Not enough, guys, no offense but not nearly enough

OK, so a number of my readers will be aware of a controversial panel discussion at South by South West Interactive (SXSWi) two weeks ago, in part because I talked it up in my most recent post–a post which features some YouTube footage of the post-panel Q&A. One panelist, Peter Miler, a great publicist (runs publicity at Bloomsbury) and great bookseller (Freebird, my closest bookstore!), gave his perspective on what happened, and got a whole bunch of responses, including ones from me and Kassia Krozer which were, I’m chuffed to say, called out by Vroman’s Bookstore as useful additions to the debate.

So far, so good, notwithstanding some off-the-mark assumptions that bloggers don’t grasp the usefulness of an editor, and publishers do. In fact the author-oriented text editorial function needn’t be executed by a publisher, and is increasingly outsourced by publishers (to, inter alia, writers who blog, go figure). So chastising a person who doubts the usefulness of a publisher by saying the books need to be edited misses the fact that anyone can buy the editorial activity for $1000-$2000.

But. Moving on. Another publisher-side-of-the-equation offering came from the highly engaged Yen Cheong, one of the liveliest publicists at Penguin (and most generous publicists in the business as her blog attests), who was in attendance, though not a panelist. Her initial post, on the topic of how Twitter allows for audience and other interested parties to communicate their thoughts during the panel, was then amplified in an invitation to bloggers to give feedback on how their needs to be better addressed by publishers.

OK. I don’t want to dismiss the usefulness of publicists inviting the media community to tell publishers how to interact with them, just as happens with book review editors, and TV and radio producers at various industry events. But this is being framed as some type of response to SXSWi.

If anyone in our industry thinks that this forum is a meaningful response to the failure of New Thinking for Old Publishers, things are actually somewhat more fucked than I thought. The gauntlet thrown down was not thrown at the publicists. They happened to be there, because they are somewhat more willing to face the public than other people in the publishing business (which is why Peter Miller felt justifiably hard done by–it was the most transparent and open people that were the ones that got smacked around…).

The gauntlet was thrown at the CEO’s and Executive Committees. At the Board of Directors. At the people with Publisher in their title, and those above. They need to respond for real. Not because the folks at SXSWi called them out for doing virtually nothing to address the slow-motion collapse of the industry, but because the writers, readers, and employees deserve better, sharper, more honest and dynamic thinking. (I offered a little something in my Love Letter to Our Corporate Brethren post on the Soft Skull blog last year.

And, actually, while I hate to do anything to suggest that publishers shouldn’t be open to the needs of all media, on- or offline, I would actually beg that this forum not be a “response” to what happened at SXSWi, but be done for its own sake, as an absolutely de minimis activity. It should not be a substitute for learning, immersively, the vast ecology of opinion, analysis, and community expression that the term “bloggers” encompasses. For, yes, there were a few bloggers there in the audience at SXSWi who write about books, but that audience was there to hear about business models, strategies, real stuff, practical, yes, but big picture. Few were there with any interest in helping us move product. And it’s ever so slightly condescending (though I know that was not the intention) to think we are making up for the mistake that that panel represented with a forum on the brass tacks of pitching bloggers. We need to stop thinking that the rest of the world exists to offer attention for the books we deign to publish–why would it even occur to us that we are entitled to mount a panel discussion wherein that would be the substance of the conversation, and when people got pissed, decide to follow up with a forum wherein that is again supposed to happen. I know that might seem like openness, and humility, but only in publishing would that pass for humility–there’s a reason panelists get in for free, and the audience pays. It’s because they’re there to learn.

There is in fact a vast amount of information already out there in the developments in the music, TV, film, newspaper and magazine businesses to tell us what’s going on, and the onus is on us to learn from that. Departments are to be applauded for trying to do their job better, publicists like Peter and Yen in particular, but as an industry we have to far far far more profoundly examine ourselves, examine, and then transform–that was the message from SXSWi, nothing else, nothing less.