A Crossroads at the LA Times Book Festival

In Erin's Perspective by Erin L. Cox

By Erin L. CoxLATfob

Last weekend, the Los Angeles Times put on their annual Book Festival on the campus of UCLA.  Always a great collection of writers and readers, this year’s Festival did not disappoint.  For coverage, you can check out C-SPAN, which broadcast live from the Festival.  Or, via Twitter at #LATFOB

Two panels really stood out for me because they seemed to best illustrate the crossroads at which we find ourselves in publishing today–that of relying on the experts (in this case “the critics”) versus the masses (in this case “new media”). 

“The Art of the Critic” panel was moderated by Los Angeles Times Book Editor David Ulin and featured Elif Batuman who writes for London Review of Books, Lev Grossman from Time, Laura Miller from Salon.com, and Albert Mobilio from BookForum.  While the discussion was rich and interesting, one question really stood out for me and that was what it was like to be a critic in a world where everyone can and will review–from the reader reviews on Amazon to the discussions on GoodReads.com.  

Grossman best defined his position by telling a story about going on GoodReads.com to look at reviews for The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, arguably one of the greatest novels in American literature.  When he went on, he found ratings of one star and reviews that were mostly by high school students who hated being forced to read it, or people who thought that Fitzgerald used the word “gay” incorrectly.   For a reader looking for information, those reviews are out there and one can search by rating, but the role of a professional critic is to make an informed criticism–understanding the place and time in which a book was published. 

That isn’t to say that critics are always right (in fact all the critics on the panel agreed that in their careers, they may have neglected to cover a book or allowed hype/publisher/cover art to influence their initial thoughts of a book), but I think their role is even more important now than ever.  If I were a casual reader, I would want to know what the person who is reading 3-4 books a week and seeing every book out there is reading and liking, not what Bob down the street thinks of the one book he has read all year. 

In contrast, the “#Book: New Media Meets Publishing” panel moderated by Carolyn Kellogg, the lead blogger for  Jacket Copy LA, seemed to be advocating for more user-generated content, reader response, and DIY publishing.  On the panel were Pablo Defendini of Open Road Media, Dana Goodyear, New Yorker writer and co-founder of Figment.com, and actor and self-published writer Wil Wheaton.

All three panelists shared ways that writers could circumvent traditional publishing and do-it-themselves, with Wheaton sharing his own experience both being published by O’Reilly Media and taking it on himself by publishing through Lulu.com (you can also see on his blog his tips for self-publishing).  Defendini and Goodyear and their respective companies found ways to connect writers with their readers without going through the middle man of the booksellers, thereby establishing a stronger connection and perhaps a repeat reader/more sales/a stronger community.

While I loved the conversation and taking the power of publishing out of the hands of the publishing elite (if we can call publishers that anymore) and giving people with a great story the chance to tell it and find their audience, I did feel like the panelists were not all that supportive of the traditional publishing model and the systems of checks and balances that are in place. 

Wheaton and Defendini continued to refer to that old chestnut, “book publishers should look to the music industry for guidance on how the internet will ruin their industry,” but did not take into account some of the systems (and jobs) that will be lost if publishers jump headlong into the digital fray without finding a way to adapt those jobs.  Only Goodyear reminded us that the money that one pays for a book (whether online or digital) does not always go to just the printing/binding/shipping, it also goes to the money spent traveling for research, for the writer to live on while writing the book, and for the many men and women it takes to create the editing/promotion/design. 

So, like most digital discussions, it felt like a lot of opinions and very few answers, but an interesting look at publishing nonetheless. 

Did you go to either of these panels (or were on the panels)?   Tell me what you think.

About the Author

Erin L. Cox

Erin L. Cox has worked as Business Development Director for Publishing Perspectives. She is a Senior Associate at Rob Weisbach Creative Management, where she represents writers and handles publicity and advertising clients.