ideas lit minneapolis tech

Futures / Literary books, small presses, & technology

Last week­end, I had an unlike­ly oppor­tu­ni­ty: I was invit­ed to sit on a pan­el that dis­cussed the future of small lit­er­ary press­es, non-prof­it pub­lish­ing, and — in gen­er­al — books that took place at Cof­fee House Press in Min­neapo­lis. I love books, read­ing, and non-cor­po­rate media, so I jumped at the chance to talk about this stuff in pub­lic. You may ask: Why me? I have a per­son on the inside who knows that I like to talk.1 My fel­low pan­elists were a murderer's row of pub­lish­ing insight. Rick Simon­son is the co-founder of Cop­per Canyon Press and a book buy­er at the Elliott Bay Book Com­pa­ny in Seat­tle; Richard Nash is the pub­lish­er of Soft Skull Press; Patri­cia Waki­da runs Wasabi Press; and, Michael Cof­fey is the Man­ag­ing Edi­tor at Publisher's Week­ly (and the author of an excel­lent base­ball book, 27 Men Out).When we got start­ed, I sus­pect­ed I'd been tossed in a shark tank wear­ing a meat neck­lace. I found myself rat­tling on about things in my frame of ref­er­ence — tech­nol­o­gy, social media, iPhones, Kin­dles, stuff want­i­ng to be free — and I wor­ried that all of it was sim­ply chum­ming the waters for my fel­low pan­elists who (a) know a lot about pub­lish­ing, and (b) clear­ly rec­og­nized that their busi­ness mod­els are being erod­ed by tech­nolo­gies that offer new ways to read (i.e., every­thing with a screen) and sup­ply chain dis­in­ter­me­di­a­tion, i.e. Ama­zon.

Side note: The weather was beautiful

Flickr photoWhen­ev­er I take a pic­ture of him, Fish (i.e., Chris Fis­chbach of Cof­fee House) tells me: "I bet­ter not see this on the Inter­net." But I just had to take this one while he and Katie (of Gray­wolf and New York Times fame) took me on an excel­lent walk along the Mis­sis­sip­pi just before win­ter arrived.

As it turned out, we had a series of pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions. My col­leagues and the audi­ence were keen to know about how com­pa­nies go about deter­min­ing the right way to con­ceive tech­no­log­i­cal prod­ucts, and to imple­ment them appro­pri­ate­ly. Mean­while, I learned a lot about small press­es, pub­lish­ing, and the ways that edi­tors at lit­er­ary press­es think about their work. Allan Korn­blum, the founder of Cof­fee House Press, saw him­self as "the inher­i­tor of the Maxwell Perkins tra­di­tion" in cre­at­ing deep and last­ing rela­tion­ships with artists, sup­port­ing them and pro­vid­ing a con­sis­tent venue for pub­li­ca­tion. Fish said that he want­ed "to cre­ate art objects that last." Both of those goals make a lot of sense to me, and they seem like a firm foun­da­tion for a busi­ness in transition.

So, what is the future of reading, anyway?

I'm going to put togeth­er anoth­er post about my thoughts on this top­ic, and in the mean­time I'm going to be digest­ing some of the work that my fel­low pan­elists ref­er­enced dur­ing our dis­cus­sions; this list includes Ursu­la Le Guin's "Notes on the alleged decline of read­ing" that I saw in Patricia's pile of notes; Michael men­tioned Bill McKibben's new book, Deep Econ­o­my in mak­ing a com­par­i­son between region­al lit­er­a­ture and a larg­er move­ment toward region­al and local economies; Richard spoke a cou­ple of times about lit­er­ary sub­scrip­tion pro­grams, such as Soft Skull's annu­al edi­tion, and Powell's indiespens­able list. 1 I was there because my friend Fish (the senior edi­tor at Cof­fee House Press) thought that my expe­ri­ence with tech­nol­o­gy and online prod­uct strat­e­gy would com­ple­ment the deep exper­tise of the small press lumi­nar­ies on the pan­el. Or per­haps he just want­ed to see what hap­pened when I said the words "Kin­dle" and "free" around Michael Cof­fey. In the end, there would be no way of know­ing.