Besides just looking out the window, you could tell the sun had finally come out in Austin when it became a lot easier to just move through the corridors of the Austin Convention Center. The sun got people out of the hallways and lifted everyone’s spirits. It also let people concentrate a bit more on SXSW’s ongoing mashup of technology-driven new business paradigms and new social practice---rather than the endless and justifiable complaints about rain and a seemingly overwhelmed shuttle service that has repeatedly stranded attendees at their hotels and screwed up more than a few schedules.
We were able to get to significant programs Saturday afternoon and the shuttle system seemed to work—at least at 7:30 am—on Sunday to get us to the convention center for a slate of morning panels that featured Publishing Models Transforming the Book, a PW sponsored panel that looked at the paradigm shift in how book content is being conceived, monetized and distributed. Moderated by PW senior news editor Rachel Deahl, the panel generated some good natured polemical sparks between Brian Altounian, CEO of Wowio.com and Studio W, an online e-book retailer offering a business model downloable e-books for-pay and ad-supported free content, and Molly Barton, Global Digital Director, Penguin, and founder of Book Country, a Penguin online writers community and self-publishing services venture.
Wowio offers content (comics as well as prose) by conventional publishers but mostly by smaller houses and self-publishers; in addition to a network of social media/DIY driven sites that focused on web comics. Altounian said in a conventional world where Amazon and Apple “dictate terms to publishers,” Wowio offers a Freemium model that lets publishers set prices (and get 100% of the price, minus a very small processing fee) for e-books or give them away with advertising “tastefully” embedded and generated by Wowio; as well as offering corporate sponsorships that also allow publishers give away e-books. (Altounian laughed and thanked the audience for not booing when he mentioned ads in books). “We’ve seen huge numbers of downloads,” he said. He said Wowio offered comics as part of its content offerings because “comics publishers are used to ads in their content and because of the dwindling number of comics specialty retailers,” Altounian said. But when he said that “traditional publishers only care about unit sales; bookstore shelves are dwindling and keeping price points high doesn’t work if you want as large an audience as possible,” that's when the fun began.
Altounian said he’s targeting a demographic under the age of 40 that wants to read on an array of devices anytime they want and they don’t want to pay much, if anything, for the content they read on them. You could see Barton, as well as other publishers in the room—fairly well attended, the room may have had about 200 people—tensing up. Altounian was making the point that, at least for emerging artists, getting their content in front of readers through traditional publishers is an uphill battle that doesn’t work for everyone; that his goal is to build a list of self-branded artists (using social media tools) and by offering some free content now, and some for-pay content later when the freebie-oriented audiences for these artists reaches critical mass and wants more of their stuff. “Writers are looking for channels outside the traditional path in books, films and music,” he said, “creative folks from around the world—not just the U.S.—are looking for new outlets. We’re in an evolutionary time and we’re in the forefront of looking for new models.”
Barton characterized Book Country as a throw-back to the early days of Penguin as a publisher of cheap paperbacks that “democratized access to literature. At Book Coutnry we’re democratizing acess to the publishing process. You can learn the publishing eco-system, work on your writing and get better and self-publish.” She was quick to rebut Altounian’s characterization of traditional publishers, “We are about more than unit sales, we find quality content,” and while she said, “we should experiment with pricing," she emphasized that, "we want our writers to be able to make a living, to stay home and write. All books can’t be mass market and we offer writers the ability to write for smaller audiences.” She also emphasized that Book Country is focused on genre writing and allows writers to get expert advice and speed up their development. The back and forth was sharp but good natured and offered the audience an informative bit of paradigm-conflict theater. But the substance of their dispute—as well as the presentations of Jefferson Rabb of the Atavist and Swanna McNair of Creative Conduit, who offered their own versions of new ways to package and offer content—served to illuminate the proliferation of options facing anyone offering book content in a market in the midst of transition to something not quite the same as what we’ve seen in the past.
Certainly one of the most intellectually vivid panels was Curators or the Curated, a panel examining the phenomenon of content sharing—essentially the practice of any and everyone linking to content and sending it out to followers and friends around the web—and what that means to publishers, creators and the curators themselves. Featuring the simultaneously august and wisecracking New York Times media blogger David Carr—moderator Max Linsky of Longform.org, said that Carr was the only person on the panel he was terrified of—the panel was composed a collection of notable “curators,” in this instance individuals who specialize in picking and choosing cool things from the web and offering it up to the rest of us. In theory curators bring attention to content and drive traffic to the original site; in practice some curators are having more impact than the publications they curate from. And its generated a debate about the practice and what it means—and of course how to monetize it. Indeed curation seems more like a form of publishing than simply an enthusiasm or a leisure diversion. It's become its own thing. The panel also featured the impact of curated digital-feed publications like Flipboard, which can take a person’s twitter or Facebook feed or a content steam from the New Yorker, the Guardian or ESPN and reformat it on the fly beyond a data feed or even a static web page into a gorgeous online magazine, that in turn allows its readers to share and link to content through social media outlets in the app.
Curation has gone beyond indviduals as publishers also look to gather and point to content--the Huffington Post being one. After much discussion of the difference between curation and aggregation---generally, people curate and algorithms aggregate—the discussion focused more specifically on the quality and philosophical intent of the curators. There was much back and forth over the notion of cuatorial “quality”—seeking content for its inherent value—or the commercialization of curating, i.e. simply looking for content of any kind that will drive traffic. There’s even an effort afoot to create a “curators code of ethics,” (curatorscode.org), essentially establishing a kind of “authorship” for curators that includes a set of icons that can be used in the links that will designate whether it was a direct link from a curator (the "author," I suppose) or an indirect link to content. Heady stuff for an activity that attracts admittedly talented and passionate people, though people who basically find stuff they like on the web and point it out for others.
Nevertheless, “there’s clearly something going on. We’ve become a referral economy and there’s great social cachet to sharing,” Carr said, who sparked a big laugh noting that, "we shouldn't get hungup on nomenclature; the notion of 'curation' can be kind of twee." He also rejected some of the anti-advertising curatorial comments, noting that business platforms were important and that he had worked for a Minn.-based newspaper that did away with escort ads and the loss of revenue killed the newspaper. "When we got snotty about advertising the readers hated it." He continued, “Vanity may be a part of it but sharing content has become a huge indoor sport and that seems like something [culturally] new to me. Whether its narcissism or vanity, I don’t know.” A smart, fun, occasionally infuriating and inconclusive panel that will certainly generate more panels of this kind.