Charles Bukowski once quipped, while on an interminable book tour, "Shakespeare never did this." What, then would Hank have made of the assembled book industry illuminati Thursday at Book Industry Study Group's sixth annual "Making Information Pay" (a double meaning with a real purpose, that) at the McGraw Hill Building in Midtown? When even Shakespeare is Twittering, there's bound to be trouble.
Book publishers have been faced with the sharp edge of imminent economic apocalypse perhaps longer that any other media. They throw around the words black hole like they are talking about an unexceptionally lousy Tuesday at the office. They're an eccentric bunch — all bow ties and tweed, and horn-rimmed glasses tangling in unruly hair. They've been resigned about the particular abyss they find themselves slipping into for at least a couple of years now, and there's much all industries could learn from them about facing the future. Though they tend to over dramatize a bit (you know, too much Victorian literature or the like) -- as when Leigh Watson Healy, chief analyst at Outsell who has spent a good bit of time chatting with senior-level publishing industry execs, says that what we are seeing is the last vestiges of the industrial age shaking off the detritus of greed and conspicuous consumption as we move into the knowledge age.
There's something distinctly Pollyannaish about publishing analysts optimism (and that of the CEOs who foresee a return to growth by 2010) in the face of unrelentingly bad news, and something heartening about this bookish group's embrace of digital media.
When Dominique Raccah, founder of Sourcebooks, tells the crowd of assembled believers about her company's move toward not just e-books, but full-on enhanced multimedia texts and commitment to translating content into iPhone apps, well, a charge goes through the auditorium. Here's a a group that has considered not just marketing in the digital future, but every aspect of product design and delivery, as well. The author toolkit Sourcebook has instituted seems a leap in the right direction, throwing authors into the social media whirl with their readers. When she paraphrases a consultant: "We are moving from a world where things are sold to one where things are bought," you want to believe that staid old publishers have leapfrogged past all of us and are knee-deep in the future of industry and commerce even as the tectonic plates of tradition and technology grind together all around them and the lava flows of the economic collapse threaten to wash them away.
And then there is Marcus Leaver, president of Sterling Publishing Co. -- a sharp-witted Englishman in New York attempting to right a badly listing ship in an industry where the old-guard is used to jetting to trade shows set in far-flung locales like Frankfurt and London. He's cut those bloated marketing budgets at Sterling, shedding the trade shows and catalogs, while increasing the title-by-title marketing spend by 66% over the last two years. And like many companies lately, Sterling has discovered Twitter.
Leaver is not a Twitter proselytizer, nor even an advocate. Safe to say, he is more of a cautioner. Now he's got some folks at his company who love Twitter - before they heard about it on Oprah even - and they try to get everyone, authors, editors, even him, to tweet all day long. He tried it and didn't really take to it, he said. So they got him a Twitter body double. And this is where the trouble starts. His Twitter body double wasn't much danger to anyone, but, again, like many companies these days, Sterling employs people to tweet for public figures -- in this case authors -- who aren't actually the supposed tweeter.
Sterling publishes a successful series of pregnancy books called "Great Expectations." One of the authors of the series was a person for whom the ghost tweeter at Sterling was a doppelganger. And this works out great ("Check out the pregnancy journal and planner out next week") - to a point. When does it go wrong? Really wrong? When the Twitter double, who actually knows very little about pregnancy and most likely does not even have children, is happily tweeting away to his trusting masses when the following tweet comes his way: "I'm having Braxton Hicks contractions. What do I do now?"