March 23, 2009
New thinking or old-fashioned blood sport? Crowd erupts at publishers at SXSW
by Dennis Johnson
Lots of huge conglomerate acts seem to have inflitrated the usually more renegade South By South West (SXSW) fiesta this year — or “South By Kanye West,” as the AP called in their article about how, yep, Kanye West was there, as was Metallica, and, well Penguin Group USA. Yes, the second biggest conglomerate publisher in the world was there in the form of John Fagan, its marketing director, and Ivan Held, president of its Putnam imprint. They joined Peter Miller, head publicist for Bloomsbury USA (not exactly a small publisher either), for what was supposed to be a panel discussion with online media gurus Clay Shirky and Deborah Schultz about “how participatory culture and the online world interact with good olde book publishing.”
The first clue for the publisher fact that the panel was called New Think for Old Publishers.
In any event, what ensued “was an insult to the audience and a waste of time for everyone involved,” and led to an “audience uprising,” according to a report by Kirk Biglione on MediaLoper. “As the panel wore on, the audience listened to panelists describing how they approach their jobs as gatekeepers in the grand old world of book publishing. The panelists droned on, lamenting the changing media landscape. At one point, one panelists noted that many of the newspapers that review books are cutting back on their review sections, or in danger of going out of business entirely. ‘Maybe we should begin cultivating relationships with bloggers, or something.’” The Q&A afterwards was not a pretty sight, at least if the Twitter trail is any indication.
To participant Peter Miller, though, the uproar may actually be a sign of something else. Writing about it afterwards on his own blog (that of the indie bookstore he runs after hours, Freebird Books in Brooklyn), he notes that halfway through it all, “I slumped forward in an unpunk manner and templed my hands, covering my face.” But later, reading the Twitter stream, he says, “Yes we had been stripped and spanked by Twitter, but it had also given our panel new life. In the room and out of it, we had demonstrated Twitter’s unintended purpose: as virtual blood sport. A publishing breakthrough!”
The final irony, though, is that just hours after weathering it all, the Penguin Group won the “SXSW Best in Show” award for its innovative We Tell Stories digital storytelling project ….
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives