Day One at Book Expo America


I landed in L.A. late last night, all keyed up for Book Expo America. At today’s sessions, everyone was buzzing
about what appears to be the new holy trinity of the publishing world: Social Networking! Crowd-Sourcing! Digital Content!

The prevailing attitude towards Web 2.0 around here feels a
little schizophrenic. Lecture halls were
filled with publishers and writers looking alternately terrified, electrified, and
totally lost. Everyone seems to know
that something is happening –
something to do with communities of people gravitating around shared interests
and passions – but not everyone knows what it is, and even fewer people know
what it means or how to be a meaningful part of it.

The air in the L.A. Convention Center was thick with fear
and urgency, and I wondered if this was how the recording industry felt around
the time rock ‘n roll was invented. Then
I remembered that this kind of thing has happened many times before, and will
happen many times in the future. Rock ‘n
roll, jazz, reality TV, Web 1.0.  Something new is being born, and those who are
on the outside – both stuffed suits and creative types – are scrambling to get
a foothold, bombarded by increasingly shrill proclamations that this is going to change everything and
nothing will ever be the same again.
More than anything, people are afraid of being left behind, rendered
obsolete. Again and again, I heard these

“Will online content kill offline content?”

“Is the book a thing of the past?”

“Do I need a Facebook profile? A Twitter
feed? A MySpace

And most plaintive of all: “Who are all these people,
what do they want, and how can I make them like me (and my product)?”

Personally, I think a lot of this anxiety is misplaced. Every established entity fears being replaced
by the new. In some cases this fear is
well-grounded – we don’t do a lot of riding around in horse-drawn carriages
anymore, for instance. Cars replacing
carriages is something like MP3 replacing CD replacing cassette tape replacing
8-track replacing vinyl. The format
changes, but the essential product (transportation vehicle; audio recording)
stays the same. That’s part of what we’re
seeing in publishing: Paper gets
replaced by e-books, various digital readers, and other alternative delivery
sources. These changes aren’t a real
threat to publishing. The book remains the book, it just looks a little different.

The real revolution happens when the way a book gets
created, and what a book actually
means, gets turned on its head. That’s
what people are really thinking of when they invoke the trinity of social
networking, crowd-sourcing, and digital content. Suddenly the power shifts into the hands of
communities, where the boundaries between creator, publisher, and consumer

I’m with everyone else in not knowing quite what this means
for the future, but I’m not too worried about the death of the book – or, at
least, not about the death of reading and writing. A few years ago, we all predicted that
reality TV would take over the airwaves. And, sure, there are a lot more reality shows than there were when there
were none. But there are still plenty of
scripted shows, too. As a consumer, now
I have one more type of entertainment to choose from than I did before. Even the music industry, the ultimate example
of what happens when bigwig corporate types fail to see the writing on the wall
– and the embodiment of every publisher’s fear of impending obsolescence – experienced
a revolution in how its product gets distributed and consumed, but not a
revolution of its product. People might
not buy albums anymore, but they still make and buy and listen to music.

I predict that in the future, readers will have a lot more
choices when they’re looking for reading material. Crowd-sourced Civil War history? Check. Bite-sized stories just right for a two-minute wait at the
supermarket? Check. Collaborative contemporary political
analysis? Check. Old fashioned 453-page novel written by a
single author? Check, check, check. The Web 2.0 revolution, as far as I can tell,
will be one of big gains, for readers, writers, and the most flexible, savvy

Of course, every publisher wants to be flexible and
savvy. Which is why they brought in the
experts to stand at podiums and drink bottled water and tell us what’s up. I jumped around from session to session, scribbling
furiously. These were the highlights of
my day:

Jeff Howe of Wired and author of the
forthcoming Crowdsourcing: Why the Power
of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business.

Jeff talked a lot about models like Threadless, where the community creates, selects,
and ultimately markets and buys its own product.  Threadless makes cool crowd-sourced T-shirts. WEbook
makes cool crowd-sourced books. As you
can imagine, I listened intently – and afterwards I had the chance to shake
Jeff’s hand and slip him a copy of Pandora, WEbook’s first published book and a
particularly gutsy example of crowd-sourcing – a novel written by 17 authors
and 17 other contributors! Of which I
am one. </own-horn-tooting>

Tim Spalding, founder
of LibraryThing

First of all, LibraryThing
is the coolest site devoted to reading and books that I’ve seen in a long time. If you’re not a member yet, check it out. Second of all, Tim is one smart cookie. He spoke eloquently about the limitlessness
of the digital vs. the physical world, and he introduced me to a word I’d never
heard before: “Book sales are epiphenomenal.” He also pointed out the key to all the
user-generated, crowd-sourcing hype: “Give
users the opportunity to do something for themselves, not the opportunity to do
something for you.”

I, for one, am taking heed. What opportunities does WEbook
offer you, dear WEbookers? I’d love to hear it from the collective horse’s

Tim was also kind enough to accept a copy of Pandora. Who knows, maybe he’s reading it in his hotel
room right this second.

Tomorrow? Notes from
the exhibition hall.

-- Melissa

P.S. I was totally
bummed that I missed Clay Shirky, author
of Here
Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations
Word on the street is that he’s bald, so I may spend the rest of the expo tapping the shoulder of every bald man I meet, hoping to strike
gold.  Wish me luck.

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  1. I wish you luck! Any chances of cool pictures being uploaded?
    Great blog post, though I would leave more comments if I didn't have to repeatedly verify that I am human!
    What I like most about WEbook is hands-down the anthology opportunities. It's where everyone can put out any ideas whatsoever, and even if the writing doesn't work out, the point is they've learned more about themselves as writers, and how to better construct ideas and submissions. It's very no-pressure (for now) and I love starting submissions, and then going back over the next weeks to finish them piece by piece.

  2. No photos this year, Tahra. Maybe next time.

  3. Melissa, if you are at loose ends on Saturday at BEA, my human, Steve Fisher, and his female will be hanging around the Sterling booth for part of the day to promote my book The World Is Your Litter Box. It's a hilarious how-to manual for cats. The humans tell me they've gone "all Web 2.0" with it, whatever that means. (I'll be home napping; I just can't be bothered, you know?) Anyway, if they miss you, please check out my website (url above), or blog at, or MySpace page, or Facebook, or...zzz


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