While attendance numbers have yet to be announced by the organizers of SXSW, there was little question that this year's Interactive event had ballooned significantly. For those not staying in the downtown area of Austin – within walking distance of the Convention Center and most of the panel and event venues – travel proved difficult. Shuttles were full and slow to arrive. Cabs were hard to come by. The transit headaches caused some to wonder whether there would have to be some changes to next year's event. One local said there are rumblings that the festival organizers might try and spin Interactive out into its own event – separate from overlapping sister festivals Music and Film. Whether that will come to pass remains to be seen but, for book folks, SXSWi 2012, despite any hiccups getting to-and-fro, again continues to be a place to ask questions, debate big-picture ideas about the future of content and "the book," as well as an opportunity to hear about interesting new start-ups.
When PW came to SXSWi for the first time last year, we were wondering whether book people really belonged at the event. This year that question no longer seemed valid. Although it didn't seem as if we necessarily ran into more recognizable faces from the publishing industry, there was certainly a noticeable contingent of book people in Austin. Aside from those appearing on panels – PW hosted its first SXSW panel, Publishing Models Transforming the Book, which featured, among others, Penguin's Molly Barton – we saw folks from Perseus, FSG, Other Press, Open Road Media, the San Francisco Booksmith, Random House, Wiley, Harvard Common Press and HarperCollins, among others. Could there be more book people out in Austin? We think so. Aside from the educational component of the festival – and the rare chance to hear how executives and creatives in other industries are approaching their shifting marketplace with new business models and, well, just experimenting – it's a place full of budding authors. While most keynote speakers have a book, or a book deal, there are countless inspirational thinkers and young entrepreneurs who, if we may say so, sound like authors-in-the-making. (And, ironically, for a digital festival, SXSWi seems to move a lot of paper books. One of the interesting things to see was how many techies left panels and lined up at the SXbookstore, sponsored by B&N, for hard copies of titles.)
We've already delivered some initial thoughts on SXSW, and we will be providing a more comprehensive roundup in Monday's magazine, but a number of interesting talks and conversations once again circled the future of content. But, this year, "community" seemed to be a more important term than "content." While this notion has surfaced at places like TOC, which hosted its first pre-SXSW conference this year, and Digital Book World, a number of back-and-forths went on about whether publishers, be they of the book variety or otherwise, are in the business of content or community. Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum – or if you, like me, feel book publishers are in the business of both – there was a heavy focus at this year's festival on developing communities, interacting more effectively with your users (er, readers) in existing communities, and gathering analytics on those users/readers.
One notion, which seemed obvious but struck home once it was said out loud, is how important it is for anyone trying to connect with an audience to pay attention to the tech space. Why? Because it will be easier to attract an audience on up-and-coming social networking sites than on the behemoths. As a panelist at The New Hollywood: Building Celebrity Brands Online put it, it's a lot easier to draw a following on Pinterest right now than it is on Twitter. (Speaking of Pinterest, the consensus coming out of SXSWi is that authors need to be on there and, even if it does not seem a logical fit for ther content – the site is built around the exchanging of, largely, pretty pictures – there are myriad ways to make it work.)
Oh and did we mention the retailing revolution? We didn't get to too many panels on retailing, but Isis, a company that built a mobile wallet app, was one of the sponsors of this year's festival. The company is launching pilot programs in Austin and Salt Lake City this summer. Some 100 stores are set to be in the pilot programs, with at least one independent bookstore rumored to be among the participating retailers. We saw a demo of the technology: it essentially allows users to ditch their physical credit cards and, instead, use their smart phone to make purchases in a swipe-like manner. A consumer's phone will display graphics of their credit cards and they will be able to see their balances and switch among any of their cards to make the purchase. Coupons and promotions, which will also be built into the technology (among many other things we can't even conceive), will take on a dramatically different value proposition. So, yeah, book folks should probably keep in mind that shopping as we know it is going to be dramatically up-ended in the year ahead.