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A report from the e-books summit

By Poetry Foundation

Former Poetry Foundation journalism fellow Alizah Salario went to this week’s e-book summit in New York to follow up on her article “Breaking the Poetry Code.” Here’s what she found out:

I went to the eBook Summit in New York this week in hopes of becoming a digital publishing expert. The Summit, organized by Mediabistro, was day-long conference chock full of speakers, panel discussions, and schmoozing with e-book experts, media giants, and otherwise interested parties. I went out of genuine curiousity — and fear. As a journalist, I worry my future will be limited to writing listicles and Tweets,  and as a writer of fiction, I’m not sure I’ll have a place in the new e-book world. I went to learn from the movers and shakers in e-publishing about what’s working and why so I can further my career as a writer —and maybe even making a living doing so.

Though I gleaned a ton of practical info from the media theorists, publishers, agents, writers, and editors who came to the WiFi-enabled Digital Disneyland, the most important things I took away had nothing to do with HTML or making my online persona recognizable. Above all, I was reminded that people will always yearn for well-crafted words and authentic connections with the authors who write them, no matter what the platform.

What has changed is how we connect and share. When award-winning poet and novelist Robert Hilles wanted to promote his latest book, he went beyond Facebook and Twitter.  Hilles created an account on Wattpad, an e-book network where writers can share their own work and comment on that of others. Though Hilles had already made a name for himself, (he’s the recipient of Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Poetry) he still turned to an e-book community of emerging and established writers to tap into to what really drives book sales, whether online or in the real world: genuine connections with readers.

I spoke with Nina Lassam of Wattpad about how e-book communities are changing the role of the author and the way we measure literary value.  Lassam was among the Literati in attendance —including former Soft Skull press publisher Richard Nash (who spoke about his new publishing venture Cursor), Movable Type literary group co-founder Jason Ashlock, and media gurus Douglas Rushkoff and Ken Auletta—who all presented variations on a digital theme: emerging publishing platforms are shifting from the writer-agent-publisher food chain to egalitarian  ecosystems. In short, the writer-reader  relationship has evolved from an arranged marriage organized by publishers and agents to unmediated hook-ups. Utterly terrifying and completely empowering,  isn’t it?

The most inspiring aspect of the event was hearing from the digital storytellers who’ve already transformed ideas into innovations. Electric Literature co-publishers Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum spoke about Broadcastr, their forthcoming oral storytelling app that allows people to record and share personal stories. Peter Costanzo of Perseus Books Group described splicing text with old footage of JFK and Jackie O. to create an enhanced e-book about the American icons, and Jacqueline Bosnjak introduced collaborative publishing platform ThumbScribes, where stories and poems are co-authored by a creative community, sort of like a much cooler Google Wave.  Then there’s — well, you get the idea. You could practically see the light bulbs going off over everyone’s heads.

If you could stomach the digital jive talk – readers today need “engagement,” we must “cross-pollinate” between  old and new media,  content must be “curated” and have “discoverability”— then you could tap into the social media zeitgeist and enhance your online presence. Ahh! I can’t stop!

New Yorker writer and author of Googled: The End of the World As We Know It Ken Auletta capped off the conference with an anecdote about one of the founders of Google and words of wisdom about the nature of change.  He noted that we’re in the “throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks phase” – but that’s not a bad thing. Auletta mentioned that Apple’s first mobile device,  the Newton, was a complete bomb. (He was speaking to a sea of iPads and MacBooks.) His point was that great ideas are nothing without great vehicles, and no one knows what the Next Big Thing will be until it’s already here. So why not throw something against the wall, too?

Yet it was the frenetic Douglas Rushkoff, media theorist and author of Program or Be Programmed: 10 Commandments for a Digital Age, who best summed up this fleeting moment in publishing: we’re trying to “poop before we eat,” meaning that we’re trying to predict outcomes before we’ve created  and processed content. Rushkoff also compared writers to “rats after the apocalypse” which I found oddly comforting.

While no one came up with HTML code for poetry e-books, and I may still be a digital dilettante, that’s really beside the point. All the new-fangled e-marketing and e-publishing tools are actually helping writers stay true to a few old adages: voracious readers make the best writers, people trust people and not computers, the revolution will not be televised, and at the end of the day, whether  it be the paper or tablet variety,  it’s still just a poet and a pad.


Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, December 18th, 2010 by Poetry Foundation.