This morning I saw an announcement in Publishers Weekly newsletter for a breakfast meeting in New York, part of the "Think Future - What's Next In Book Publishing" series. The next scheduled discussion on March 21 is "Technology: Opportunities and Threats for the Book Publishing Industry." I'm thinking of going, but I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be part of the industry or one of the threats. I'd hate to drive all the way in to Manhattan and find myself attacked by a bunch of angry publishing executives in the Luce Room of the Time Warner building. I don't think my publishing attorney does personal injury law:-)
I'll also admit to a bit of an attitude problem. My fantasy scenario of such a discussion, based on programs I've seen in the past on Book-TV, would go something like this:
A bunch of dinosaur publishers are sitting around the breakfast table snacking on giant ferns and discussing the future of the Mesozoic Era. The panel takes up and quickly dismisses such concepts as global cooling and big, dirty snowballs whacking into the planet, and moves on to the heart of the discussion. How to continue doing exactly what they have been doing for the last 165 million years, while convincing the media and their underlings that they are publishing innovators. In order to get the point across, two T-Rex types have been invited. Let's call them Mr. Softy and Hell Boy. Mr. Softy speaks first.
"We believe that through technological innovation, it will become possible to feed your readers to aggre... No, wait. That was, aggregate your reader's feeds..." Hell Boy interrupts.
"We can replace your current readers with with mass produced machine readers, and eat them!"
"Feed them," whispers Mr. Softy, "This is a vegan crowd."
"Eat them!" Hell Boy repeats, "It's part of our new recycling initiative."
One of the vegan publishers chips in something he heard while doing lunch with an agent. More of a rumor really, about an author who has a blog he feeds. The agent wasn't sure whether the blog was a reptile or a fish but promised to get back to him. The V.P. of another publisher mentions that a staffer had shown her a thing called Google the other day. It clearly lacked the graphical elements consumers crave, she pointed out, and would surely fail in the marketplace.
Mr. Softy bellows at the mention of Google and tears into the publisher. Hell Boy attacks the moderator. A giant glowing ball appears in the sky, growing rapidly, and on a collision course with the Straits of Mexico. Fade to black.
While you can see I'm clearly handicapped by preconceptions, I'm nothing if not curious, and I'm genuinely tempted to pay the $45 and try to make it. Granted, I find some of the questions painfully naive, like "What is the future of content?" and "How can we best open the floodgates of 'discovery' and content search without sacrificing the economics of 'consumption?'" If I'm translating the latter correctly, it means, "How can we participate in this Internet 'thing' without changing our business model?"
I shouldn't laugh though, I'm something of a dinosaur myself. I still think that the future of the Internet remains text - more text, and hopefully, better text. I think the fundamental models for monetizing that text have already been established as well. Selling the text to readers who want to buy it and selling advertising space to merchants who want to sell those readers something. You can fool around with the delivery technology for both of these things, POD, e-books, text-to-speech or telepathic implantation, but there's still going to be a buyer/seller relationship, or publisher/reader, if you like.
What worries me about attending such a discussion is that I'll put in three hours of driving (and contributing to global something) and I'll end up boiling in my seat the whole time. In my experience, publishers are still looking for ways to make the Internet more book-like, and they don't have much trouble getting the big technology companies to play along with them. What's been happening in the background is that books are getting Internet-like, with lower entry barriers for publishers, fewer middlemen, and more errors and omissions (like this blog). I suppose the best compromise would be if I go, but to take the Flintmobile.