The First Major Publishing Pilgrimage Of 2015
Publishing conferences are ritual performances. They are to the varied segments of publishing what morality plays are to the various forms of Christianity. They are narratives that are organised to demonstrate, emphasise, and reinforce the orthodoxy.
Those are the words of one of our most dependable iconoclasts, Baldur Bjarnason.
And our first test in 2015 of such a view will come early: the sixth annual Digital Book World, hashed #DBW15, will gather in the Hilton Midtown’s cathedral-sized ballroom on Sixth Avenue from January 13th to 15th. Produced by F+W Media’s Digital Book World vertical, DBW is one of the signal events of the publishing-conference year. In 2014 it drew more than 1,500 members of the industry and media people who cover publishing.
Bjarnason wrote his essay On Conferences last month, and it has served as an interesting touchstone of thought for some of us who are working on conference programming. (I’m a media partner with DBW and am working on programming with Authoright’s London Author Fair, the International Digital Publishing Forum’s Digital Book, Novelists Inc. and others.)
Certain speakers, Bjarnason tells us, appear at publishing conferences as figures of the heterodoxy to display whatever is generally accepted by the congregation as wrong-headed thinking. Bjarnason includes himself in that category for a mainstream conference, and indeed I saw him ably play the role in his fond fedora last May in Berlin at Klopotek’s fine Publishers’ Forum.
There, Bjarnason told publishing-house chiefs: “Most of you will think of digital as a sideline until you are a sideline.” In other words, he’s good at the role.
I wrote up part of his address for Publishing Perspectives and quoted him saying: “If you don’t change,…most of you will fail. In ten years, most important publishers will be gone.”
It makes sense, then, when Bjarnason describes the heterodox speaker, himself or someone else, this way:
By providing a clear demonstration of threatening ideas from the outside, we end up giving the orthodoxy’s ideological centre a clearer delineation—reinforcing it. We are Vice, Folly, Death, Prodigality, and Temptation in the morality tale. We have to sound plausible, reasonable, and enticing for the drama to work, but are then parodied and mocked by the context.
In that context, it’s particularly interesting to look at the DBW lineup of keynote speakers, only some of whom may fall into the category of what Bjarnason classifies as “the characters Mercy, Justice, Temperance, Truth, Virtue and Tenacity.”
A Growing Curia: Both Amazon and Apple
One thing we can say easily is that the DBW pulpit will not go cold in New York.
Conference council chairman Mike Shatzkin (Idea Logical), with his longtime associate in conference work Michael Cader (Publishers Lunch), has just made it an even dozen DBW keynote speakers — “headliners galore,” as Shatzkin recently dubbed them in his own column.
There was a day when typical conference liturgy called for just one keynote speaker whose remarks were actually considered key. Nowadays, multiple keys to the kingdom and keynotes on their graces are not uncommon, although 12 is probably the largest keynote corps I’ve seen yet.
Alpha and omega? No, alpha and alpha — Apple and Amazon on one program.
As Shatzkin has it:
We have managed to corral both Amazon and Apple speakers for our main stage — a feat we don’t believe any other conference in the book business has ever managed to pull off — but I’d be proud of this program even if neither of them were on it!
The Amazonian element features the always tactful Russ Grandinetti, who is to be interviewed by “the Mikes” onstage at 11:25 a.m. on the opening morning of the main conference, Wednesday January 14. That’s something of a Santa Claus position in the keynote parade for the senior vice president of Amazon’s Kindle division: his session is the finale in a morning filled with high-profile commentary.
As Shatzkin writes in his recent enunciation of the keynoters:
Grandinetti is a straightforward and outspoken executive who has been with Amazon since just about the very beginning and who has shepherded Kindle throughout its existence. With Amazon now generally acknowledged as the most powerful and disruptive force in the book business, we will all be interested to hear what he thinks is the future for printed books versus digital, bookstores versus online purchasing, and how much Amazon’s own publishing and subscription programs are likely to grow.
Mind you, the session will give us two of the most outspoken commentators in the industry — Shatzkin and Cader — with one of the most eloquent verbal fencers of the realm: Grandinetti isn’t a man who says something he doesn’t want to say, and these Mikes are not guys who don’t ask what they want to ask.
So along the lines of Bjarnason’s catechism, we might think of it as Earthly Power interviewed by Curiosity and Persistence.
And then in another Santa Claus position, the second morning of keynotes on Thursday January 15 will culminate in Cader’s conversation at 11:40 a.m. with Keith Moerer, Apple’s iBook Store director.
iBooks Store has established itself as the second leading global seller of ebooks and has ambitious plans for continued growth. We’ve never had the good fortune to have them on the DBW program before.
More Curiosity and the Second Kingdom.
Shatzkin is not wrong, by the way, to feel good about getting both major retailers’ speakers onto the program, writing, “We are thrilled to be able to close our main stage day with Amazon and our second with Apple, giving publishers a chance to hear from the two biggest retailers in the world for their ebooks.”
The DBW keynote lineup, in fact, crosses in and out of the orthodoxy at several points, depending on which speakers you identify as high church in terms of the bookish business: eye of the beholder.
After F+W chairman and CEO David Nussbaum opens the conference on January 14, we’ll hear in those two days not only from Grandinetti and Moerer, but also from:
- Walter Isaacson on “Innovators, Collaborators, and Change Agents,” the subject of his most recent book The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Simon & Schuster, October)
- Matt Greenfield, managing partner of Rethink Education venture capital firm
- Joe Pulizzi, founder of Content Marketing Institute
- Linda Zecher, president and CEO of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (her Four Digital Publishing Questions for Linda Zecher is just out today at Digital Book World)
- James Robinson, news analytics director for The New York Times
Seth Godin, author and founder of squidoo.com (Five Digital Publishing Questions for Seth Godin) — using that nice line this month: “Bestsellers are the books that people who don’t buy books are buying.”
- Brian Murray, HarperCollins CEO, who told an audience at Frankfurt Book Fair that the results of the publisher’s use of subscriptions had been “surprising to us,” as reported by Josh Farrington at The Bookseller.
- Ken Auletta, “Annals of Communications” at The New Yorker (Five Digital Publishing Questions for Ken Auletta)
- Hilary Mason, CEO and founder of of Fast Forward Labs
- Judith Curr, president and publisher with Atria Publishing Group
Needless to say, some of these voices — of authors, executives, and industry observers — will sound more heterodox than others in the DBW setting. As Bjarnason points out, this is part of the interest here: the same speaker can be received with varying perceptions in the contexts of different conferences.
Crying In The Wilderness
And as we rest up in the winter interregnum before starting another round of conferencing, it’s not a bad idea to listen to what a self-styled iconoclast has to say.
As Bjarnason notes, in certain conference settings, his “team” is in the orthodoxy. And in whichever direction the faithful may be circling the dream of success, he writes, “the experience is a religious catharsis, purging doubt, and reinforcing faith.”
A couple of his recommendations might sound like heresy to attendees of almost any such outing, but they’re entertaining in that kernal-of-truth way. Such as:
- Find your crowd. If you’re in digital production, a conversation with a print-oriented executive with thirty years of experience in avoiding change is going to be torturous…The point of conferences is to find and connect with like-minded people you aren’t likely to find elsewhere.
- Don’t try to change anybody’s mind. It’s like trying to teach a cat to type out Ulysses. It won’t work and they won’t appreciate it.
- Maintain your skepticism and assume that all of the speakers are bullshit artists, even the ones you agree with. [We won’t mention that one to our DBW keynote choir.]
You know “the halls,” right? That’s what veteran conference people call the meet-ups, bump-intos, and glad-handing that goes on between the sessions. This, especially at a industry-intense event like DBW, can be the most profitable part of the affair for many attendees.
And in that, even Bjarnason seems to agree. When our saints go marching in:
The faithful build a bond that becomes invaluable for networking in the conference’s corridors and coffee breaks.