Sunday, June 21, 2009

Digital-Only Publishers: In The Ghetto

There's a fascinating and potentially important debate going on within the membership of Romance Writers of America as their annual meeting approaches, and it's worth following for anyone interested in digital publishing, whether or not you give a hoot about romance novels or RWA.

Central to the debate is the status of authors whose works are published only in ebook format and of the acceptance of digital-only publishers, some of whom have been very successful, within RWA. Apparently, there's a lot of history (not to mention intramural and interpersonal politics) in play as the debate has unfolded, but the opening shot of the current round was fired by outgoing RWA president Diane Pershing's letter in the most recent edition of RWA's magazine. In that letter, she effectively dismissed the digital only business model and authors who choose to operate on those terms as unworthy of RWA's stamp of approval. She also reiterated RWA's decision not to provide any workshops or educational programs about digital rights generally and digital publishing specifically at their annual meeting, implying that the level of interest among the majority of members didn't support providing such programming.

In response, agent and author Deidre Knight (who has been successful wearing both hats in print and digital arenas) posted a thoughtful rejoinder on the website of RWA's special interest chapter (Electronic and Small Press) ESPAN. Ms Pershing responded a few days later with her own post her own post on ESPAN, and the battle was joined. The dozens of comments in response to each of these posts, the chatter on twitter (#RWA.Change) and the formation of a new Yahoo Group reflect the intensity of the debate and are worth reading, despite their length and some inevitable redundance (and stupidity).

So what, you ask? Old generation vs new generation in a fight over the future of a writers' organization is not the stuff of headlines. But there's something deeper going on here. The implication of Ms Pershings's statements is that digital publishing is not only different from traditional print's inferior. And inferior to the point that its name shall not be spoken. In so doing, she not only disses a growing market, she also does RWA's members a great disservice by not educating both established and aspiring writers about an alternative way of approaching (or supplementing) their careers with new tools.

Interesting stuff, but more interesting to me is an undercurrent throughout the discussion that digital-only publishers are implicitly shady characters whose business practices are suspect, who are in the business for a quick buck and who are ruthlessly exploiting authors for short term gain. Undoubtedly there have been and are some of those out there (and there are others who do authors a disservice with shoddy or non-existent editorial and marketing support), but there are players in print publishing whose contract, accounting and payment practices don't exactly meet the gold standard either. (If you're in doubt, check the news on Inkwell's collapse due to non-payment from major publishing companies or talk to an author who was unceremoniously dumped when her first novel's sales didn't live up to expectations.) .

While I understand that new business models deserve close scrutiny and the new-kid-on-the-block publisher (whether digital or print) must earn the trust of the author community, the wholesale ghetto-ization of a different model from that with which RWA has been traditionally aligned seems shortsighted at best and discriminatory against a significant and growing percentage of its membership at worst.

I'll be following this closely as it unfolds and hope RWA and other writers associations begin to let the scales fall from their eyes as new models and practices evolve in response to the failing traditional print publishing and distribution models. My money's on the insurgents here and I wish them well.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Strategy for Authenticity

On Monday, I had the opportunity to attend O’Reilly’s Twitter Boot Camp (#otbc if you’d like to check it out on Twitter) in New York City. Program Chair Kat Meyer had assembled a fantastic group of thought leaders, power-users, marketing and publicity experts, and analytical types to explore how this terrific little app can be used for business. Each of them, whether speaking individually or gathered as panels, imparted an enormous amount of information about the business opportunities that exist for smart Twitter users. The crew and cast put on a perfectly good conference. So why did I come away from Twitter Boot Camp feeling depressed?

The program started out harmlessly enough with some warm ups from Tim O’Reilly, Steve Rubel (“Director of Insight” of Edelman Digital) and the ubiquitous Tony Hsieh of Zappo’s. The overall message was one of the power of the medium…one that most of the 200 or so attendees had already embraced.

This was followed by Carri Bugbee (who tweeted for one of the characters in “Mad Men”), Megan Calhoun of TwitterMoms, and Eric Mueller of FlashlightWorthy (who provided the astonishing statistic that nearly 80% of the hits to come directly from Twitter). Despite the fact that Ms Bugbee had tweeted as someone else (in this case, a fictional character) the message from this group, reinforcing that delivered by the earlier speakers,was all about delivering value to the community via your tweetstream and maintaining authenticity.

Things began to turn dark somewhere during the panels on “Logistics of Integrating Twitter into Existing PR and Marketing” (the name should have been a clue), Lunch, and “Twitter and the Rules of Engagement” as the theme moved inexorably from authenticity to strategy and monetization. At this point a big portion of the audience (many of whom were taking notes furiously in spiral notebooks...possibly because they were unaware that the stream of tweets from the room was searchable….possibly because there were exactly zero electrical outlets in a room full of laptop users) leaned forward awaiting the secret which, it turns out,is: “You can’t just be authentic….you have to have a strategy for being authentic and you must use all sorts of metrics to assess whether you are a successful Tweep.” As an aside,the purveyors of these metrics openly admit that they are in their infancy and by implication deeply flawed measures.(I should point out that Marla Erwin, who tweets for Whole Foods, was an outstanding exception in these panels. Marla and Whole Foods are as authentic as they come and she rocked the house.)

Suddenly, corporate-speak prevailed and we began leveraging brands, monetizing communication assets, and determining return on investment from twittering in the blink of a tweet. Amy Martin of Digital Royalty (and apparently the personal twitter strategist behind @THE_REAL_SHAQ) spoke of “planning spontaneous twitter events” for Shaquille O’Neal. Ted Murphy of IZEA tried to rationalize the appeal of so-called ‘sponsored tweets’ (Hey…Did you know TNT Knows Drama?) by saying it was fine to take money for tweets as long as you stay authentic to your community of followers, and Mike Volpe of Hubspot who along with Eric Peterson of Twitalyzer shared their algorithm-based analyses of various twitterers’ performance in the twitterverse. (Interestingly, their respective algorithms, in at least a couple of cases mentioned, produced completely opposite ‘grades’ for individuals being scored with both tools. Ah, science) By the time we reached the Afternoon Break, all notions of authenticity were out the door and the speakers and most in the audience were all about monetizing this mutha’.

Now I’m not na├»ve and I understand that marketing and publicity types at major companies can’t just tweet away all day in their offices without somebody in a suit (a) wondering why the hell they’re on twitter instead of cranking out the next brilliant direct mail piece and (b) wanting to know how this is making the company any money. So I’m not at all opposed to there being some commercial element in the tweet stream. I’ve learned about some nifty (and not-so-nifty) products, discovered terrific books and music, and gotten good advice on solutions to problems from both individual and corporate tweets. And while I tweet as an individual, I’m not above recommending titles from the publisher I work for or aiming my followers in the direction of our company’s website or warehouse sale from time to time. I get it….it’s not strictly for fun and games.

What left me feeling depressed after these panels had finished was the impression that Twitter is about to become a massive marketing land grab just as soon as the attendees at #otbc and sessions like it (along with those paying even bigger dollars to bring “Social Media Experts” in house for custom consulting) figure out how to use Tweetdeck or Seesmic or (insert your favorite client here) and get the Twitter budget approved by Accounting. And then we’ll see the tweetstream clogged with corporate messaging. You can say that you just won’t follow those who play that game, but how many of us are busy retweeting #squarespace every day in June in hopes of winning a $199 iPhone from a company who figured out they could get tons of publicity for about $6000? And would you begrudge a writer friend whose tweets you love the opportunity to pick up a few bucks to tide her over to her next paltry royalty check by tossing out a few sponsored tweets from time to time? I’m not sure.

I’m relatively new to twitter, but what I’ve loved about it since discovering it is its immediacy and its spontaneity. That’s where the joy is and, in my opinion, that’s where the power is (witness #iranelection and related topics). My fear is that the suits will “Clear Channel” (yes, that’s a new verb) this simple little application into nothing but a giant vanilla message board filled with thinly-disguised spam and planned spontaneity. I don’t want, or know how, to develop a strategy for my authenticity. Apparently, I will not be a successful tweeter. So block me.

Disclosure: During the Twitter Boot Camp, I was following the speakers and the audience’s tweets in one column on Tweetdeck, while following #iranelection on another. It’s possible, even likely, that the commercialism of the OTBC program in such stark contrast to the moving news and images coming from Iran colored my view.