A standing room only crowd of about 70 crammed into the small dining room at the Hotel Rex in San Francisco earlier this week to hear a few experts take on “Publishing in the Digital Age: Renaissance or Revolution,” the topic of this month’s meeting of the Northern California Book Publicity and Marketing Association. Technology journalist and SF Weekly’s web editor Alexia Tstotis moderated the panel that featured Dom Sagolla, co-creator of Twitter and author of 140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form (Wiley); Matt Stewart, a public relations consultant who got a book deal with Soft Skull Press after publishing his novel The French Revolution on Twitter; and Kul Takanao Wadhwa, head of business development at Wikipedia.
Tstotis dove right in and began by questioning the appeal of print. “It’s an artifact, aside from being a vessel. It’s a documentation stuck in a moment of time,” responded Sagolla, who admitted he had not originally intended to print his book. Stewart said people thought his twittered novel was great, but they wanted to know when the paperback was due to be published. He concluded that the market for e-only books is not there yet. Also, “there’s still a need for some down time without interruptions and the book does that,” he said. Wadhwa thought it would take time for society to wean itself off physical books. He added that the nostalgia of the future might sound like, “you remember that old iPhone when you had to wait a few seconds to download?”
Printed books, according to Sagolla, have a couple of things going for them. First, there is not a better refresher rate out there; and, second, it’s pretty hard to sign a digital book. Wadhwa said he thought print-on-demand could fill some of the voids in the new publishing world. They all agreed that hybrid print/digital models will dominate the field until it is all worked out, which will be based on what the consumer wants.
The panelist agreed that publishers should bring in technology consultants to help them with what they are not good at. “You’re going to get a lot more out of it,” said Stewart. “You’ll learn from them, and then you’ll be an expert someday.”
Wadhwa admitted that he is “pretty crappy at tweeting,” but he told publishers that “if your author sucks at this, then you should help them.” He views using such tools as a “branding management” issue. “This is where publishers can bring a lot of value to the table,” said Wadhwa, “to help authors define their brand.”
One of the biggest unresolved issues was the question of the editor’s place within publishing companies. Sagolla said editors define the value that distinguishes between the true journalist and the blogger. Stewart seemed to thinks writers do not need editors to keep them on deadline and on top of their form.
As with other digital-publishing panels, the question of monetization largely went unanswered. “Most people here are still trying to figure it out,” acknowledged Wadhwa. But the panelist urged publishers to experiment and share their successes and failures. Being in the San Francisco Bay area there are plenty of technological success and failures to observe and learn from, he observed.
The worst thing, it seems from this panel’s perspective, is for publishers to stand on the sidelines and watch the new media world go by.