Ether for Authors: Book Campground

In What's the Buzz by Porter Anderson

Table of Contents

  1. Tick-TOC: Book Campground
  2. “Go Where the People Already Are”
  3. Down­stream of the Data
  4. The (R)evo­lu­tion Will Be Televised
  5. Craft: Rethink­ing Social Media
  6. Self-Publishing as Slush Pile? Not So Fast
  7. Clash of the Conferences
  8. Last Gas: In-Process Archiving

Tick-TOC: Book Campground

Because some of us are, indeed, writers, let’s just get the terminology stumble out of the way quickly: yes, it’s true that an event called an “unconference,” on first hearing of the term, has all the catch-phrase appeal of other such glib phrases as “Jazzercise.”

Attendees at the February 10 Book^2 Camp in New York listen to proposals for self-directed debate sessions.

But as exercises go, there’s a potentially worthy workout in the annual Sunday-afternoon Book^2 Camp event that precedes the O’Reilly Media Tools of Change for Publishing Conference (TOC / #TOCcon) in New York.

If only provisions were made to capture what goes on in these discussions.

You pronounce “Book^2” as “Book Squared.” And between that and the “Camp” camp of the name (this is pretty wussy “camping,” hot and cold running everything), the event this weekend warranted more serious consideration than its branding suggests.

We’re indebted to Chris Kubica and Ami Grecko for spearheading Book^2 Camp each year. In a particularly good-looking move, the mighty Tools of Change program, itself, provides top-level sponsorship.

TOC Co-Chair Kat Meyer is generously engaged in the effort, personally.

From left, Book^2 Camp counselors-atop-furniture Ami Grecko, Kat Meyer, and Chris Kubica call for debate topics.

She rightly shared a perch Sunday with Grecko and Kubica as things got started in the traditional way: with the leadership standing on furniture so they could be seen over the heads of some 140 attendees. (Many more were wait-listed; the New York publishing community knows Book^2 Camp well.)

Everyone on hand is invited to propose a topic for discussion. That’s the “un” in this “unconference.” Rather than having organizers program the afternoon, participants both pitch and then debate the themes that interest them. Four 45-minute time periods divide the day between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Among topics put forward on Sunday, for example, were:

  • “What Bookstores Aren’t Doing for You”
  • “Middle Core: What Problems Do Average Readers Have?”
  • “Are Libraries the Future Bookstores?”
  • “How Mobile Content Strategy Can Help (or Hurt) Book Publishers”
  • “Bucket List: Share Your Dream, Big or Small”
  • “Monetizing a Personal Blog/Website: Best Practices”
  • “Rebuilding the Ecosystem: Imagining New Models for Content and Media Companies”
  • “Retail Zero: What If There Were No Money to be Made Selling Books?”

Workman Publishing in Manhattan sponsored the 2013 Book^2 Camp with multiple discussion spaces.

Special thanks this year go to Workman Publishing, which provided multiple meeting spaces at its Manhattan offices. (Book Camp requires settings for five or more separate groups in each segment of the day.)

What’s striking about this event—another “un” factor—is that it’s attended by many of the actual doers of publishing. It’s not a suits-and-slogans affair. Many of these folks are the professionals at middle-management and daily-execution levels, from small outfits to the Big Six. These talks are among the workers, in other words, and they’re sometimes surprisingly candid.

In one session Sunday, for instance, I heard an exchange between highly experienced staffers from Amazon and Random House. They understood each other’s problems well, although barriers to in-house innovation meant different things to them. This year, Joe Wikert, O’Reilly Media General Manager and Publisher (and TOC Co-Chair with Meyer) spent the afternoon at Book Camp, creating perhaps the most satisfying link yet between the two events—digital publishing’s most tech-aggressive formal conference and Book Camp’s low-key informality.

GigaOM's Laura Hazard Owen proposed and led a session at Book^2 Camp on discoverability.

“It makes a ton of sense to put the (work) where the eyeballs of the community already are,” Wikert told a packed debate on online discoverability proposed by GigaOM’s Laura Hazard Owen. By getting a community into place, Wikert said, the reader-mojo an author needs is already in place for a project’s launch. Discoverability is a dilemma that would come up all afternoon in various contexts. One of the most cogent observations on this topic came from Guy Gonzalez, who said the challenge may not be so much reader-discovery of books as it is major publishers’ trouble in finding those readers.

Valobox’s Oliver Brooks stressed his company’s belief in “trying to make the book web content,” exposing entire texts to discovery by search. Another session, this one proposed by Anne Kostick (who led Digital Book World’s Publishing Innovation Awards jury), focused on what she calls “publishing archeology.” It led Barnes & Noble’s Matt Mullin to describe a kind of publication he’d like to see of work, perhaps out of print (pre-digital era) produced in a way that surrounded and explicated it with work of the authors’ major influences.

Yet another session puzzled over the difficulty that major publishers seem to have rapidly prototyping new approaches and products:

  • The ossification that even R&D attempts can become in corporate settings;
  • The mistake of trying to find “one big fix to apply to everything”; and
  • The way a success for one major player becomes something the others try to copy (another theme I heard several times during the afternoon).

Book^2 Camp participants listen to points in a late-afternoon discussion.

Some sessions in this format take off unexpectedly with lively discussion and useful takeaways. Others never come together as well, occasionally because a group’s viewpoints just seem too disparate to gel. But having the issues come from the participants seems to channel energy into the debate worth recording. If the process of the “unconference” starts with relative informality (bring your own topic), the one area I’d like to see Kubica and Grecko consider for possible rigor is in the chance to capture and analyze some or all of the spirited tone and camaraderie here.

Lastly, with TOC’s new Author (R)evolution Day coming on Tuesday—O’Reilly’s first major full-day conference-within-the-conference for authors — it’s worth noting that authors are largely absent from Book^2 Camp.

I don’t know that authors’ scarcity at the event is in any way intentional.

But surely when the “brightest minds in publishing and technology,” as the site’s copy says, convene next year “to solve what the next incarnation of the book will be,” it will make sense to include some of the people who will write that next incarnation.

Back to Table of Contents

“Go Where the People Already Are”

It’s unlikely at this point that a traditional publisher (or group of publishers) is going to invent a retail platform that will rival Amazon or iTunes.

Chris McVeigh

But Chris McVeigh, in an article at TheFutureBook’s blog, hardly is suggesting publishers throw in the towel.

That doesn’t mean that publishers shouldn’t aspire towards creating their own destination sites and eventually owning the means of distribution (and their own customer data). On the contrary, that is exactly where I think they should be headed. The key is how to do that? How do publishers define realistic, attainable goals in this space and how do they achieve them?

Instead, even as folks at Book^2 Camp were debating discoverability issues on Sunday, this new write was being posted.

Vertical Publishing. Take it to the people, strongly echoes some of the talk in Owen’s discoverability session and in other parts of the day. He writes:

Simply put, verticals are subject or genre defined categories into which publishers can easily group their titles. Marketing 101 — segmenting your customer base into smaller, more manageable categories increases the targeting and effectiveness of any subsequent marketing campaign.

Joe Wikert

Indeed, at one point Sunday, O’Reilly’s Joe Wikert referred to books for Amazon as “road kill” on the way to higher-margin products. And here’s McVeigh:

Jeff Bezos did not set out in 1994 to create a bookstore — if you think that you hugely underestimate his ambition and his achievement…Bezos set out to create an online retailer. He used books as a Trojan horse, identifying the supply chain of the publishing industry as the one most ripe for disintermediation.

Book buyers, McVeigh writes, served as a vertical for Amazon as it grew, an audience niched by readers’ interest in books. McVeigh:

Publishers, instead of setting out a grand vision for building the biggest book related destination site in the world, should set themselves smaller, more attainable goals.

A lot of conversational roads, it seems, lead these days to the Rome of verticals, the cultivation of niches based on interest. This is something O’Reilly Media has practiced, of course. McVeigh also cites Osprey Books, F+W Media, and Sourcebooks. McVeigh:

Publishers who master these skills [using marketing techniques to leverage big data] will be able to target where the audience already is instead of trying to tell the audience where to go. They will be able to position their websites, communities and social media campaigns in the right place and that is often half the battle.

Back to Table of Contents


Down­stream of the Data

This week is among the most intensive for publishing.

Book^2 Camp discussion topics are assigned to available meeting spaces.

Here’s a quick reference to when and where to watch for some coverage:

Back to Table of Contents



The (R)evo­lu­tion Will Be Televised

Author (R)evolution Day, like the rest of the O'Reilly Media Tools of Change events this week, is at the Marriott Marquis on Broadway.

Author (R)evolution Day is set at the Marriott Marquis on Broadway in Times Square and runs parallel to a series of Tools of Change workshops, also at the Marriott, on Tuesday. Good news from the O’Reilly Media Tools of Change for Publishing folks producing Tuesday’s (February 12) Author (R)evolution Day (hashtag #ARDay): A live stream is being provided of the entire program, and you can find it, I’m told, on the ARDay page. Watch, free of charge, if you can and join us from afar via live video and, of course, in our tweet-storm from the conference at #ARDay. The opening comments come from O’Reilly Media’s Joe Wikert and Kat Meyer and their co-chair from the sponsoring Bookigee and WriterCubeKristen McLean, at 9 a.m. ET / 1400 GMT. Except for breaks and lunch, we’re in session all day until about 5 p.m. ET / 2200 GMT. Please join us!
Back to Table of Contents

Craft: Rethink­ing Social Media

There has certainly been a lot of social media chatter ABOUT Gillian’s books, although it’s true that for the most part she was not out there participating in or generating the conversation.

Stephanie Rostan

This is Levine Greenberg agent Stephanie Rostan talking about her client Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl. She’s answering questions from our colleague and digital publicist and marketing specialist Fauzia Burke at FSB Associates on the relatively low online profile maintained by Flynn. It’s worth quoting Burke’s set-up, in fact, because she’s done her homework and knows what to ask Rostan:

I noticed that Ms. Flynn’s website is great but not updated often. I could not find a blog, a mailing list, or a Twitter handle. I may have missed them, but it was not obvious. She has a Facebook page with 13,000 people which I assume is updated by someone other than her and only about her events. Clearly in this case, the books are hugely successful without the author’s investment in social media, so do you think an investment of social media/digital marketing is important for an author’s success?

Gillian Flynn

Burke, long a proponent of the audience-cultivation route for authors — “platforming,” if you’re strong enough to handle the word today (and yes, it’s a verb) — is making something of a departure here by asking Rostan about this. But she lists good reasons. Burke writes:

I am seeing social media burn-out in authors and second because I realized that two of the top selling authors of 2012 did not invest much time in social media.

Rostan turns out to be keenly aware of how differently social media may work for one author as opposed to another. She tells Burke:

Fauzia Burke

There is a big difference for fiction vs. nonfiction authors. For nonfiction authors with a specific expertise, being out there in the community that has interest in that expertise will most likely be effective in selling their book. For fiction authors, trying to “sell” their personality may not be as useful for getting someone to read their book for the first time — this isn’t a popularity contest, it’s about the reading experience.

And she has an interesting take on the platforming/timing question, in this interesting Q&A:

I do think readers like to form relationships with authors whose books they love, but that comes AFTER they’ve read the book. So it can be more useful in building and maintaining an audience over time.

Back to Table of Contents

Self-Publishing as Slush Pile? Not So Fast

This week here in New York City, “slush pile” is more immediately likely to refer to an actual pile of dirty-snow slush than to literary proposals that come in over the transom.

Rachelle Gardner

But if we go with our usual book-ly reference:

We still have our regular slush piles to go through; we get queries; we get referrals; we meet writers at conferences. There are plenty of other ways to find good books, and staying on top of the self-pub world is an additional task.

This is Books & Such literary agent Rachelle Gardner in Are Self-Pub Books the New Slush Pile? Her answer: not necessarily. One of  her arguments I find most heartening is that the “wisdom” of the masses may not be all it’s cracked up to be when it comes to an agency’s choices of clients and material.

The self-publishing approach is basically crowd-sourcing; that is, letting the masses decide what is good. But often the informed and passionate opinion of one person can be even better at identifying something of quality and bringing it to an audience who would otherwise never have found it.

Gardner has recently become something of a new-agent symbol, herself, by self-publishing a book of her own, How Do I Decide: Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing. One might argue that the agent is asking herself her own question: Has she now entered the great e-slush pile? Is she about to get a call from a busily surfing editor who spots her book and wants to offer her a contract? Gardner has more good points that argue against it.

A huge self-pub bestseller at $0.99 or $2.99 may not translate into a print bestseller for a publisher at $12.99. Self-pub hits aren’t guaranteed traditional-pub hits. Many agents and editors work in genres that aren’t well-represented in the self-publishing world, so looking in that direction for their next books might not be time well-spent. While some lucky authors have the interest and the aptitude to be entrepreneurial, others simply want to write and aren’t interested in self-publishing.

It’s a nicely “graying” read that helps restore the fact that nothing so simplistic as “the self-publishing slush pile” can stand unchallenged for long.

Back to Table of Contents

Clash of the Conferences

If you have a publishing conference in the offing, do let me know about it via my contact page, and I’ll be happy to consider including it in my site’s listing and in columns as I have the chance.

February 12 New York City at the Marriott Marquis New York in Times Square. A first-ever author-dedicated daylong conference from the O’Reilly Media Tools of Change team, led by Joe WikertKat Meyer, and Kristen McLean.

Hashtag: #ARDay

TOC Author (R)evolution Day: “This one-day conference-within-a-conference from the thought leaders at Tools of Change and Publishers Weekly is designed specifically for professional authors, content creators, agents, and independent author service providers who want to move beyond ‘Social Media 101’ to a more robust dialogue about the opportunities in today’s rapidly shifting landscape.”

Remember that if you can’t follow all the day’s tweets or the live stream from Author (R)evolution Day, you can review the tweets and other ARDay/TOC materials on our Epilogger tracker.


February 12-14 New York City (again at Marriot Marquis Times Square) O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change for Publishing Conference: “Every February, the publishing industry gathers at the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference (TOC) to explore the forces that are transforming publishing and focus on solutions to the most critical issues facing the publishing world. TOC sells out every year — don’t miss its potent mix of fabulous people and invaluable information.” Under the direction of Joe Wikert and Kat Meyer. Hashtag: #TOCcon

jane friendmanFebruary 11 and 15 London Foyles and The Bookseller Re-Imagine the Bookshop: In this invitational workshop, “Foyles has partnered with The Bookseller to invite customers and industry experts to help design a new flagship Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road for the 21st century with architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands…Participants will be asked to engage with issues such as declining physical book sales; the place of ebooks; the cultural importance of bookshops and author events; the specialist knowledge of booksellers; and how bookshops can provide customers with a place to buy books, however they decide to read them.”

February 19-21 Indie ReCon online: “IndieReCon is a free, online conference…designed to help any writer or author who is curious about the ins and outs of indie publishing. You’ll find everything from the pros and cons of indie publishing, essential aspects in creating a high-quality book, successful online marketing, and expanding into international markets…We will feature more than 30 guests, including…Darcy Chan, CJ Lyons, Bob Mayer, Hugh Howey, M. Leighton, and Samantha Young.”


March 6-9 Boston AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs: AWP last year drew 10,000 attendees to icy Chicago, and, per its copy on the site this year, AWP “typically features 550 readings, lectures, panel discussions, and forums, as well as hundreds of book signings, receptions, dances, and informal gatherings.” The labyrinthine book fair is said to have featured some 600 exhibitors last year. The program is a service-organization event of campus departments, hence the many readings by faculty members.


April 17 New York City paidContent Live: Riding the Transformation of the Media industryBrisk and bracing, last year’s paidContent Live conference was efficient, engaging, and enlightening, not least for the chance to see many of the talented journalists of Om Malik’s GigaOM/paidContent team work onstage — Laura Hazard Owen, Mathew Ingram, Jeff John Roberts, Robert Andrews, Ernie Sander, et al. Among speakers listed for this year’s busy day: Jonah Peretti, Jason Pontin, Chris Mohney, Erik Martin, David Karp, Mark Johnson, Aria Haghighi, Matt Galligan, Rachel Chou, Lewis D’Vorkin, John Borthwick, Andrew Sullivan, Jon Steinberg, Alan Rusbridger, Evan Ratliff, and, of course, Dominique Raccah and Michael Tamblyn.


May 2-5 Oxford, Mississippi Oxford Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference & Workshops Susan Cushman follows her Memphis Creative Nonfiction confab with this year’s gathering at the shrine. Among faculty members: Neil White, Leigh Feldman, Lee Gutkind, Dinty W. Moore, Beth Ann Fennelly, Bob Guccione Jr. and Lee Martin. Pre-conference workshops or just the creature itself, your choice.


May 3-5 Boston The Muse & the Marketplace 2013 is a production of Eve Bridberg’s fast-rising non-profit Grub Street program. Its material tells us that organizers plan more than “110 craft and publishing sessions led by top-notch authors, editors, agents and publicists from around the country. The Manuscript Mart, the very popular and effective one-on-one manuscript reviews with agents and editors, will also span three days. We expect nearly 800 writers and publishing professionals to attend, while maintaining the conference’s wonderfully intimate, ‘grubby’ energy that we love.” Back to Table of Contents Focus is a thing. A substance we can’t see but an actual force nonetheless.

Last Gas: In-Process Archiving

Going back to the question we started with — whether we might not want to try to capture, record, analyze some of the outputs from the “ongoing unconference” that is Book^2 Camp — I’m struck by a dire parallel.

Of all the 3/11 archives, the Japan Disaster Archive most expands, or even violates, the accepted bounds of the archive. For a start, it stores almost nothing. Instead, it is networked: nearly all of its over 1 million items—documents, websites, tweets, images, audio, video—are not actually held on Harvard’s servers. They come instead from a federation of “content partners” like Yahoo! Japan and the Internet Archive.

Kyle Parry

This is from Kyle Parry’s Notes from the Participatory Digital Archives Conference for Issue No. 5 of Erin Kissane’s outstanding Contents Magazine.

(Kissane is moderating a double-session panel at Tools of Change, Creators and Technology Converging: When Tech Becomes Part of the Story, at 10:35 a.m. ET / 1535 GMT Thursday.)

Parry writes:

The archive is also “participatory.” It provides its users with the means to annotate and geo-locate items and enables them to build “collections.” These collections can either stand on their own or form the basis for multimedia interactive narratives.

To hear us moan about the industry! the industry! you’d think we were caught in an experience to warrant “Japan’s 2011 disasters,” as they’re called.

We, of course, have nothing to compare to such a horror as the quake, tsunami, reactor failures and associated ordeals, nothing.

What we do have, perhaps in micro at the Book^2 Camp and in macro over the years of our digital disruption, is a chance to consider how we, too, handle opportunities at “participatory archiving.”


Conferences on disaster and participatory archiving are by no means common — one unconnected event called “Archiving Catastrophe” took place last year in New York. At their core lies a new fact of life: disasters like those of March 2011 now necessarily involve the automatic production of vast digital records. From the textual to the audiovisual to the quantitative, these records flow through recordable live feeds in near-real time; those accessible on the web are continually and automatically indexed; and newly created and digitized documents continue to appear well after the events have reached their apparent end.

Maybe you need to blur your eyes a little, but Parrys commentary on the feeling of overwhelm in trying to embrace, parse, and understand his project in real time isn’t all that far from what many of us in publishing today might feel, particularly during the kind of week many of us are having here in New York. One conference event after the next rolls over us, each sturdy and intriguing in its own right, all needing to be knitted together, in a pattern we can read “grok.” Parry writes:

Front-row as I was, I still had trouble collecting this kaleidoscope of themes into any meaningful question—aside from briefly pointing to the challenges of audiovisual storytelling. Over the weekend that followed, however, some of the most striking themes crystallized.

And so I think we sometimes feel in our current — and not-a-all-over — upheaval in the business. We watch even Author (R)evolution Day approach with some trepidation: are we attacking the right points for authors struggling to take on the new curtmantle of entrepreneurial leadership in a staggered business?

The impulse to make archives may not be ours alone; we build on the spectral prototypes machines already assemble.

We’re all reaching for it, trying to bend tools to the moment’s need of reflection and the era’s demand for great and serious care in what we do, what we say, how we choose our next moves.

Here’s to getting some things right. We’re going to need to do that.

Back to Table of Contents

Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Writing on the Ether is read Thursdays at More at

Book^2 Camp images / Porter Anderson

About the Author

Porter Anderson

Facebook Twitter

Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.