Yesterday was my first Book^2 Camp and my first “unconference” of any kind, so I had no idea what to expect. I imagined people sitting around in conference rooms, selling each other their respective agendas and spouting lots of jargon. But none of that happened and by the end of the day I felt re-energized and thrilled to be a part of the sprawling, idiosyncratic, weirdo-genius-filled world of book publishing. Also slightly drunk.
The first session I attended was Ami Greko’s session about what she learned from making her (wonderful) zine about her recent four month travel sabbatical from her job at Kobo. We talked about the idea of creating media that’s intended for a specific audience, who are then the only people who can have access to it, rather than setting the default mode of every interaction to “public.” This seems like a super specific theme, but the conversation went from there to everything to comment trolls to high-profile failed Kickstarter campaigns.
The next session I went to was about what publishers can (and can’t) do for authors — basically, the person who initiated the session wanted us to tell her why she shouldn’t just self-publish her book. This one pushed me up against my biases. For a long time, I have been singing the gospel of “publishers still offer value to new authors that self-publishing can never match, except if you have shitloads of money to spend custom-recreating what happens at a publishing house via freelance labor or if you are the one in a million author whose self-published book is republished — well — by a major publisher.” It was hard to maintain this belief, though, as I watched a room full of editors, designers and authors explain the less-than-logical aspects of the publishing process as though explaining the odd, vestigial tribal rites of a dying civilization. As depressing as it was, it was also thrilling to hear editors being honest about this stuff. I hope the authors in the room could pull the figurative cotton wool of self-delusion out of their ears long enough to hear them.
Throughout the day, various people said various renditions of “publishers should publish fewer, better books” and everyone was consistently like “YES! EXACTLY!” I found myself thinking, though I know there are lots of contractual and practical reasons why this could never happen, about what would happen if it was possible for publishers to gently euthanize projects that weren’t working out. One of the many things that’s hard to explain to authors is that there really are very few “sleeper hits” in publishing — if your book is going to completely tank, your publisher knows long before that first copy hits the shelves, based on presales. Unless you’re very savvy about knowing which questions to ask, or have worked in publishing, or you have an agent who knows you can handle the truth, you’re going to keep holding out hope for way longer than is necessary. It would be sad but probably psychologically healthier for everyone involved, not to mention a much better use of resources, not to go through the motions of promoting the publication of — wow, I’ve been trying to dodge this metaphor but it’s really the only one that will do — a stillborn book. If publishing were like any other business and books were like any other product, that sales-conference “nope” would be the moment in the process when the problematic item could be sent back to the lab for testing and rejiggering. But books aren’t products, they’re art — except when they’re mostly just products, which is often. Or when they’re to some extent both, which is always.
One huge problem, almost too huge to approach directly, is that we whisper in euphemisms about the distinction between book-shaped products — celebrity memoirs, cat calendars, point of purchase novelty books, packager-conceptualized YA series — and books that are, you know, real books. Big publishers need to sell book-products to subsidize literature, or so the conventional wisdom runs, but what if we acknowledged more openly that publishing Snooki’s novel involves a totally different process than publishing Alan Hollinghurst’s novel? What if we just stopped even calling the former thing a “book”?
Obviously that’s exactly the kind of utopian/delusional thing that is never going to happen, but I liked that this was the kind of thought that Book^2 Camp made me think. I also liked hanging out in Workman’s offices all day and doing exercises like going around the room and saying what the last book we bought with actual money was and why we bought it. Lucinella, a Terry Pratchett novel, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and Code Name: Verity were some of the books people mentioned. Publishing people!! I love you!
(photo via Guy LeCharles Gonzalez’s post about how discoverability is a problem for publishers, not readers, ding ding ding)