“Our Friends in Seattle” and Other Euphemisms from Books in Browsers 2011

In Digital by Edward Nawotka

Change agents on the West coast meet book publishers from New York at the Books in Browsers conference. The result: a lot of quotable moments.

By Edward Nawotka

East Coast and West Coast publishers met in San Francisco for the Books in Browsers 2011 Conference

Maybe it was the great weather, the tasty catering (with options for vegans, of course) or the mere fact that we were in San Francisco, but I found myself longing for a good fiery fight at the Books in Browsers conference last Thursday and Friday. The second-annual event hosted by the Internet Archive and O’Reilly Media featuring a roster of blue sky thinkers, practitioners and visionaries — was surprisingly conciliatory.  Happy even. What gives? Isn’t publishing in crisis?

Not in Northern California.

While the Twitter stream under the hashtag #bib11 provided a few moments of dissent, there was little disagreement among the 200-odd invited guests who were asked to think about and discuss the future of reading. My vote: let’s get out of the dreary New York ballrooms in the middle of winter and take those book confabs on the road.

Video of the sessions from Books in Browsers 2011 are on Youtube, while many presenters slide decks are at the Internet Archive website here and here.

A few observations and revelations from BIB11:

Social reading — whether in the form of Readmill, Mobnotate, or SocialBook — is the future. Or at least this year’s “future.”

Amazon is being looked on with increasing suspicion and had come to be referred to euphemistically over the two days as “our friends in Seattle.” Are they becoming the Voldemort of publishing, “the company that must not be named”?

It was suggested at the conference that the $40 billion US book business should take a percentage of its revenue — the figure cited was $80 million — and set up a “super-organization to address super-threats,” in particular the growing disinterest in reading. (Hear hear!)

“I work in Palo Alto” is the West coast equivalent of saying on the East coast “I went to college in Boston.” You know what they are telling you without them telling you explicitly.

Employees at Apple, Amazon, and Google — even when you have shared beers together — don’t like to admit they know journalists in public. They prefer to attend such events incognito.

The West coast and East coast publishing communities have different priorities. At Books in Browsers the words author, editor, agent, story and narrative were sparsely used.

Instead, many people spoke in a plethora of acronyms — the “plumbing of publishing” as Firebrand CEO Fran Toolan calls it — including GIT, GITHUB, OPDS, and a few I knew, such as EPUB3 and HTML5. Just like in the military, learning the diction is the price of admission.

Words that need more user-friendly alternatives: gamification, transmedia, and p-book. How about multi-medium for transmedia, bound book for p-book?

Developers are very concerned about designing a great UX (user experience) — and this emphasis on design is likely to dominate the way stories are told electronically in the future. As Corey Pressman of Exprima Media of Portland noted, some books are better “experienced” than “read.”

Technology has largely outpaced our ability to use it as storytellers. You can today employ technology to tailor a story to several different audiences at once — say a small child, a young adult, a man and a woman — but you don’t see it happening…yet.

Honesty wins out over hyperbole. This was best exhibited by Richard Nash, who admitted “I f*cked up” when talking about the lack of uptake for his Red Lemona.de/Cursor project. “We promised to launch 50,000 publishers, but we only launched one,” he admitted.

A wonderful new neologism was coined: “spook” = “spam book.”

In some circles piracy is just a euphemism for “demand not met by publishers.”

The top book of the conference: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson — ironically not the iBooks version, just the Kindle edition.

Plans are afoot for a UK-based Groupon-type sales site for e-book sales. (Watch this space!)

Eric Hellman of Gluejar is setting up Unglue.it, a system to allow universal licenses for e-books that will be based on crowd sourced funding.

Several start-ups in stealth mode are looking at launching sites to enable subscription-based fiction. (Watch this space, too!)

Current screen technology for e-readers that can alternate between color, which can handle full motion video, and black and white — both with little eyestrain — exists. I saw it and played with it. It will make a huge difference to how people feel about reading on screens.

Having a small group — i.e. less than 250 — in an intimate environment makes for better coffee break conversations. Oh, and having friendly dogs wandering about makes any conference better.

That hippie with the long unwashed hair and split ends dressed in what look like pajamas: Yep, he’s a millionaire and has been at this since long before you were born.

The Internet Archive is truly a national treasure.

Perhaps the quote that best summarizes my feelings about the two days came from the eminently quotable Bob Stein, who opened his presentation by stating, “The problem with instant history is that it is constructed to serve the present and it’s almost always wrong.” That said, the commitment and passion of the people present, not to mention their willingness to experiment and challenge existing publishing models — however much the emphasis was on everything but narrative and storytelling — was fascinating and heartening.

Bravo to Peter Brantley and the organizers.

DISCUSS: Is Following a Conference Via Twitter Worth It?

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.