The second annual Mediabistro E-book Summit was a little like the e-book market itself: some of it hit, some of it missed and some of the day’s presentations were decidedly mixed—morning keynote speaker and media scholar Doug Rushkoff complained that technology facilitated the creation of "too much crap," while Electric Literature's Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum gave a rousing afternoon presentation unveiling their new venture, Broadcastr, a digital, mobile platform, set to go live next week, that will enable people around the world to record oral stories and link them to their geographical locations.
The day kicked off with Open Road's Brendan Cahill, novelist turned direct bookseller Dale Peck, and FSG online marketing manager Ryan Chapman. A year after Jane Friedman sketched the broad strokes at the first summit, Cahill was there to offer, as one observer noted, something of an Open Road annual report. He showed a video, and noted that the company hopes to have 2,000 titles available soon, including more e-riginals—original e-books—which he said were a small part of the company's business, but were critical to its identity. Peck, meanwhile, talked about his sort of anti-book business, the direct to consumer Mischief and Mayhem bookselling venture, which he said arose out of a desire to offer an alternative to a broken bookselling model in the age of the superstore in which writers take home too little money. "For a $25 hardcover book," he noted, "publishers are lucky to see a dollar." Chapman, meanwhile, talked about the challenges of marketing literary fiction, a challenge long before the Internet, and about FSG's new blog and marketing efforts that focus on creating new newsletter content for subscribers.
In his following keynote, Rushkoff, kicked things up a notch. Although much the same presentation he gave at his Frankfurt Tools of Change talk, he outlined the "biases of media" and talked about his latest book, Program or Be Programmed, which he published with alternative press OR Books. While saying the experience with OR books was in "some ways" the best experience he's ever had, he seemed a bit frustrated with OR Books' direct-to-consumer model, saying that "as a propagandist" he wanted the book everywhere. His next book, he noted, will be published with Penguin.
An entertaining speaker, Rushkoff never disappoints, and once he got rolling, he unleashed a string of strong opinions. He called stores like B&N and Borders "fake, bad bookstores." He said the "future of the bookstore was the past of the bookstore," predicting that with technology making books and e-books easily available, smaller bookstores that focus on the customer experience will make a comeback. He professed hatred for book videos, and railed against the iPad, calling it the most "stayaway" technology since Microsoft introduced "wizards" to install things for consumers, which he suggested, has helped keep computer users from truly understanding how the technology works, and tilted their behavior from interaction to mere consumption. He said that his previous book, Life, Inc., had been downloaded more than 250,000 times from torrent sites, but seemed happier that people wanted to read the book than upset that they read it for free. And, on the wisdom of Seth Godin's new strategy of partnering directly with Amazon.com, he said it made sense "to suck at the teet of only one major corporation," instead of many. "HarperCollins, B&N, Amazon, ICM, how many major corporations can you support," he noted. "It's just a book."
Executives from Wattpad, Scribd and Off the Bookshelf, along with former HarperStudio senior v-p and associate publisher Debbie Stier, headlined the panel on promotion. The session, called “Promotion Strategies for 2010 and Beyond,” stressed what some in the audience likely already knew—having an online brand is more essential than ever if you want to promote and sell your book. While Stier stressed the importance of authors getting online and managing their own presence, on everything from Facebook to Foursquare to Tumblr to Twitter, Scott Wiesenthal from Off the Bookshelf, a site which allows authors to interact with readers (like Wattpad and Scribd), said authors also need to remember that online branding is only part of the equation. Offline connections, he said, are also essential. So what’s the answer? All parties said that, more than ever, authors—and those in book publishing—need to be online. As Stier noted, she thinks the day will soon come at publishing houses when things like digital marketing groups (and digital marketing titles) will fade away, as everyone in marketing will be dealing heavily with digital promotions.
The panel following, featuring Jim King, was much more data heavy. King, a consultant and former head of BookScan, discussed the point-of-sale information BookScan provides and noted his longtime desire to be able to use BookScan data to track buzz, instead of simply sales. King also hinted at what many have said has been coming for a long time. He noted that a number of authors, some who are self-published, paid to use the BookScan service on their own and that he could foresee a time in the near future where a group of authors could band together, ditch their publisher, and work with one savvy marketing person to release their titles.
The afternoon session on “How to get Published: Interactive Pitch Slam,” featured agents Jason Ashlock and Kate McKean along with Richard Nash, new media pundit and founder of the much anticipated publishing venture, Cursor, responding to questions from the audience about the book acquisition process—in other words, “how do I get my book published?” While the panel soldiered through the usual questions from aspiring authors (“is an online following important?” McKean: yes for nonfiction, for fiction , not so much”), sessions on pitching proposals tend to have a problem: agents and publishers are best when there’s a specific book to respond to. Hypothetical books and descriptions of books tend to generate familiar non-answers along the lines of “it depends,” and “find people who care what your book is about.”
Adam Penenberg, NYU professor and author the Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter How Today’s Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves, along with former Business Week columnist Jon Fine and Dan Costa, executive editor of PCMag Digital Network, addressed, "Perspectives of Writing in the 21st Century," a panel that circled around the question of whether e-books and digital publishing have changed the nature of writing. For the most part, the answer seemed to be, well, not really—other than the fact that its become very hard for writers to get paid. Penenberg talked from experience about the importance of social media, Twitter in particular (“I just like Twitter and the way I use it is not really strategic”) putting social media into perspective and warning against seeing it as a promotional panacea. “Getting a large following on Twitter works best for celebrities who already have a huge following,” he said. “Not many people can really [build a huge following] but Twitter does help drive traffic to other writing that I have online.”
Ironically, despite noting how difficult it is to make a living writing in the digital era—“its tough making a living writing but it always has been” —Penenberg pointed to books, or at least the concept of a book property, a discrete package of informed content offered through traditional or new book channels, calling it a “magical concept,” and emphasizing that “book readers are used to paying for content and for them, it has a huge advantage.” Penenberg went on to suggest that multimedia adaptations offered the most likely possibilities to generate revenue in the short run and he sketched out a hypothetical multimedia version of Moby Dick that would cost about $40,000 to create and provide text annotations, video, graphics and other curated content surrounding the classic text. “You’d have to sell about 9,000 digital copies to make money,” he said, “and I like my chances of doing that.”
Probably the most interesting news of the day came from Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum, founders of Electric Literature, a new media publisher of contemporary lit and two of PW’s Notable personalities of 2010, who announced Broadcastr, a new location-based mobile venture that will let people record stories pretty much wherever they may be and make them available to anyone around the world. The two were also impressive evangelizers for digital publishing and apps, noting that “an e-book is a digital file that doesn’t do anything. With an app you can build a readership,” emphasizing an app's ability to include everything from messenging and forums to easily accessed retail channel. Broadcastr will be available as an app for iPhone/iPod and IPad and the two are working with a variety of international organizations interested in the potential of “storytelling with empathy as the engine.”
New Yorker writer and author Ken Auletta, author of Googled: the End of the World as We Know, provided some entertaining anecdotes about the culture of Google and the primacy of engineers in creating a company very different from that of, say, Microsoft. All of Google’s principals, founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, as well as CEO Eric Schmidt, are engineers and their success, he said, was based on giving engineers the freedom to constantly ask “why not; why not digitize all the books in the world, why not collect news from all around the world and make it available cheaply and easily. At Google, engineers are king.” The problems Google runs into, he said, is that “engineers have problems with things they can’t measure, like the importance of copyright and privacy.” Nevertheless, Auletta made it clear that he admires Google, “their weaknesses as engineers are a lot less distressing than those of the traditional media. You can’t just sit around being afraid or you’re doomed.”