Despite a year at SXSW Interactive that seems to have both a big spurt in attendance and fewer book publishing focused panels, there were still some useful discussions of the evolution of publishing in the digital era and its financial underpinnings. PW senior news editor Rachel Deahl moderated a lively discussion of the issues around self-publishing—from pricing to readers to misconceptions—while once again the New York Time’s David Carr managed to make some sense of monetization, online content and the future of getting paid.

Called Self-Publishing in the Age of E, Deahl’s panel featured bestselling self (and now conventionally) published novelist Hugh Howey, author of the bestselling sci-fi series Wool, Erin Brown, a former St. Martin’s and HarperCollins editor and now an Austin based freelance editor, and literary agent Kirby Kim of William Morris Endeavor. It didn’t take long to get to core issues around self-publishing: quality, the seemingly ever-growing sales of e-books and the role of conventional publishers at time when many authors have grasped that they have other options—and sometimes more lucrative options.

Originally published by small press, Howey quickly decided to go the self-publishing route generating an enormous word of mouth following that turned his books into e-book bestsellers on Amazon. Indeed Howey said at one point he was generating $30,000 to $40,000 a month in sales and selling hundreds of thousands of e-books. His mantra is “build your audience and the editors and agents will come.” Responding to Deahl’s question about pricing Howey didn’t hesitate: “Free is the best price,” he said, “but Amazon wouldn’t let me give them away, so I priced them at 99 cents.” In fact, he acknowledged that his book are “underpriced,” but “its all about building an audience.”

Howey, funny, pointed and genially polemical throughout, seemed to play out the role of the maverick self-publisher—he’s a DIY phenomenon much like Amanda Hocking, a self-made bestselling author that seems delighted to offer counter-intuitive broadsides on just about ever issue. He now has conventional publishing deals with S&S and Random House UK, but only for print—unheard of in a publishing market that’s being driven by digital sales—and he outlined how he turned down a stream of 6 and 7 figure offers from publishers over the years because they kept demanding print and digital rights. “Publishers never do that,” Kim said about Howey’s deal, pointing out Bella Andre another self-pubbed author with a similar pact.

“My print sales are tiny in comparison,” Howey said, “you only want to print if you want to see your books in stores,” though he was quick to note that “people still want print. I’ve got the best of both worlds S&S does what they do best with print and I do my thing with e-books.”

Kim and Brown represented the conventional industry—they cautioned against unrealistic expectations for self-publishing— and offered some defense of the traditional publishing world. Kim said that the volume of self-published narratives was “proliferating along with digital devices for reading.” But he also acknowledged that “self-publishing is broadening the market,” and “removing barriers,” pointing out that while self-publishing is dominated by commercial genre fiction, a self-published literary e-book with sales of 10,000 to 12,000 copies could attract trade book house attention. Brown, who worked in New York publishing for a decade before moving to Austin, often consults with writers about self-publishing. She said that, “times have changed, since I left New York, self-publishing used to be a last resort,” and acknowledged that she was “biased, I encourage clients to try traditional publishing first.” She pointed to need to have an agent, “they protect you,” and emphasized that “conventional publishing will teach a writer a lot.”

But Kim and Brown’s contention that self-publishing success stories “happen but they’re few,” was met with more cheeky rebuttals from Howey. He made the point that while there are big successes, e-book self-publishing should be measured by the number of writers receiving real income from publishing, not financial windfalls. “Self-published writers are earning money and paying their bills,” he said, noting that it's allowing unpublished writers to keep writing. Howey, a former bookseller, dismissed the conventional notion of a so-called glut of e-book self-publishing overwhelming readers, noting readers are all looking for different books and “there’s not enough material for readers.”

Howey ended the session with another telling remark on the nature of quality, or lack of it, in self-published books, calling the notion “a misconception. There’s plenty of quality. The top slice of self-published books have quality just as in traditional publishing,” he said, “In fact there’s really a lot of similarity between traditional publishing and self-publishing.”

Later the same day, New York Times Media columnist David Carr, who was part of an engaging panel on curation at last year’s SXSW, gave a solo discussion about the success of the New York Times online paywall—originally dismissed by the “theologists of Free,”—now a booming success with 640,000 paying subscribers. After listening to Howey’s defense—indeed supportive exhortation—of the freemium model to attract readers and build an audience willing to pay at some point, Carr’s talk was a bit jarring. Entitled Gates of Heaven, Gates of Hell—Heaven being the ease of “friction-free” digital distribution and communication; and Hell being that same of world of online and digital content, especially newspaper content, that no one seems to want to pay for—Carr’s talk outlined a dystopian period of initial Internet growth that appeared to offer easy access to an endless amount of information. But, he cautioned, it turned out to be world of information that seems to only attract subsidies with an agenda attached. The result is the growth of an info-elite—“newsies like me and you out there in the audience"—and a vast consumer world uninterested in news, or at least uninterested in paying a meaningful amount of money for it.

Carr rejects the cult of free--“Don’t give your shit away for free,” he declared to the hall—emphasizing that “exposure” doesn’t work and free doesn’t lead to paying customers. But he also seemed so focused on the newspaper world—unsurprisingly--that his vision for the future of digital content kind of stops at the New York Times website, now revitalized with an innovative paywall generating a sustainable and growing level of income. In a brief (and gracious) exchange with PW after his talk, Carr did acknowledge that in some corners of the book world the free model might have a small impact, but he was steadfast cautioning against the cult of free even in book publishing. Next year SXSW should put Howey and Carr on the same panel.