SXSW, Nonsensical Drama, and my Penguin Football Jersey

by Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

Looking through the SXSW Interactive proposals for 2011 related to publishing, they range from thoughtful to outright hostile.

Writing is easy, and any monkey can be a publisher because that’s what the little button tells every WordPress blogger they’re doing when they click it and their latest post goes live. (You’re soaking in it!)

Also, eBooks are the magic beans that will lead to the storming of the gates, destruction of the ivory tower, and theft of the publishing industry’s golden goose. They might even slay the dragon, rescue the Princess, and completely redefine the American Dream, too!

Or something like that.

Of course, most commentary on the transition the publishing industry is currently going through tends to fall at the “outright hostile” extreme; sensational nonsense offered up by technophiles selling virtual bridges, or even worse, authors with axes to grind and speaking calendars to fill. ¬†While the effects of “the digital transition” (drink!) on the value of newspapers and magazines has been pretty clear, and the broad acceptance of e-commerce has had an undeniable effect on brick-and-mortar booksellers (long may they live!), I firmly believe that the changes occurring in book publishing are much less dramatic than they seem.

Also, far less traumatic because, contrary to popular belief, the majority of publishing companies aren’t dumb ostriches with their heads in the sands. Many are actively examining their options, understandably reluctant to jump too fast at the latest new shiny lest it turn out to be a mirage.

Remember the Skiff? QUE?

The reality is, once the eBook market shakes out in the next year or two and becomes more efficient, the publishing industry will still be the dominant supplier of books people actually pay for.

Will the players change?  Maybe, maybe not.

Will the business model have to change? (drink!) Sure, for some publishers. Same for agents and authors, too.

Simon & Schuster just announced a pretty clear step in a new direction, but there’s a ton of different working models already in place, especially out there in the vast, diverse world beyond The Big Six. It’s worth noting that Richard Curtis launched eReads back in 1999, long before Andrew Wylie decided to play soft ball with Odyssey Editions, and Diversion Books is Scott Waxman’s second go-round with eBook publishing.

And Theo Gray, author of the The Elements? He’s not your average author; he’s also the co-founder of Wolfram Research, Inc., makers of Mathematica, among other things.

Niche, vertical, digital-first, transmedia… none of these are new concepts in the publishing industry; there are examples of each within the “major” publishers, and even more beyond them. Of course, facts and nuance are anathema to punditry and page views, and don’t often fit in 140 characters sound bytes or, sadly, even in articles published by mainstream media outlets.

(What’s Apple’s eBook market share again? And Amazon sells more Kindle Books than razors, right?)

How about instead of yet another “Death of…!” and “[Whatever] Killer?” and “Ebook Sales Up [whatever]%” linkbait article or tweet, we start focusing more on the important stuff?

Where are our initiatives to reach and engage new readers, of both print AND eBooks?

What are the kids who loved Wimpy Kid, Percy Jackson and Twilight going to read next, and how are they going to find about them?

What about the vast majority of kids to whom none of those franchises were appealing? What are we publishing for them?

And finally, how do we empower avid readers of all kinds to champion their favorite authors, books and publishers the way sports fanatics do their favorite players and teams?

Where’s my Penguin football jersey?