Taking the Middle: How Independent Publishers Can Thrive in the Digital Age

Andy Hunter (Electric Literature), Paul Morris (BOMB Magazine), Kelly Burdick (Melville House), Denise Oswald (Soft Skull Press), Alexandra Heifetz (N+1), James Yeh (Gigantic)
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Location: O'Neill (4th Floor)
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In these stormy times, large publishers are jettisoning everything they can in order to lighten their sinking ships. What are they tossing overboard? Promising authors who haven’t found an audience, and anything too literary, difficult, or narrow in appeal. What of the cast-offs? Might some happy-go-lucky independents haul a few brilliant writers into their skiffs? And what steps can independents take to ensure they are able to support the new writers and roles they’ll be taking on?

With their low overhead, small staffs, and narrower missions, independent publishers are better suited to thrive in the digital age. They can afford to experiment with eBook pricing, iPhone applications, and DRM-free formats. They can directly reach readers through email, blogs, and social networking tools. You can know an independent in a way you never can a large corporation, no matter how strenuous their marketing efforts. Promotionally, the Internet is like the Wild West: boundless, lawless, and full of opportunity for the inventive, the hungry, and the risk takers.

An online platform has yet to emerge that is to readers, writers, and publishers what myspace is to musicians and etsy.com is to craftspeople. But the keys to the kingdom are not in Amazon’s hands, nor are they in Apple’s, or Google’s. They are in ours.

Communications technology is democratizing. It provides tools that empower individuals and disrupt top-down control. Decentralization, in turn, fuels creativity. The information age will not be bad for books, despite the pain many are now feeling. Since major record labels lost their stranglehold on the market, music has thrived—fewer bands become millionaires, but far more are heard. In television, the proliferation of channels and fragmentation of audiences has allowed smaller programs to find avid niches. In each case, democratizing technology—despite the cries of doom by established interests—results in a creativity boom. Most importantly, deconsolidation allows an audience once treated as monolithic to reveal its diversity.

As information proliferates, people need trusted filters, which—from the slushpile to the bookshelf—is a role publishers have always played. Independent presses must foster reputations as curators, with strong identities that readers relate to.

Independent publishing has a great history and tradition, but has mostly been supported by a small group of informed consumers. Advocating, raising awareness, increasing exposure, and creating or leveraging online platforms can inform millions more. Rather than compete for a small group of educated book buyers, independents can make a coordinated effort to increase their market, working together to advocate for the manifold virtues of independent publishing: quality, diversity, and personality. This panel will discuss how, with the right technology, platforms, programs, marketing, and ambition,independent presses can fill the vacuum left by the decline of major publishers and thrive in the digital age.

Photo of Andy Hunter

Andy Hunter

Electric Literature

Andy Hunter is the Editor-in-Chief of Electric Literature, the first literary journal to publish to the iPhone, which has gained widespread acclaim for its innovative use of digital distribution and promotion. He has served as Editor-in-Chief of various publications, including Mean Magazine, the Brooklyn Review, and Lollapalooza Magazine.

Photo of Paul Morris

Paul Morris

BOMB Magazine

Paul Morris oversaw BOMB’s relaunch in 2007 as a CMS database-driven website, and handles the ongoing digitization of its entire 28-year-old archive. He has negotiated digital licensing opportunities with JSTOR, Gale, ProQuest, and other database clearinghouses. He has experience with digital facsimile editions, online fulfillment and e-commerce solutions, Amazon’s Kindle, models for generating online revenue streams, and success with Facebook and Twitter for driving subscriptions.

Kelly Burdick

Melville House

Kelly Burdick is senior editor at Melville House. He has previously worked at Cambridge University Press, The New Press, and Nation Books.

Photo of Denise Oswald

Denise Oswald

Soft Skull Press

Denise Oswald is Editorial Director of Soft Skull Press, and a Senior Editor at Counterpoint. Prior to that, she was Senior Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where she oversaw the Faber imprint for nearly a decade.

Alexandra Heifetz

N+1

Alexandra Heifetz is Assistant Editor at N+1

Photo of James Yeh

James Yeh

Gigantic

James Yeh (b. 1982) is a founding editor of Gigantic, a new magazine of short prose and art. His fiction has appeared in PEN America and elimae, and is forthcoming in The New-York Ghost and the anthology 30 Under 30. His humor, nonfiction and interviews have appeared in Gigantic, The Morning News, Yankee Pot Roast and The Faster Times. He is at work on a novel-in-stories called I Love and Understand You and Would Be Perfect to You Now and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

  • Ingram Content Group
  • Qualcomm
  • Copia
  • Impelsys Inc.
  • Innodata Isogen, Inc.
  • Adobe
  • Aptara
  • Baker & Taylor
  • Bowker
  • codeMantra
  • Connotate
  • Google
  • HP
  • LibreDigital
  • MagMe
  • Malloy
  • Mark Logic
  • oXygen XML Editor
  • Chuckwalla
  • Foxit Software
  • Jacquette Consulting
  • Jouve North America
  • Lulu
  • Marvell
  • Media Services Group
  • PubServ
  • Safari Books Online
  • Silverchair
  • Virtusales
  • Vitrium Systems
  • Smashwords, Inc.

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