In preparation for this weekend’s Los Angeles Times Festival of the Book, the USC Master of Professional Writing Program sponsored a panel at the university last night. The subject was what’s on everybody’s mind these days: The Changing Face of Publishing.

Organized and moderated by Gina Nahai, the panelists, Barbara Lowenstein of the Lowenstein/Yost agency in NYC; Suzanne Wickham, director of publicity for HarperOne; Eli Horowitz from McSweeney’s; and Pat Walsh of MacAdam Cage all agreed that while publishing is undergoing changes, the basic business of books is business as usual. Horowitz emphasized that McSweeney’s goal is to not only publish good books, but beautiful books. Walsh hoped to keep advances reasonable. For publishing houses to survive they have to be profitable, and the independent houses have advantages in being more nimble than the behemoths, Horowitz and Walsh agreed, but they often lose the authors they discover once they become successful. Walsh and Horowitz admitted, though, that they were happy to keep discovering talent.

Lownstein and Wickham were emphatic about “platform.” An author today, Lowenstein said, has to have a plan about the marketing for his or her book, the audience for the book, and a presentation for it. Authors have to be involved beyond producing a manuscript. Wickham talked about the importance of blogs and an Internet presence. While Nahai’s animated and provocative questions (she’s the author of several novels, most recently Caspian Rain) showed firsthand the difficulties of selling fiction, any disillusionment conveyed to the hopeful audience was tempered with much-needed humor.