LA Times Festival of Books: New Media Meets Publishing

The second panel we attended at the LA Times Festival of Books, “#book: New Media Meets Publishing,” wasn’t overtly a comics panel. That being said, folks with an interest in process and digital publication will probably want to read my recap anyhow– the processes and networks that allow guys like Wil Wheaton to self-publish are the kinds of things that can be adapted to comics work as well. The panel moderator was LA Times blogger Carolyn Kellogg, who’s covered the publishing industry for the Times since 2008. The panelists were:

First observation: Carolyn speaks LOLcat. Pretty fluently. In addition, she encouraged audience members to tweet from the panel using the “#latfob” hashtag, which was a nice touch. The Times kept that hashtag front and center throughout the Festival; placards posted in vendor areas mentioned it prominently, and every panel we attended made a point of telling us how to tag any tweets we made. That’s good message discipline, and hopefully something other festivals, conventions, BarCamps, and the like will emulate.

The panel opened with Wheaton briefly explaining that he’d come to Twitter after the urging of LA ubergeek Sean Bonner (founder of the Crash Space hackerspace in Culver City, CA), but didn’t really embrace its potential until Warren Ellis directed him to the pithy, pun-filled tweets of Diesel Sweeties cartoonist Rich Stevens. Kellogg then asked Dana about teenagers’ Twitter habits, which, well… it turns out that “teens don’t Tweet,” which is pretty much the attitude my 22-to-25-year-old coworkers display about the service too.

What teens do, though, is write, as Dana Goodyear found out while covering Japan’s keitai shousetsu (cellphone novel) subculture for the New Yorker. Most of the early authors of cellphone novels were teenaged girls in the rural districts of Japan (roughly, “anything outside of Tokyo proper” if you’re a Tokyo resident); these young writers captured their experiences via text message and gained an audience of over 12 million readers. Conventional publishing caught on, and the dead-tree versions of cellphone novels sold well to eager audiences looking for souvenirs of their reading experience. (You can read Goodyear’s original article, “Letter from Japan: I ♥ NOVELS,” here.) Inspired by this experience, Goodyear went on to start Figment, a Web platform where teenagers will be given the tools to express themselves without restrictions on form or content. (Figment will launch later this year; you can check out the prelaunch site now, though.)

Pablo Defendini envisioned a similar community for science fiction and fantasy fans at Tor.com. Instead of being a puff site for Macmillan’s SF imprint, Tor|Forge, Tor.com was designed to be as accessible as possible to people at all levels of interest in science fiction publishing. It’s equal parts group blog and SF/F magazine, open to content from readers, writers, publishers, and editors alike. “Access to guys like Wil Wheaton and Neil Gaiman is easy now,” Defendini said. “[Publishers] need to engage and listen to the readers… and leverage that knowledge with bookstore buyers to get our books on the shelves. The Internet hates middlemen.”

Wheaton concurred entirely with Defendini’s assessment, detailing his own experience with both his content and the works of others. Both Wheaton and Defendini spoke admiringly of author Scott Sigler (Ancestor, Earthcore), who releases multiple editions of his novels in differing formats. The hardcover version of a Sigler novel might have tipped-in additional content, while the paperback has a different plot; Sigler’s audiobooks are released as free, serialized podcasts via Podiobooks. In much the same way as Sigler approaches each narrative as mutable, Goodyear noted, the authors of cellphone novels often take suggestions from their readership as they write; the narrative, delivered in 70-to-100-word installments, becomes a dialog between the author and his or her fanbase.

Like Sigler’s audiobooks and Tor.com’s free PDFs of SF novels, the cellphone novel is given away freely– but free content isn’t the defining feature of digital publishing, Wheaton pointed out, going on to note that digital publication offered new avenues of consumption and interaction for audiences and authors. Defendini likened these new avenues to a Balkanization of publishing, where large houses would eventually fragment into smaller publishing services that catered to and were deeply invested in very specific interests. Wheaton also noted that in such a market, print-on-demand or self-publication should no longer be a taboo topic, unlike pay-to-publish vanity press scams. He emphasized that a book should look and feel good; to that end, aspiring POD/ self-published authors should utilize their personal connections and hire competent, talented people in order to create a professional product.

Of course, that might be a bit easier for Wheaton than for others– he mentioned that, among others, comics artist D’Israeli and White Wolf game designer Jesse Heinig had assisted him with production work on his books. When asked what he would do if he ever needed a translator for his works, Wheaton unflinchingly replied that he’d go to his blog and Twitter and ask for applications from his one-million strong reading audience. Still, even folks less famous than Wheaton can apply that strategy to their interactions with like-minded creators; Kellogg half-jokingly noted that with the current state of the print publishing industry, authors could easily “hire the laid-off” to work production roles on their titles.

When it got down to nuts-and-bolts discussion of best practices for ebook production, though, Wheaton and Defendini brought out their geek A-game; Goodyear was visibly impressed with the amount of work each of them had put into thinking about digital publication. Wheaton called for publishers to standardize on an open ebook format and “take [proprietary formats] out behind the barn.” Defendini agreed, and mentioned that he found PDF an inflexible format for ebooks because “text needs to be more accommodating” to different reading devices; he prefers the open EPUB standard. Goodyear concurred, noting that teenagers are platform-agnostic as long as the reading experience isn’t jarringly different from phone to laptop to digital reader. When asked for specific tips on creating EPUB content, Defendini noted that generating EPUB can be a dirty, hands-on coding process requiring knowledge of XML. Wheaton jumped in to assure the somewhat frightened audience member that “it’s really easy,” while also recommending the ebook formatting services provided by SmashWords and other layout houses.

Defendini further recommended the open-source EPUB creator Sigil as a good starting point for the timid. When asked about covering all the possible format bases, Wheaton mentioned that he avoided some formats (like the Kindle) because the terms of use weren’t beneficial to his bottom line. Defendini reinforced the notion of selectivity with the observation that when you have an idea, the presentation should be chosen explicitly to suit the idea itself– does it work best as a book? as a Twitter feed of crafted content? as an iPad app?– and urged people to pick their shots accordingly.

Certainly, Goodyear, Defendini, and Wheaton are presenting a paradigm for thinking about digital publication that will ruffle some feathers in traditional publishing. I’ve already seen one recap of this same panel that, er, didn’t resemble what I got out of it at all, and I doubt that’s the last one I’ll see. I know, specifically in the comics field, that I’ve seen several creators be quite open about their lack of digital publishing know-how during public appearances– and, well, a guy like Mike Mignola knows that Hellboy fans would buy Hellboy on stone tablets if that were the only distribution channel, so, arguably, he’s perfectly correct in not giving a shit.

Most of the rest of us don’t have Mignola’s considerable professional leverage, which is why we should be listening to folks like Defendini, Goodyear, and Wheaton. They’ve been over this ground. They are working out the paradigms in which many of us will work in the years to come; it would be stupid not to take heed now. If we want to move from “aspiring” creators to creators, we must know our markets. We need to move towards laying out cold, hard cash to like-minded artists to create the most appropriate and attractive packages for our ideas. We need to engage openly and honestly with our audiences… and we need to have the kind of content that compels those audiences to listen.

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