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Dispatches from the Future Last Saturday

March 26, 2010

On Saturday, March 20, The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, hosted an all-day conference, “Writing the Future,” organized by the Center,  The Creative Nonfiction Foundation, and Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes. My original plan was to keep a running blog of highlights from the event, but I quickly found that intention to be overly ambitious. The event offered such a torrent of information and ideas that I had troubled just keeping up, much less processing it all — and even now, days later, there’s still so much to consider that I’m hesitant to try to synthesize it all into any overarching conclusions about what’s ahead next for writers and publisher.

Instead, then, I just wanted to excerpt a few choice nuggets from the various presentations and panel discussions that I attended over the course of the day, all of it moderated by Lee Gutkind, author most recently of  Almost Human: Making Robots Think and the founder of Creative Nonfiction, a journal whose relaunch celebration ultimately closed the day’s events. The day began with presentations by Jay Ogilvy, co-founder of the Global Business Network, and Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, talking about the approaches to predicting the future — scenario building, for instance — and the difficulties with predicting the long-term impact of new initiatives and technologies: Radio, as Sarewitz pointed out, was intended simply as an upgrade for the telegraph, but who could’ve known how tremendously it would affect so many realms of society and culture. (Unaddressed were all the questions lingering in the air about the Kindle and the iPad.)

After those presentations, the discussion narrowed its focus to writers and writing, with a panel discussion featuring Ogilvy and Sarewitz along with poet Sandra Beasley, public relations expert Lauren Cerand, Wilson Quarterly literary editor Sarah Courteau, publishing visionary Richard Nash, vook.com vice president Jack Sallay, and literary agent Jeff Kleinman. Gutkind began the session — the most fascinating of the day — by saying, “Sure, everybody wants to write, but can anybody get published anymore?” ….which started the ball rolling on a conversation that could’ve taken up the whole morning. Here are a few of the more provocative ideas (not, I should stress, direct quotes):

Richard Nash offered that the present publishing business was not bringing writers and readers together, and better approaches must be found outside of legacy publishing.

Lauren Cerand suggested that negativity in publishing is a self-defining construct. How much of the gloom and doom is really real? and how much is it that the internet is changing things?

Jay Ogilvy expressed optimism about the culture, noting that books are increasingly sophisticated and championing a “Europeanization of American letters.” But he expressed concern about the economics of it all.

Nash expounded that industry gets equated with the health of writing and reading — but that the two ideas need to be separate. Publishing is really a manufacturing operation, an industrial business model, and the writer is a widget in a mill that’s cranking out product — “an appallingly shitty model for an intellectual property.”

Dan Sarewitz stressed that the golden age of writing/publishing is a myth, and Sarah Courteau noted Virginia Quarterly Review editor  Ted Genoways‘ provocative article “The Death of Fiction.” (…with whose conclusions which Nash did not agree.)

Cerand noted that in contrast to how clients approached her years ago, armed with a publisher’s expectations about a book,now authors were put in a do-it-yourself situation — and she stressed that authors could do it themselves,  finding the ideal audience (“and authors know that audience better than anyone, even the publishers”) using the internet and social media.

Back to the idea of legacy publishing, Sandra Beasley pointed out that traditional publishing was regarded as “the brass ring.” An author was a success if he or she got to that level. But the reality of the current scenario is that there is no success or failure but rather a “quadrant of possibilities” to navigate as a writer — none of which guarantee monetary security or even profile. In short: “The publishing world doesn’t reach down and lift you up.”

After Courteau’s necessary comment that publishers do quality control, filtering work, gatekeeping, Gutkind pointed out that as writers, we should not be writing for us, we need to be writing for the world. We writers are the people who will change the world, more than politicians or soldiers. We need to move from a journal — only catering to other writers — and are trying to spread out the window of our literary world. At the end of that, a question: What is the future of paper books or will we be reading on displays?

Ogilvy began the assessment: Kindle isn’t just convenience, an easy way to carry more books on an airplane. He pointed to the “iPod element,” noting that just as iPod radically changed the music industry, wrecking hell on the music industry but helping smaller musicians, so too might Kindle assist “matchmaking” between readers and writers — an alternative to the mass market.

Clarifying the iPod element, Beasley said that the iPod wrcked the album in favor of the song: “People buying my poem for a nickel is frightening,” she said of readers who might buy a single poem but ignore the full collection.

Counter to the counter: Nash noted that the album allowed bands who had two good songs force people to buy eight shitty songs. (Much laughter at that.)

On the subject of money, Ogilvy said that in his experience, the book was a “calling card, not an economic unit.” He claimed he’d never made any significant amount of money from royalties; where the money comes from is the lecture, the business engagement.

Back on publishing as a manufacturing industry, Nash noted that one person might pay $10,000 to speak with you, and 10,000 people might pay a single dollar for what you have to offer, so publishing has regularized that curve to the $10-$30 range. “New technology is offering something very different for artists, and economically it’s OK because we were never in the manufacturing business anyway.”

Stories are stories, concluded Cerand, whether on a billboard or on the back of an a Honest Tea bottle.

I LIVE IN THE FUTURE….

The question of medium versus message continued in a presentation by Nick Bilton, lead technology writer for  the New York Times‘ Bits Blog, previewing his upcoming book I Live in the Future and Here’s How It Works. Drawing on work by the Times’ research and development labs, Bilton focussed on the idea that “paper is just a device, like a Kindle of an iPad, delivering content” — and suggested that we miss the point when we emphasize too strongly the device first. “The future is screens,” he said, “whether you like it or not.” But the type of screens seemed to surprise many in the audience — flexible displays, for example — and the benefits of “smart content” seemed to win a few over: the idea that a newspaper might be able to customize itself for you. As with Cerand’s concluding statements to the earlier session, Bilton said that there’s “no difference between writing a blog post and writing a book. It’s all telling a story.”

As with the morning session, this presentation segued into a panel discussion, this time featuring Bilton, Nash again, and a couple of new faces: multi-talented author Pagan Kennedy, the force behind Writer 2.o, and Peter Ginna, editorial director of Bloomsbury Press and author of the blog Dr. Syntax.

Among the points focussed on in this shorter session were Ginna’s discussion of how the old model of publishing, the gatekeeper, led to fairly discrete number of channels, i.e. booksellers, and a relatively small number of book outlets, but that now a number of possibilities exist on each side of the gate. (This did not sound negative, btw.)

Elaborating, Pagan Kennedy said that her career has jumped in a number of different directions, including print, film, and web. But now, she said, there’s no where for writers to jump too. This too didn’t sound like a negative, as Kennedy said that it was “an exciting time. Everything is open, everything is up for grabs. We can shape new genres and new ways of reaching readers.” With a nod toward our recent snopocalypse, Kennedy said that D.C. blizzards are inconvenient, painful, but we talked to one another, to our neighbors, and we found new ways to make things better.

In the midst of this came the fact that  journalism schools are creating a writer/entrepreneur path, with budding journalists having to pitch a business model that would deliver news and also sustain itself.

We’re tribal, said Nash. We organize ourselves based on what we like. To that end, he urged writers to be part of a community that cares, and remember that book publishing is just a focus on the merchandise.

LATER THE SAME DAY

Afternoon sessions focussed on several topics in breakout sessions — each with its own charms and wisdom. In the segment “Making Big Stories Fit Small Spaces,” for example, Kennedy noted that Thoreau’s Walden would work brilliantly as a blog. “It’s stunt journalism,” she said. And in “Creating a Writer: Why Specialize?” Kleinman urged people to forget trends and focus on your own strengths: “Figure out what you’re really good at and use those writing muscles in the best way. What’s frustrating to me is that people don’t have that ability.

After the conference ended, Creative Nonfiction launched its new look, focussing on the ways in which the magazine was taking advantage of the Internet both to broaden its scope and, in turn, to reach a broader audience. Pizza was served in large quantities. Everyone seemed happy.

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