To the dumpy Sheraton on West 52nd Street: all is forgiven.
Obviously you can’t have 20,000 or so, ahem, “industry insiders” rolling suitcases around a giant exhibition floor trolling for Advance Reader Copies (ever heard of ebooks?) in just any old venue, but if there’s a worse place to have a conference than a convention center masquerading as a Las-Vegasian-glass-enclosed-airport terminal, complete with overpriced food courts, escalators to nowhere, wifi that could have traveled forward in time from the center’s other possible inspiration (London’s mid-19th-century Crystal Palace), a VIP lounge, and no good way to get there short of taxi or bus, I’m unaware of it. Expos and Cons are one thing, conferences quite another. THIS. IS. A. TRADE. SHOW. MOVE. THE. CONFERENCE. SOMEWHERE. ELSE.
There. Now back to your regularly scheduled post.
I was at BEA on a panel, organized by the indefatigable Anne Kostick, dedicated to the MetPublications portal I worked on with co-presenting colleagues Gwen Roginsky and Amy Liebster (The visionary project leader Teresa Lai was not in attendance). I’ve described MetPubs here before so I won’t do so again, I’ll just mention that the panel, covering how the project was pulled together and lessons learned since then, was well-received by the 60 or so in attendance. (Anyone there when the feedback from the lectern mike became a sonic riot-control weapon, I trust your hearing has returned.) The questions afterwards, as expected, were dominated by concerns about rights and the impact of a digital publishing route on the Met’s print program. Our answers were pretty much the same as they’ve been since the project launched in October. 1) There’s no easy answer on rights but don’t be predatory, don’t be greedy, and with that and good boilerplate language and a sign-off by a lawyer you should be okay. 2) Our print program is not going away as long as mission-driven publishing matters and as long as easy digital publishing solutions for art books remain elusive. (More on that in many future posts.)
The MetPublications presentation was a coda to my attendance at the sidebar-y International Digital Publishing Forum, overlapping BEA by one and a half days, and providing a kind of shoulder-season Tools of Change nostalgia. There isn’t too much to say that wasn’t already said about Digital Book World and the late-lamented TOC. I can’t tell if IDPF was a remake of a movie that everyone pretended not to notice (like Never Say Never Again and Thunderball), or a sequel that had nothing really to recommend it other than, you gotta have something to do for a couple of days in late May (Hangover 3). So let me try to focus on what might be of interest to us in the museum publishing field.
IDPF started with a keynote by four “visionaries” who all attempted to provide a metaphor for the digital book vis-à-vis print: Corey Pressman of Exprima Media, Richard Nash of Small Demons, Hugh McGuire of PressBooks, and Craig Mod, an independent designer and writer who byted an influential essay late last year proposing a emphasis on super-low-entry-barrier publishing. The specifics of their metaphors are less important than the fact that we are in a stage that lends itself to such activity, searching for metaphors to provide the intellectual underpinnings of our still-unproven business models. (Pressman’s “Book as Electronic Incunabula” sent the early-morning pre-caffienated audience onto their smartphones for a definition.) To paraphrase the sports maxim, digital books are what we think they are, or, more precisely, what we use them for. If we want connectivity and conversation with our pages, we can tweet or tumble; if we want easy storage, we kindle them; if we want disruption, we look for the avant-garde, the app-y; and so on. (And all print books are not created equal, either, or else there wouldn’t be a thing called a trim size.) And Pressman read a poem by Neruda about books. I appreciated that.
After a conversation between digital publishing journalist extraordinaire Laura Hazard Owen and HarperCollins chief digital officer Chantal Restivo-Alessi, the next panel discussed different platform technologies–ePub3, HTML5, Open Web–and their impacts on digital publishing. Think rock-paper-scissors, or perhaps Spy vs Spy vs Spy. You can find evangelists for any of the three to be the primary focus of a publisher’s digital strategy. (From a realistic, skill-set-teachable point of view, I would put my money on HTML.)
I’ll skip the next two presentations, by Writer’s Digest and Goodreads, respectively, except to say: slides with tables and graphs and lots of data. DON’T DO IT. Presentations starting with reading off said facts. DON’T DO IT. Send us links or Slideshare them.
The panels I attended over the next 24 hours were basically on different aspects of digital workflow, whether involving coding (ePub guru Liz Castro in a really interesting, well-received talk) or ePub features of the new InDesign Creative Cloud version (Adobe, whose presenters had the earnest smiles of the near-monopolists). Of all these, a panel on the pros and cons of in/out sourcing may have been closest to my workflow wonk heart, with speakers from Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Open Road Media, and Parragon (yes, that’s the correct spelling) taking turns saying that some degree of internal workflow evolution and coding quality-control knowledge is essential.
In terms of takeaways, I did get a sense that the age of XML-first hasn’t so much passed as been recast as a debate over workflow, and by workflow I mean keep it the old way or transform it, probably at the point of a staple gun. But otherwise, and perhaps typified by the metaphor slam of the first day, there’s a certain stasis right now–the publishers who have gone all in on digital are either fine or out of business, the publishers who haven’t are either fine or out of business, and those people dabbling in apps and all sorts of interesting content approaches are probably closer to being out of business but having a lot more fun doing so. (Those in traditional publishing having fun are those who love workflow. We aren’t the Borg, we just have resonant voices.)
For the next year, I’m targeting events which have a more creative vibe, with whiteboards and raised hands and people shouting out ideas. (Or maybe I’m thinking of an improv performance.) Seriously, though, I’m on a mission to get museums, and the amazing things that we and other non-profits are doing in digital publishing, a seat at the table at these kind of “mainstream” publishing events. Maybe the enthusiasm that pervades our more focused gatherings can help breathe some life into the staggering conference corpses of the publishing industry.
Oh, and I was the fourth most active tweeter at IDPF, according to Epilogger. So unless one of the people ahead of me turns out to have been doping, I’m out of the medals.