Notes from the October Panel

By Karma Bennett

It seemed like the October NCBPMA panel really struck a nerve with the community: we had the highest turnout of the year! Publishing in the Digital Age: Renaissance or Revolution? was held on October 26 at Hotel Rex. The panelists included Matt Stewart, the guy who published his novel on Twitter and subsequently got a book deal with Soft Skull Press; Dom Sagolla, author of 140 Characters and a co-creator of Twitter; and Kul Wadhwa, Head of Business Development and Wikimedia Foundation. The panel was moderated by Tech Journalist and SFWeekly Web Editor Alexia Tsotsis, a recent transplant from Los Angeles.

Tsotis kicked off the conversation by asking what the value of physical books is these days. The tech-loving forum agreed that though people are moving away from them and into the digital-reading world, there are still some benefits to glue and paper: they create a legacy as an artifact; a tradition as a space without interruptions; a higher refresh rate. And of course, there’s the ability to autograph it. 

 “Education is getting electronic, there are kids who are used to relating to reading digitally, said Wadhwa. “It changes the expectation from the medium. You can do more with an e-reader.” 

Tsotis moved on to asking the forum about the changes in the publishing market. Sagolla agreed with Wadhwa: “We have kids come in who know nothing of print.” Stewart told everyone to keep the customer front and center. “Deliver content in the medium your audience wants. If they want it for iPhone, give them that. If they want a physical book, give them that.” He also urged the audience, a mélange of risk-averse publishers, to try new things. “Don’t try to be an expert at everything, get other people to do the things you’re not good at.” 

“Marketing, distribution, and money are all changing,” Wadhwa added. “With social media you actually have to engage audience.” There were murmurs of agreement in the audience as he stated quite bluntly that “everyone knows when Apple comes out with a[n e-reader] device it will be a game changer.” 

Continuing her theme of comparing the old and the new, Tsotis next asked, “What defines new publishers and traditional publishers?” Sagolla started off by stating that you have to have traditions to be traditional. He pointed out that web apps have no traditions. Using hashtags [# for a trending topic] or using the dollar sign [ $ to denote stock tips] are becoming traditions on Twitter, but users can still make and define those traditions. Sagolla then asked Stewart how much the book changed by him tweeting it. Stewart explained how the book was already written, and he was just tweeting what was already there, in the 140 character space that Twitter allows.   

Wadhwa pointed out that the definition of publisher has already changed over time. “Editors are less involved in the process, more driven by the market and sales departments.” He mirrored the words of previous speaker Peter Shankman when he reminded the audience that a lot of these things online media things are just tools.

“What needs to stay the same?” Tsotis asked next. “The advance,” said Sagolla, and everyone laughed. As much as he loved getting an advance, Sagolla was quick to clarify its importance to the publishing process. “An advance means the publisher is willing to invest in you.” Other than that, Sagolla felt that the process, the time it takes, and pretty much everything else could change. 

Stewart disagreed. “The advance needs to go,” he said. “In no other industry do artists get pre-paid for their work. People have to market that book. Authors think they just have to write it and then they can sit back and wait for the checks to come in.” 

Wadhwa didn’t even like the question because it implied a static way of thinking.  He said, “We have to be looking ahead, making predictions. If you’re making opinions about what shouldn’t change you’ve already lost. Changes are happening in months that before took years.”

Tsotis then began taking questions from the NCBPMA, which were read from note cards. How do we get authors to see the value of social media? Sagolla said that publicists should not be shy to show them how it’s done.

Stewart suggested showing them the value of social media, a la Where’s the money?  “The rich authors really can ignore social media,” said Stewart. “The hungry authors, the ones who need it, you’ll be able to convince them because they’ll try anything.” He then referred to himself, an author willing to post his entire novel on Twitter. They all agreed that social media is just a way to get recommendations from friends.

This timed nicely with the next question: What kind of a division do you keep between your work accounts and your personal accounts? And: Do you market to your friends? Sagolla keeps them separate. He has 25 identities listed in the index of his book. “Identities are little brands, they get their own following,” he said. “It is important to maintain the right voice, though you’ll split your audience.” For example, Sagolla has a personal account, @dom, and @thebook. He can retweet @thebook at 10 am on Tuesday, “which is when everyone markets stuff,” and send tweets back and forth between different accounts.

Stewart gave a resounding “Yes!” to the question of whether to market to your friends but cautioned, “Don’t be a sales schmuck about it. A retweet is a major favor these days. But your friends want to help you. That’s why they’re your friends.” 

Wadhwa complemented Sagolla’s comments by emphasizing that this is a brand management issue. “It’s about defining your voice. BMW doesn’t make cheap cars. If they wanted to make a cheap car they would rebrand it under a new name. It will confuse your followers. Ask authors: what’s your strategy, what’s your voice?”

Someone raised the example of Demand Media, a website that pays a dollar to volunteers to do the research that traditionally journalists would do for 100 times that. While Stewart argued that high quality is always going to rise to the top, Wadhwa disagreed. He pointed out that if you look around, crap often sells.

That’s all well and good, but how is anyone going to get paid in this new media? The Twitter co-founder chirped in with a very Twitter-esque response: “Bring value; the money will follow.”   

Stewart admitted that no one knows. “There will always be desperate folks who put it out there for free. If you have a brand, you can charge.” For example, when Stewart saw that T-Pain has a web-app for only two dollars he said with excitement, “I’m going to buy it!”

Wadhwa made the comparison to the music industry, where the product is now used as marketing. He also chided publishers for not having a low overhead. He said, “Take the New York Times—even their rent has to be in the millions. Publishing houses with several thousand employees—that’s not going to last.”

Their final thoughts? Sagolla: “Make it easier. That how Apple dominated mp3s.” Stewart reiterated some earlier points: “Remember your customer. Now is the time to try new stuff.”  Wadhwa closed the forum with the classic tech adage: “Fail early, fail often.”

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