Traditional Publishers Crash (and Burn at) SXSW

I’ve seen a fair number of remarkable events at SXSW over the years, but I’ve never seen anything quite like what unfolded at the New Think for Old Publishers panel yesterday afternoon.

On paper, the panel must have seemed like a great idea. The publishing industry is in transition with the rise of digital reading and devices like the Kindle, iPhone, and applications like Stanza. SXSW has always been about convergence and the evolution of old media in the digital age. Why not bring a group of book publishers together to address the digerati at SXSW about the changing nature of their industry?

As the twitter stream reveals, the panel never quite lived up to its promise. Now that the dust has cleared, I feel compelled to describe what happened at the New Think panel. From a remote distance it wasn’t necessarily clear what prompted the audience uprising.

This wasn’t a case of digital natives waging a mindless war against old media. On the contrary, at the beginning of the session a show of hands revealed a high density of heavy readers in the audience. Throughout the session audience members demonstrated a profound love for books. Combine that with the fact that the panel featured the ever popular Clay Shirky, and the publishers started the session with what might best be described as a sympathetic audience.

The problem with the panel was that there was too little Shirky, and no new think. As the panel wore on, the audience listened to panelists describing how they approach their jobs as gatekeepers in the grand old world of book publishing.

The panelists droned on, lamenting the changing media landscape. At one point, one panelists noted that many of the newspapers that review books are cutting back on their review sections, or in danger of going out of business entirely.

“Maybe we should begin cultivating relationships with bloggers, or something”. Or something?

Nearly forty minutes into the session the audience was fidgeting, frustrated, and confused. What the hell did any of this have to do with new thinking, or SXSW for that matter?

And that’s when moderator Deborah Schultz broke the news to us. We (the audience) were the ones who were supposed to provide the ideas.

“We’re here to learn about what you want.”

Without warning the panel discussion was turned into an impromptu focus group. A twist that was met alternately with skepticism, amusement, and open hostility.

I suppose these publishers could be forgiven for not knowing the SXSW protocol, but usually you don’t *give* a presentation unless you have something interesting and innovative to share. SXSW is the place to be if you’re looking for new ideas, but usually those looking for new ideas *attend* sessions held by other people.

What’s sad about all of this is that the publishers missed the opportunity to discuss some of the innovative new media initiatives they’re currently working on. Sadder still is the fact that a panel featuring the Marketing Director of Penguin Group made no mention to Penguin UK’s brilliant We Tell Stories, a project that ultimately won the SXSW best in show award just a few hours later.

It was suggested by at least one back channel observer that the two sides weren’t listening to each other. Not true. The publishers on the panel simply had nothing to say. There was literally nothing for the audience to listen to.

I can see two possible scenarios that might have saved this presentation:

1. Clay Shirky could have lead a panel titled New Thinking for Old Publishers, featuring publishers working on innovative digital publishing projects (like, maybe, We Tell Stories, for example). After demonstrating a few projects they could have then opened up the discussion to include a dialogue with the audience on interesting ways that publishers might effectively collaborate with new media producers.

2. The panel might have been presented as is, but with a slight modification to the title and description. Perhaps something like: Digital Media Makeover for Book Publishers, come help traditional book publishers rethink their business model and product offerings for the digital age. That would have set the right expectations for the audience, and might have earned the publishers a bit more respect.

As presented, the panel was an insult to the audience and a waste of time for everyone involved.

Kassia has more on this story over at Booksquare.

19 Responses to “Traditional Publishers Crash (and Burn at) SXSW”

  1. Bradley Robb says:

    Judging by the commentary here and on Booksquare, it seems like this panel was a miscarriage of opportunity. I wonder, will we see the tipping point when it becomes “too late” for the traditional publishers?

  2. moz says:

    Bradley@3: we’ve seen that point and moved on. They’re dead trees talking and some of their employees have not realised it yet. Hands up anyone who doesn’t realise what their major problems are and how to address them… how many of those who do work for the deadwood?

  3. John Mac says:

    Actually, Schultz noted that they were there to learn from us right at the beginning of the panel. But I think that was taken as a token “the audience is important to us” kind of statement, rather than their actual intention.

    The real trashing of book publishers took place today at Bruce Sterling’s talk, when he made a show of distributing his new novel (in hard copy) to people under 25, and explaining to them how the book “technology” works. They’ve got nothing, he observed, and then likened the Kindle to a cartridge for an Atari game console circa 1985: “who expects it to be around when the people under 25 in the audience are my age?”

    Hilarious, but true.

  4. Kirk says:

    @John – True, Shutlz did say that at the beginning. But by then the room was full of people who had a different set of expectations. While the panel description also mentioned audience participation, the sort that was expected of the audience in this session was hardly what we’ve come to expect at SXSW. Frankly, I don’t know of any conference where the audience could reasonably be expected to come prepared to participate on the level that was expected at this session.

    @bradley – Tipping point is an interesting question. It may be a while yet before digital sales reach the point where they have a serious impact on traditional publishers. Whatever the time frame, I’m betting many publishers won’t be prepared to participate in the new era.

  5. That is a pretty amazing story. I actually just went to a luncheon with lots of young people working for publishing houses. There are some who definitely “get it”–and some who seem less interested–who either don’t, or won’t, get it. I don’t think it’s too late, but we are at a tipping point. The restructuring/layoffs that have already happened are probably just the beginning. It seems to me that traditional publishers need to either streamline and innovate or perish.

  6. Kirk says:

    @Maggie – there are definitely plenty of people in the publishing business who do get it. All the more reason why this panel was so unfortunate.

    At TOC Tim O’Reilly made a comment about the economic downturn being the perfect time for publishers to begin working with new media talent. SXSW is the perfect place to start a relationship with some of the most talented new media people on the planet. It’s sad that this introduction was so badly botched.


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