.

But every time AllRomance.com moderator Julie Cummings used slides to offer statistics, the graphics were full of pastel colors and lightweight fonts. One of the folks at my table put her finger on it: “This is the look their readers understand,” she said. The romance publishers had missed a chance to adopt the professional look they’ve earned. Calling your strategy “faster, harder, deeper” might get you a laugh but little respect in the morning.

And by the time #DBW12 was coming to a close late Wednesday afternoon, we were deep in the land of the unanswered issue.

Shouldn’t publishers have their ebooks on public libraries’ catalogs for checkout? Of course, said the suits of Wiley, Bloomsbury, and Perseus. “We don’t have it yet, but we will…It just has to happen…It will happen.” No time frame.

Much of the closing afternoon’s material left points similarly adrift.

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Don’t try this at home

Earlier Wednesday afternoon, before we all gathered at DBW for blandishments in worsted wool, a panel called “Doing It on Their Own: Self-Publishing Authors Find Success” and moderated by DBW’s Jeremy Greenfield, gave us three self-published authors and a provider of “author services” talking about their success.

These were exceptional cases. In this game, the trotting out of big winners is common. People who can answer questions about “the largest check you’ve had from your writing” with responses of $72,000 or $112,000 are not representative of what most writers can expect in self-publishing.

And to be fair, the panelists worked hard to communicate how difficult this sort of success is and that there are conditions that need to be in place. Bob Mayer, one of the three, has been tireless in trying to explain the importance of his traditional-publishing backlist in his own road to selling around 400,000 ebooks last year.

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I heard an interesting anomaly, a break from common palaver on the topic: the entrepreneurial author Bella Andre said that her relationship to retailers who sell her books is her most important connection. In a biz that stresses relating to your readers uber alles, touting the retailers instead is unusual.

You know who I wish had heard that? The ones who were out that door before DBW started.

On Sunday afternoon, hundreds of writers left the same hotel. They finished up in some of the same ballrooms that would on Monday be occupied by DBW.  The Writer’s Digest Conference, also an F+W Media production, is the flagship annual writerly confab. The writers were in conference from Friday through Sunday, then they adjourned before the comparative big kids of publishing arrived.

There’s something about the stance of writers in the publishing community right now that isn’t what it should be. It never seems more evident than when these two big conferences are choreographed to pass in the night.

We each discuss the others’ business. In fact, publishing and writers are each other’s business.

But writers miss the exposure they need to the facts, the figures, the charts, the debates, the genuine fiscal binds and occasional braggadocio of corporate insecurity. And they miss the  charm and camaraderie of the DBW community. For the most part, these are fun, articulate, generous professionals.

I’m also sorry those specialists miss meeting so many members of “the talent” in one place. How many attendees of DBW (I’m hearing some 1,500 total this year) have seen WDC’s Pitch Slam in progress? The agents have. They’re the ones who sit across from jet-lagged and flummoxed writers who have 90 seconds to pitch their books. The agents respond for 90 more seconds. And then F+W’s faithful Sally Slack announces on the PA system that it’s time to move on. This goes on for three hours. Between 60 and 70 patient, supportive agents are there for 400 or more writers. Everybody stands in lines in these meeting rooms, a configuration vastly improved by Chuck Sambuchino and his cohorts this time around.

But this is the sole moment in which writers and their publishing counterparts come together in large numbers. Not that the resulting gulf is intentional, I regret the either/or reality at the Sheraton, the site (at least for the past two years) of these effectively firewalled conferences.

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Good moves on the inky side

Sessions the writers attended this year in their conference included:

  • University of Cincinnati e-media professor and former Writer’s Digest publisher Jane Friedman‘s clear eye for the myriad  approaches and services for authors who want to try to self-publish,
  • Agent Mary Kole on the background and status today of YA literature,
  • The platform-driven entrepreneurial perspective of We Grow Media’s Dan Blank and the tough-love career pounce of Christina Katz, better known as @thewritermama,
  • The devoted commitment of author James Scott Bell to the most elegant techniques of suspense (he shows a clip from The Graduate in his session),
  • Agent Donald Maass‘ hypnotic tones when he drops into “go ahead, just pick up a piece of paper and write this down” teaching mode (Socrates wept), and
  • The gravity of Baty’s closing commentary: on Sunday, the founder of the international mass-writing movement announced at WDC that he had resigned two days earlier from the organization he has led for 12 years.

Baty is going full time into writing, himself. And he told these several hundred writers gathered for WDC to go home packed as he was packing, taking along:

  • Deadline
  • Momentum
  • An appreciation of the mess along the way
  • Faith

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A proposal: Crossover Day

Writer’s Digest Conference ends each year on a Sunday, midday. I recommend that F+W consider offering an extra “between-confabs” event on the Monday that falls between WDC and DBW.

Currently, that Monday is a day of workshops and the marketing summit, which I’m glad to say is being expanded to full-conference status in the fall — Kate Rados made the announcement to us while doing her expert job of moderating the day this week.

I’d like to see programming developed for that “between day” that could show the writers some of the issues the business folks are dealing with, and, perhaps, vice-versa.

The organizers of these conferences didn’t invent the gap between creative and business workers, their conferences simply reflect it, and accurately.

But the industry overall can’t benefit from an assumption that you’re on either one side of the confab-weekend or the other. I found that I got a lot from being at both conferences this year and was very glad to be there for them. I hope to do this annually, there’s too much here to miss. I recommend it. And a crossover option, I hope, might be structured as workshops are now, as an elective premium for attendees interested in adding it to their base registration.

There are practical reasons of space and time and expense, needless to say, that may always prevent both conferences running at capacity simultaneously.

Many elements of WDC, craft offerings in particular, just aren’t in areas the publishing people can focus on for long. But that entirely necessary concentration on craft for authors can mean they know too little about the business, about technological changes, and about production availabilities and challenges.

And the DBW registration fee is a fairly big ticket for writers. It’s just under $1,500 per person. Don Linn has a nice piece at TheFutureBook today, A Question and Some Random Observations. As he cracks wise, on noting that ticket price:

My conclusion from the previous observation is that we should all be in the publishing conference business.

Clearly, the pricing structure reflects cost, and the full fee for Writer’s Digest Conference is about a third of that for Digital Book World.

But I hope there might be a chance to consider a “crossover” day when writers can opt to stay a day longer and work “with the industry” in the kind of format that F+W is adept at producing.

Nevertheless, again, do consider seeing what Guy Gonzales has to say about this.

His is a position that, while counter to mine, I fully respect — if anything, I’d apply it more quickly to myself than insist on it in others (another dodge of sorts, perhaps).  Gonzales argues that in the age of the writer-entrepreneur, we must all take responsibility for our business basis and pay to play in the real game of publishing, not expect easy outs. And I should note that I was there in a business capacity of my own, very glad to live-tweet coverage of these conferences, a part of my work as a journalist.  Here’s a bit of what Guy says in Should more writers attend publishing conferences?

What comes with authors’ shift to the business side is the reality that the water gets a lot deeper, particularly when it comes to attending conferences and registration fees. If you want to be a true self-publisher, there’s a lot more to it than uploading your file to Amazon, and that includes bearing larger expenses like conference registration fees. Any author’s money is just as good as any publisher’s, and no conference organizer I know would turn it down. You want a seat at the table, buy a ticket like everyone else.

I’m not about to say Gonzalez is wrong on this. While I might like to see this “crossover day” programming as what I think would be a healthy ice-breaker for many new writer-entrepreneurs, there’s everything right about Gonzalez’s “buy a ticket” position. Good conversation.

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