SXSW Digerati: Publishing Assassins or Saviors?

In Europe by Edward Nawotka


By Edward Nawotka

Q: What do Israeli Mossad agents on a not-so-secret mission to Dubai and the digerati at SXSW have in common?

A: Both groups are assassins disguised as geeks wearing thick black plastic glasses.

SXSW: I think saw the future in Austin: It was wearing black plastic glasses.

This year’s SXSWi — short for South-by-Southwest Interactive — gave me pause. Will the geeks, indeed, inherit the Earth? Perhaps not today, perhaps not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of our lives? And if we in the publishing community really don’t want to be answering to quasi-hipster dudes toting bulging “checkpoint friendly” laptop bags, trailing various Apple cords,  PowerBar crumbs trailing down the fronts of their shirts, what is to be done?

It might not be obvious from New York, London, or elsewhere; but if publishing doesn’t start to fully engage with the multimedia/interactive community, there is a danger of ceding  much of their business to the geeks.

These are the people who are shaping everybody’s world, whether through advancing the practical implications of HTML5, developing new social networking platforms, or simply by advocating new forms of storytelling that can’t easily be confined between the covers of a traditional print book, be it via video, audio or transmedia.

In years past, SXSW seemed almost hostile to book publishing (I know this first hand, having worked at the Texas Book Festival and tried to get more collaboration going). There had been authors giving presentations, but they represented a very small minority. Then, something in the past few years changed and books were suddenly on the agenda. (My theory is that the first wave of people who were attending SXSWi as far back as the early 1990s got to the point in their careers where they wanted to publish books of their own.)

Last year, SXSW introduced a now infamous panel on called “New Think for Old Publishers” where things went awry: The audience, to say the least, was unconvinced that the panelists know much about the future, let alone much about Twitter. This year, there were numerous panels (“on the subject”?), including a kind of sequel to the earlier disaster, entitled, “A Brave New Future for Book Publishing,” featuring Kevin Smokler, CEO of; Pablo Defendini, producer of SF site; Debbie Stier deputy publisher of HarperStudio, Matthew Cavner from book/video publisher Vook, and Kassia Krozser from Booksquare. This year’s panel was deliberately more upbeat in tone.

While there has already been plenty of great coverage from the event from one of the targets of last year’s ire, Peter Miller, publicity director of Bloomsbury USA, I think it worth noting a few salient points from the presentation:

  1. The Internet and the geeks who run it aren’t competitors, but potential collaborators and partners. Both Cavner and Defindini made this point. “The internet is a vast place, be it Twitter or whatever,” said Defindini. That said, if you don’t find a way to work with the digerati, they will eat your lunch. Google and Amazon are perfect examples of that.
  2. Booksellers have the most to lost in this fight: Again, Google and Amazon are examples of this. But, as Smokler pointed out, the future bookstore may be as simple as an Expresso POD machine, a coffee pot and some armchairs.
  3. An author is no longer an individual working in a room alone, but the leader of an online “tribe” of followers –- the people who comprise the author’s audience. Several example kept coming up, wine guy Gary Vaynerchuck, author of Crush It!, business guru Seth Godin; and Kroszer’s favorite example, The Pioneer Woman, who “could organize a tour on her own without the help of a publisher.” The consensus, from another panel –- “Scoring a Tech Book Deal” was that a potential author needed a minimum of 5,000 Twitter followers.
  4. For non celebrities, social media is the way most authors will get this tribe. This can be difficult for some traditional authors. Stier mentioned her friend, fiction writer Marth McPhee, who is “shy” but through Stier’s encouragement has gotten the hang of blogging.
  5. Publishing is largely dis-intermediated. The primary customer may have been the big box bookstore buyers, but with e-books and frictionless distribution, the main customer has to be the reader.

What was said at the panel may not be news to everyone, but it surely struck a chord with the SXSW audience. Aside from the keynote and celebrity talks at SXSW, it was the best attended event I saw in the few days I was there. Following the finish of the Q&A portion, the podium was literally thronged with people wanting to keep the questions and discussion going.

What this signals to me is a willingness on the part of the tech community to find ways of collaborating with the publishing community –- provided the publishers approach them on their own turf and terms. Vook, and HarperStudio are hardly representative of legacy publishing, but they have proved to be good intermediaries.

Now, if Bertelsmann and Pearson would have sent a representative, we might be getting somewhere. Who is to say, in fact, that they didn’t. Maybe they were just sitting quietly, listening, content in the knowledge that publishing is not “dying” — it’s a $25-30 billion a year business, after all –- and is just moving, as it always does, on into the future.

READ: Lorraine Shanley’s take on SXSWi from Publishing Trends

DISCUSS:Has digital and self publishing devalued authorship?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.