Ether for Authors: A Mighty Metaphor Is Our Industry

In Tech Digest by Porter Anderson

15 April 2013 Westminster Abbey texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. A Mighty Metaphor Is Our Industry
  2. Stop-Down the Start-Ups
  3. And Where Are the Publishers?
  4. I Heard “Speed” a Lot
  5. Tak­ing Care of Turow
  6. Conferences

A Mighty Metaphor Is Our Industry

The publishing industry is struggling to find the metaphors that describe the transformation that is taking over the sector. This is one conclusion from Digital Minds, the annual digital conference that acts as the Sunday-prelude to the London Book Fair.

LBF London Book FairA stone’s throw from a sun-kissed Westminster Abbey on Sunday, the fifth annual doing of the Digital Minds Conference that precedes the London Book Fair’s frolics was, as The Bookseller’s Philip Jones is telling us, nothing if not a merriment of metaphors.

As he writes in Mixed Metaphors for TheFuturebook:

First up in the metaphor-wars was Pan Macmillan’s ebullient digital director Sara Lloyd who chaired the conference. Digital was akin to climate change, she said…Neil Gaiman…said people in the book business needed to become more like ‘dandelions’, experimenting by spreading numerous seeds around and accepting that most would fall on stony ground…Will Atkinson, alluding to the sense the the digital change might have slowed down recently as e-book growth levels off, sought metaphors in the world of sports. “We are in the changing room at half-time, having an orange, we’ll soon be back for the second half.”

Pablo Defendini

Pablo Defendini

While you’re finishing your orange, I can help you out with Gaiman’s dandelion business, thanks to a leg up from our good colleague at Safari Books, Pablo Defendini. He was on the conference’s Changing Editorial Role panel.

With Defendini’s agile help (“agile” being largely unheard and not missed in Sunday’s proceedings), we turn to Think Like a Dandelion: reproductive strategies for the Internet era.

There, we find author Cory Doctorow writing:

My latest column in Locus Magazine, “Think Like a Dandelion,” came out of a talk I had with Neil Gaiman about the bio-economics of giving stuff away for free. Mammals worry about what happens to each and every one of their offspring, but dandelions only care that every crack in every sidewalk has dandelions growing out of it. The former is a good strategy for situations in which reproduction is expensive, but the latter works best when reproduction is practically free — as on the Internet.

15 April 2013 for column 27-Sept-Nikada-TEXTED-STORY-iStock_000007898695Small 1And by day’s end, after Jones had turned out not one but two columns (did I mention agility?), Perseus’ Rick Joyce was busy onstage with a shortened edition of his clever Digital Book World Discovery Conference keynote from last September.

Here were his “Sea of Conversations,” his “Coastline of Content,” and his guidance on “Understanding the Natives” when it comes to the readership. And all, he said, require exploration: “Am I going to wait for the market to bring me tools that work?” Or does a publisher go out and find or build those tools?

Anna Rafferty

Anna Rafferty

Then Anna Rafferty of Penguin Digital came along to tell us that, no, the whole thing is like romantic seduction. “There are too many one-night stands in publishing.” And to think she managed her presentation with a slide presentation that all but stood her up.

After months of planning led by Orna O’Brien as Conference Manager for Reed Exhibitions, producer of London Book Fair (and BookExpo America), Digital Minds was competently produced, despite some schedule slipping and sliding.

And the Queen Elizabeth II Centre’s Westminster overlook is a great spot for conference coffee breaks and lunch. The “hallways,” as we call chats between sessions at conferences, don’t quite turn to “cloisters,” but it was grand to see sunlight hit the old stones across the street Sunday, Londoners turning out for one of the first decent days of a long, cold spring.

Conference Riviera: Delgates to the 2013 Digital Minds Conference use their lunch break to catch some rays across the street from Westminster Abbey. Photo: Porter Anderson

Conference Riviera: Delgates to the 2013 Digital Minds Conference use their lunch break to catch some rays across the street from Westminster Abbey. Photo: Porter Anderson

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Stop-Down the Start-Ups

The only element of the day’s programming I felt was a big misstep is one we’ve seen a lot at other conferences, it’s certainly not the problem of Digital Minds alone. It’s these parades of start-ups that too many organizers feel obligated to lay on.

Calm before the metaphors:  The Churchill Room at Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center in Westminster

Calm before the metaphors: The Churchill Room at Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center in Westminster

These events are all cutesy corporate names, three-minute “pitches,” a crazy quilt of PowerPoints, and, in this case, an onstage grilling by four “judges” followed by audience members texting their choice for winner of the day’s Innovation Award. Especially at the end of the day, it’s always a bit hard to focus, despite the representatives of the young companies doing all they can to distinguish their companies from others that seem, somehow, just like them. Redundancy, lightweight concepts, and BiblioNames seem the rule in these events at each conference.

Sheila Bounford

Sheila Bounford

Our good colleague Sheila Bounford had an idea: instead of an hour of pitches, perhaps one at each session break would be easier to take, spreading them out during the day. Paperight, the company that uses copyshops and cellphone service to print books for customers in South Africa, won Digital Minds’ Innovation Award, as it won the parallel award, Best Entrepreneurial in the Startup Showcase at O’Reilly Tools of Change in New York in February.

PaperightThese are rightful honors for the popular initiative led by Arthur Attwell. It’s quite familiar to the industry now for the scenario it creates to encourage legal licensing and use of available technology, sweetly fit to purpose in a part of the world without the full traditional print infrastructure of more developed regions. But Paperight is a handsome exception in a business crowded with too many publishing-related startups, for its bright-line status as a singular venture. KbuukThe inanely named Kbuuk of last week’s report from Dennis Abrams (Ready For Kbuuk? Another New Self-pub Ebook Company) is an example, its leaders talking of jumping onto the “ebook train” with publishing services. Other new companies, like the just-announced Read Petite (reported on by paidContent’s Laura Hazard Owen in Waterstones founder to help launch new e-singles subscription site, Read Petite) need to find their places on the troubled terrain of publishing, prove they have legs, and make some headway, maybe, before being put into these start-up-o-rama bids for best guess. I do realize that visibility is important to many of them. I’m not sure these battle-of-the-garage-band trot-outs, well-intended as they surely are, can be the happiest forum for them.   Back to Table of Contents


And Where Are the Publishers?

While doing live-tweet coverage of Digital Minds, I picked up what to me was one of the most interesting comments of the day. Faber’s Will Atkinson was onstage giving his “The Year in Digital So Far” talk, both informative and fun. (On demographics, the ebook reader, he said, “is looking older and more female.”)

Will Atkinson

Will Atkinson

At one point, though, Atkinson said that while it’s nice to see the new tools and start-ups:

But where are the publishers?…they’re working hard but not being loud about it.

Actually, they’re not being loud enough about it. How about we give the start-ups a rest now and have showcases of what major publishers are doing about digital? We seem to hear, “Oh they’re doing great things in the traditional houses” quite a bit. We do, from time to time, get a glimpse of an initiative. Generally presented out of a larger context and especially in the space of author services, these moves can seem either exploitative (fiercely hated author services bought by major publishers) or too little too late to a jaded writer corps.

Molly Barton

Molly Barton

We do see, fairly regularly, some welcome representatives of the larger houses, too, this time including conference chair Sara Lloyd and her colleague Jonathan Atkins from from Pan MacmillanMolly Barton, Rafferty, and Eric Huang from Penguin (Huang moving to Mind Candy); Dan Franklin of Random House; Eloy Sasot from HarperCollins.

But I say it’s time the majors dropped whatever veils they feel are important, set the conversation about them straight, and join the crowded field of whatever will be the future of publishing. Now would be good.

Which gets me to one last note from this stimulating conference.  

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I Heard “Speed” a Lot

It’s foolishly simplistic to assert that one thing or another is the issue for publishing. We hear too much such single-note claptrap.

Nash, Richard @R_Nash at 2013 AWP

Richard Nash

If any panel had a tin ear Sunday, it was the “Copyright – What Next?” group, not because its members aren’t fine professionals doing their best in trying times, but because they’re all on much the same side of the issue. Panel chair Richard Mollet of the Publishers Association had the grace near the end to call for questions from the audience, asking particularly for something that might challenge the idea that copyright law can be managed largely as is, just not very quickly because the law is so slow. Happily, Small DemonsRichard Nash was in the Churchill Room at the time and heard the call. He picked up his provocateur cue handily:

And this, of course, did, in the final moments of the panel—and only from the audience—naysay the company line enough to prompt a rebuff from the Copyright Clearance Center’s congenial Michael Healy:

That’s probably more of what we needed all day. It’s been too long since those Saturday Night Live sketches that always stopped the show with “Jane, you ignorant slut.” I vote we offer this line to Nash for his personal use in conference settings when the smiles go too wan and the gentility of it all starts wilting the lobby flowers. “Healy, you ignorant slut.” See? It puts the edge right back into a moment gone too collegial.

A conference break in the Pickwick Suite at the QEII Centre. "The hallways," as we call these moments.

A conference break in the Pickwick Suite at the QEII Centre. “The hallways,” as we call these moments.

But it wasn’t just in relation to copyright that the question of speed — and/or a lack thereof — came into play. Other than the high-speed trains on which Marcello Vena’s RCS Libri ebooks can be read, “speed” was usually referred to in the negative, as in way too little of it. LBF Digital Minds ConfabWe heard elements of this from Poetica’s Blaine Cook; from Harlequin’s Donna Condon; from Rosie Goldsmith; and from Nash (he’s everywhere, yes), in this instance, in a comment about how fashion designers must be quick to market with new work because they have no copyright protection to scare those horses in the street. A serious, if randomly referenced, consensus is forming that the the comparative speed of digital publishing processes to the traditional timelines is more than a mild issue. It’s a deal breaker.

Rebecca Smart

Rebecca Smart

Rebecca Smart of Osprey Books said this:

“One of our challenges is ‘too little speed, too much complexity'” per the needs of chain retailers.

And that’s a great opener for a debate about promises of new speed in old places. You hear tell of good efforts among the publishers to start pacing digital timelines. Let’s have some big houses join the conversation and describe what they’re actually doing, what approaches are working, what approaches aren’t cutting it, and where they see their footing. The Digital Minds Conference gave us a chance to think of these and other issues. Even when they reflect things we’d like to see but didn’t, that’s part of a job well done. Back to Table of Contents


Tak­ing Care of Turow


It’s easy to poke fun at Scott Turow’s views. A child could de-construct his arguments, while laughing at how a practicing lawyer is unable to grasp the definition of the word “monopoly.”

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

While many have written sharply and promptly against the Authors’ Guild chief’s most recent comments, one is author David Gaughran, who appears at London Book Fair on Wednesday at noon London time as a Writer in Residence with the Kobo Writing Life program, Stand No. Y505 on level 2 at Earls Court. In A List of Things Scott Turow Doesn’t Care About, Gaughran writes:

What bothers me about Turow’s obsession with Amazon and his opposition to change is not his blatant disregard for the facts (or the definition of words), it’s that he allows this Luddism to become all-consuming, blinding him to the issues that really matter to writers…But there’s a bunch of really awful stuff happening right now that Turow ignores, and has been ignoring, since his term as Authors Guild President began.

Among the “really awful stuff” Gaughran cites:

[Turow] didn’t even want to find out if price-fixing was taking place. Turow, a practicing lawyer,didn’t want to know if federal law was being broken. When the DOJ determined that collusion to fix prices had indeed taken place, and reached a settlement with three of the five publishers (the other two would settle in time), Turow opposed the settlement…

Scott Turow

Scott Turow


Penguin purchased Author Solutions – the largest and most reviled vanity press in the world – in August last year for $116m. Scott Turow and the Authors Guild have been completely silent on the fact that Penguin is now in the business of scamming inexperienced authors…

There’s more, and Gaughran’s bold handling of it signals that Turow’s handling of himself and his opinions—while almost always seen as part and parcel of his position with the Guild—is being questioned by writers as well as by others.Back to Table of Contents


If you have a publishing conference in the offing, 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. Here’s a look at conferences coming in the near term.  Please note that a listing here is not my endorsement of a conference or other event, but an informational inclusion. Amazingly, there are still some conferences I haven’t seen in action yet.

Running through April 17 London Book Fair at Earls Court. “The London Book Fair encompasses the broad spectrum of the publishing industry and is the global market place and leading business-2-business exhibition for rights negotiation and the sales and distribution of content across print, audio, TV, film and digital channels.” (Hashtag: #LBF13. Epilogger here.)

April 17 New York City paidContent Live: Riding the Transformation of the Media Industry: Brisk 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. (Hashtag: #pclive) Live-tweet coverage from this conference.

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 Bridburg’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.” (Hashtag: #Muse2013) Live-tweet coverage from this conference.

May 28 New York City: Reaching Readers: Book Marketing Conference 2013 is a production of our Ether-eal host here, Publishing Perspectives and the Frankfurt Academy. An early-bird rate of $365 runs to April 15. After that, regular price is $415 for the day that features expert commentary from folks including Ketchum’s Nancy Martira, Scholastic’s Morgan Baden, Wiley’s Jeanenne Ray, Edelman’s Steve Rubel, and many more.

BEA 2013 againMay 29-June 1 New York City BookExpo America (BEA): “BEA continues to evolve each year by adding new and exciting features to keep pace with the industry and in direct response to customer feedback to ensure you get the best return on investment by participating in North America’s premier publishing event.”

May 29-30 New York City IDPF Digital Book Conference at BookExpo America (BEA): “IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum) Digital Book 2013 at BEA is a two-day conference focused on all the key issues we face in advancing publishing in an increasingly digital world.  In-depth sessions will analyze key opportunities and pitfalls, highlighting compelling business strategies and actionable solutions.”

May 29 New York City: Publishers Launch BEA is May’s installment of the series of daylong conferences programmed by Mike Shatzkin of Idea Logical and Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch. Speakers on tap so far include agent Brian DeFiore, Enders Analysis’ Benedict Evans, Trident Media’s Robert Gottlieb, Aerbook’s Ron Martinez, consultant Peter McCarthy, Hachette’s Ken Michaels, and more.

BEA Bloggers ConferenceMay 29 New York City BEA Bloggers Conference at BookExpo America (BEA): “Attend BEA Bloggers Conference to learn, be inspired, and connect with book bloggers, authors, and publishing industry professionals. You will benefit from a jam-packed day of education, extreme networking, and the passion and fun that surrounds book blogging. Session topics include: blogging in today’s world, critical reviews, making money with your blog, creating community, and how publishers and bloggers work together.”

uPublishUJune 1 New York City uPublishU at BEA: “Are you ready to take the leap and transform your manuscript to a published book and/or ebook? Aspiring writers and authors will learn from industry experts tips and tactics and all about the tools and technology to help them self-publish a print book or an ebook.”

Jackson Hole Writers ConferenceJune 27-29 Jackson Hole, Wyoming: Jackson Hole Writers Conference: “Each year distinguished speakers, editors and agents join our resident faculty to deliver a weekend of active and engaging dialogue, collaboration and the opportunity for all of us to raise the stakes on our work.Manuscript critiques are an important part of our conference, providing a way for you to discuss your work one-on-one with experienced writers, editors and agents.” The program also features a pre-conference writing workshop.

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The Digital Minds Conference plenary in action Sunday. Sunshine outside. Darkness inside.

The Digital Minds Conference plenary in action Sunday. Sunshine outside. Darkness inside.


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. This column, Ether for Authors, appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Mondays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read Thursdays at and he is a regular contributor to More about him is at

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Porter Anderson

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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.