By Bethanne Patrick, Book Maven Media
It isn’t often I see Margaret Atwood twice in one week. In fact, most weeks I don’t see Ms. Atwood at all, since she’s busy being a famous, highly respected novelist and light of the literary universe.
However, Margaret Atwood came to New York City this week along with me and hundreds of other publishing industry types to attend two very different events. On Sunday, February 13, Book 2 Camp (pronounced “Book Squared” by its agents of change, Chris Kubica of neverendmedia.com and Ami Greko of Kobo.com) took place at Open Sky headquarters on 18th Street, and from Monday, February 14 until Wednesday, February 16, O’Reilly Tools of Change (TOC) for Publishing Conference was held at the Sheraton New York in midtown Manhattan.
Atwood gave one of the TOC keynotes –- but decided to attend Book 2 Camp after hearing about it from the O’Reilly social-media director, Kat Meyer. Book 2 Camp bills itself, like other similar meetings which include PubCamp and the forthcoming PubCamp@SXSW, as an “unconference,” meaning that attendees gather and invent an agenda at the beginning of the day’s scheduled time block. Anyone can propose a session topic, and once all of the time blocks have been filled for the four conference areas available, the clock starts ticking –- each session runs for about 40 minutes.
Like Margaret Atwood, I was coming in to town for TOC –- as moderator of a panel about literary reviewing in the digital age. Since Book 2 Camp was held on a Sunday, it was an excellent opportunity for me to jump in before convincing myself it would be too stressful to participate in what amounts to five hours of musical chairs with colleagues.
When I showed up at 12.15 p.m. for Book 2 Camp, there were already several dozen people there grabbing coffee, fruit, and various bread products while enthusiastically greeting old friends and meeting new ones. I immediately saw Jenn Webb from O’Reilly Radar, met Kubica for the first time in person, and saw my friend Ann Kingman of Books on the Nightstand. By 12.40 we’d all gathered around Greko, who stood on top of a cubicle desk to give us basic instructions about throwing together an “unconference” schedule. Quite a few people, including Guy LeCharles Gonzalez from Digital Book World and Nick Ruffilo of Bookswim, had brief presentations already prepared for the sessions they proposed, while Kingman and Miriam Parker from Hachette’s new Mulholland Books imprint thought of something on the spot and spoke without so much as a note.
Kingman and Parker’s session was the first one I went to –- sitting very close to Atwood, for whom my friend Melissa Klug from Glatfelter pulled out a chair. “Is that because I’m old?” Atwood said with a laugh. “No, it’s because I love you,” said Klug. Atwood proceeded to pepper Kingman with detailed questions about blog specifics, from metrics to lists of the best blogs to bookseller relationships. While Kingman (who runs the podcast on the side of her day job as a Random House sales representative) didn’t have answers to all of the author’s queries, everyone there was clearly delighted to get Atwood’s perspective as a novelist who is confronting the new world of digital media with forthright interest instead of fear.
My fear of Book 2 Camp dissipated as the day went on and the sessions I attended bred more conversations. A talk on academic presses was not only fast and interesting –- it gave me an entirely new perspective on how short-discount titles can fail in this new crossover universe (and I sat next to an old pal from bookselling I haven’t seen in 15 years). Chris Kubica’s late session about brainstorming a new vocabulary for publishing turned into a lively debate about cultural authority and copyright. I told several people that while I am usually enervated by a long day, after Book 2 Camp I was energized and ready to learn more.
That was a good thing, since Margaret Atwood and I had a lot more to do at the TOC Conference. Her keynote, which included slides featuring her own cartoons, gave the tech-heavy audience a dose of droll artistic reality: She told the assembly that if content isn’t paid for, authors have no “cheese sandwiches” to eat. It was a message worth proclaiming to the developers, publishers, and media who mainly attend TOC to hear people like Andrew Savikas and Brian O’Leary.
TOC is a well-developed conference, with a feature-heavy, interactive web site that’s big on community and social-media, as well as short sessions with plenty of breaks for networking, on-site lunches, and an exhibitor space for new-tech vendors. While at Book 2 Camp everyone is running away from meetings into sessions, at TOC everyone is rushing out of sessions and intro meetings. The vibe is different –- that won’t surprise anyone –- yet at both events, Margaret Atwood and I discussed some of the same ideas with different audiences.
Atwood’s keynote was a high point, but I attended several other excellent sessions, including one on modern bookselling moderated by Kassia Krozser of Booksquare.com and with panelists Malle Valik of Harlequin, Jenn Northington of WORD Brooklyn, Jessica Stockton Bagnulo of Greenlight Brooklyn, Kevin Smokler of Booktour.com, and Lori TI of AllRomance.com and a terrific discussion about e-readers “from a reader’s perspective” held by Jane Litte of Dear Author and Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.
In other words, I’ll freely admit to spending my Book 2 Camp time on tech – and my TOC Con time on books. Kind of like, come to think of it, Margaret Atwood. I think all of us have more in common when it comes to figuring out how to save publishing than we know.