So the most interesting thing for me about SXSWi today was a meeting about "new thinking in the book publishing business". I went because Clay Shirky was there. Despite the fact that I had never heard of him a week ago, he is now in my pantheon of heroes. And indeed, when he spoke he was great. But most of the panel presentation was irrelevant (and rather pointless) exposition on the part of the panelists of pretty much old fashioned editorial work.
This is hardly the first time such a thing has occurred, but the outcome was unexpected and enormously interesting. Why? Because almost everybody in the audience was on a pre-announced twitter channel #sxswbp. And by the time anybody in the crowd got to ask anything, most of the crowd was in a very collective and connected foul mood.
The twitter channel also caught some great bons mots, mostly from Shirky:
"Filtering is the single most important thing on the Internet today"No doubt these are all smart and articulate people. But what about, you know, the future of the book publishing industry? You know, the topic we came to learn about?
"Internet is the largest group of people who care about reading and writing ever assembled in history."
"Teenagers are rushing home to read and write!"
"Once you know who's going to hate something, you don't have to write with them in mind."
"If you don't like paranormal romance you shouldn't try to fake it"
"Book writing is like driving an ammo truck; you can't pull over."
"Finding stuff you didn't know you were looking for is still a hard problem."
" Long-form writing must be relevant beyond NOW, by nature."
Here's the upshot. Apparently, the publishers' point is this: if we didn't have publishers, who would discover brilliant new authors of literature?
I have an unpleasant little secret I want to share with you. I don't care about "literature" very much and in fact very few people do. (I care about SF and graphic novels a little, tech books and software management books a good deal more, and science and math and pop science and math most of all. Other people have other priorities.)
I wrote a book once that while never fated for literary greatness could have been much better were it not for damage by the editor and the publisher. Is this because they were all focused on finding the next literature Nobelist?
Fine, your call. Next time I'll take my business elsewhere. So this event confirmed my interest in self-publishing to, errm, "monetize" (eww...) my blogging. I'm not the issue here, but I got the sense that the members of the blogger-heavy audience (it was asked at one point and consistent bloggers formed a majority of the audience) were all making similar calculations.
The event was ironic because it was ultimately not about long form writing at all but about the very short form, i.e., the 140 or fewer characters in a Twitter message. For all I know it was a watershed event in the history of instant messaging. It certainly was a revelation for me, and that's why I'm glad I was there.
Twitter is nowhere near as silly an idea as it appears at first glance. If you still think it is, go look at the #sxswbp (yes, same as above) link. It was an amazing event, though not in the intended way.
(Picture: The Lego alcove at SXSW from above)