by Bob Calhoun
The mood was tense in the fourth floor conference room of the SPUR Urban Center in San Francisco on Saturday—especially for a panel with the dry title of “The Future of Publishing,” but this was far from your usually dry panel. At one end of a folding table sat Charlie Winton, CEO of Counterpoint and Soft Skull, a pair of conjoined indie publishing companies that has survived the massive and continuous upheavals in the business of bookselling.
At the other end of the table was Jon Fine, Director of Author and Publishing Relations for Amazon.com, the entity most responsible for all those massive upheavals. This early afternoon panel at the first ever digi-lit (for digital lit) publishing conference promised not only a meeting of the minds, but a clash of ideas.
However, collegiality almost ruled the day with Winton and Fine agreeing they weren’t in competition with each other until Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Brad Stone, the panel moderator and the author of an upcoming book on Amazon, decided to break it up.
“Are you comfortable living in Amazon’s world?” Stone asked, directing the question at Winton. “Can they be a benevolent dictator?”
Winton appeared to be holding back through the first half of the panel, but with this little bit of prodding he finally let loose on the online retail giant, calling Amazon “thug like,” and saying that negotiating with the company was “absolutely gruesome.”
Winton then went so far as to say he agreed with News Corp founder Rupert Murdoch about “widget-makers like Amazon” and how they have “a devaluing effect on intellectual property.”
“I’m sorry you agree with Rupert,” Fine shot back, referring to the chairman of all things Fox by his first name.
“We’re building a business on the publishing side that’s really focused on the authors,” Fine continued, before declaring that “meta-data is the new cover image,” meaning that more readers were finding books through search-engine-optimization than they were through face-out book cover displays in actual stores.
The man in the middle of all of this was Isaac Fitzgerald, co-owner of The Rumpus and Director of Publicity of McSweeney’s, the indie publishing house founded by author Dave Eggers.
“Amazon’s the evil empire,” Fitzgerald blurted, adding to the tension. “But the little guys are going to exist. As human beings, I don’t think we’re going to live under just one thing. There’s going to be people who stir up shit just to stir up shit.”
“I just love the human heart and I think that wins, but then again I don’t have tons of money or a legal background,” Fitzgerald said causing the crowd to erupt with laughter.
“We’re at the beginning of a long evolutionary path that was kicked off with a revolution,” Fine said, after the laughs died down.”I really do think more is better. It’s an amazing time to be a writer.”
“The Future of Publishing” was one of several panels at the one day digi-lit conference. Digi-lit also featured talks by authors Neal Pollack (“Alternadad” and “Jewball”) and Ransom Stevens (“The God Project”) as well as Salon.com book critic Laura Miller. The conference was organized by the creators of Litquake, the literary arts festival that overtakes San Francisco’s bars and arts spaces every October.
“We started digi.lit just to answer all of the questions about publishing that we keep getting,” Litquake co-founder Jack Boulware explained in between panels.
“This is the first conference we’ve ever put together,” he said, surveying the crowd. “It’s a lot different than organizing a festival. It’s like putting on one day of public school.”
There is no word if there will be a second digi-lit conference next year.
[Bob Calhoun is the author of “Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor” (Obscuria Press, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter at @bob_calhoun.]