On conferences

Publishing conferences are deadly serious

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.

When heterodox speakers—like myself—are invited, we are there to perform a liturgical role. 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. We exist solely to create an uncertainty that can be assuaged by the characters Mercy, Justice, Temperance, Truth, Virtue, and Tenacity, who bring the viewer back into the fold with convictions even stronger than before. Everybody who sets foot on the stage is a stock character serving a stock role that, one way or another, reinforces what the audience considers normal.

‘Digital’ publishing conferences are deadly serious

Alternative conferences, those that cater to the publishing heterodox ‘digital’, work in exactly the same way, often using exactly the same speakers, except the roles are reversed.

In traditional publishing conferences the temptation is the seducing allure of the new and exciting (i.e. unproven and risky) that pulls the audience away from their faithful field (traditional publishing). In a digital conference the temptation is the pull of the familiar, where instead of continuing the exploration of the unknown—which is where future inevitably lies—the true believer abandons the righteous path and goes down the known route that leads to stagnation and decline. Both groups are exposed to the same facts and the same reality, but end up seeing it in two completely different ways.

In both contexts the play is the same. The performers alternate between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, always making sure that the orthodoxy of that specific community controls the context and wins out both in numbers and presentation. The more hyperbolic the heterodoxy sounds, the better because the orthodoxy has to sound reasonable. The simpler the heterodoxy sounds, the better because the orthodoxy has to claim ownership of nuance and real-world complexity. Even when the heterodoxy does sound reasonable and nuanced, the orthodoxy has the high ground of owning the surrounding message and so can recast whatever the heterodoxy said in a grimmer light.

A conference isn’t for learning

The experience is a religious catharsis, purging doubt, and reinforcing faith. By joining in the communion of verbal diarrhoea spewed by consultants and overpaid executives, the faithful build a bond that becomes invaluable for networking in the conference’s corridors and coffee breaks. Trying to change anybody’s mind is the worst thing you can do in a conference: it’d be like lecturing people on atheism as they gather outside church after a Sunday mass.

My advice on how to properly attend a conference:

  • Ignore the talks. At best they serve as a conversation starter. For that, only one of you needs to have listened to them. At worst they fill your head with out of date nonsense designed to sell you on somebody’s services. If the talk is any good, everybody will be talking about it during the breaks and online and you can catch it when the video or the slides are posted.
  • 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. It’d be about as much fun as waiting in the queue for the toilet after having drunk five pints at the pub while listening to ‘Splish Splash’ on a constant loop. 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.
  • Every conference has a reality distortion field caused by the faith-affirming ritual nature of the beast. Maintain your skepticism and assume that all of the speakers are bullshit artists, even the ones you agree with.

Above all, try not to think about how much money the entire brouhaha costs.

Recipe for pundit response to Hugh Howey’s suggestions

Recently, Hugh Howey wrote two interesting blog posts that outline what changes he would enact if he became the benevolent dictator of a large publishing company.

Don’t Anyone Put Me in Charge

I recently posted an audacious claim that major publishers are bound to emulate indies, which would be quite the reversal. I want to now explore how publishers could actually do this, how they could learn from self-published authors. Because I want publishers to do well. I want them to help new authors break out. I want them to keep bookstores open and readers happy. So what I’m going to do, in a very rambling fashion, is pretend that someone just put me in charge of a major publishing house. Let’s say HarperCollins (just to pick one at random). Here’s how I would blow the doors off my competitors and become the #1 publisher in the land (overtaking indies, which I estimate now rank #1 in total sales).

The post is full of suggestions on community, formats, bundling, contracts, schedules, marketing and locations that publishers really should take to heart. The slightly embarrassing part, though, is how many of them are common sense observations that should have been implemented years ago.

My Second Month on the Hypothetical Job

But now we’re in the second month, and we’ve got the easy changes behind us: DRM is a thing of the past; hardback sales have shot up with the ebook bundling; our authors are using the forums and coming up with great ideas (that we actually listen to and implement). Things are great. But they could be better. Now that we’re #1 and have some leverage, we’re gonna drop the bunker busters.

The second post then tackles returns, print on demand, free books, more marketing, branding, and authors. All of which is good.

So, here we have a couple of excellent, well reasoned posts on what needs to be done in the publishing industry. The best part is that we can already guess how the responses will go. The incumbent response to common sense suggestions is a genre of blog posts that really doesn’t get the credit it deserves, considering how incredibly widespread it is. So, to make the task easier for all of you pundits and publishing industry insiders, instead of picking the posts apart or responding to them (I mostly agree with them anyway) I’m going to give you an easy recipe for how to write a standard pro-industry response to blog posts like Hugh Howey’s.

Recipe for generic publishing industry insider response to articles demanding change

  1. Call common sense, toned-down blog posts ‘controversial’ or ‘provocative’. Especially if everybody with sense agrees with it and has expressed public support for its ideas.
  2. Pretend that things have already started to change so much that some of the suggestions are redundant, then mention how the issues mentioned aren’t that big a problem anyway and, actually, the way publishers have been doing it in the past is much better that what is suggested.
  3. Pick an inconsequential detail and deny it. Make sure it’s something that has no bearing on the overall argument but serves to subtly discredit the blogger without attacking them directly.
  4. Respond to a suggestion, making sure to waffle on by bringing in random observations as if they were counter-arguments. Pick one of the points made and write around it without addressing it directly. Try not to attack the suggestion head on but draw in non sequiturs and pretend they are relevant arguments. (‘But if that were true about book retail, all cats would be Sagittarians, wouldn’t they? Also, university professors. I mean, university professors!’)
  5. Act as if the suggestions aren’t based on independently verifiable critical observations by a third party on the publishing industry in general, and instead act as if they are wholly subjective opinions based on a single blogger’s personal experience and therefor not generally applicable.
  6. Make up a huge, big issue that isn’t in the post at all and then take the blogger to task for being for or against it (make it look like it was the post’s main topic even though it wasn’t mentioned at all) or lambast them for not going into such an obviously vital and important issue (derail it, baby!).
  7. Finish off by pretending you’ve just explained why the status quo is inevitable and also why that is the absolute best way that things can ever be and that any change is bad. So, so bad. And difficult to accomplish.
  8. Bonus points if you do any of the following:
    1. Imply that self-publishing is a bubble.
    2. Trot out the ‘ebook growth is stalling’ idea.
    3. Tell a story about somebody doing something stupid and then pretend that’s a strong counter-argument to whatever you want to argue against. Because stupid people are always relevant.
    4. Imply, or even outright claim, that self-published books are of a substantially lower quality than than the trite, homogenous, celebrity-obsessed output of other-publishing (as opposed to self-publishing). (‘Not a celebrity? Fine! We also love has-been and burned out celebrities. Niche markets! Loadsa money in them.’)
    5. Hint at every opportunity that this or that reform is expensive and requires a lot of work. Gotta make sure they know they should be hiring consultants!
    6. Hint at every opportunity that this is a complex problem that needs to be properly understood… by sending your staff to workshops, conferences, etc..
    7. Imply that other-publishers are somehow responsible for keeping the general quality of books high.

Just follow this recipe and you’ll have a kick-ass post that guarantees you a few more rides on the publishing industry consultancy gravy train. After all, would publishers give shit-loads of money to people who tell them that their stupid mistakes are stupid? Would they hire consultants who unnerve them with ideas and suggestions that require actual cultural change to implement?

Of course not. Publishers only give money to people like that by accident, like when their books turn out to be bestsellers.