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Bookcamp: the Books are All Right

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As the death watch continues for the publishing business and perhaps even the book itself, a group of writers, technologists, publishers, agents, designers, booksellers, and social architects convened in London for BookCamp, a one-day thinking session (bookish experimentation) about what the future of the written word might be.

The event was organized by Jeremy Ettinghausen, digital publisher at Penguin UK; James Bridle, of BookTwo, and Bookkake; and Russel Davies.

Thinking about books

If the amount of thought and enthusiasm generated that day -- and evening -- is any indication, I think we're going to be OK. The book is alive and well, even if defining "book" is becoming more complicated; and the publishing business, bracing itself for the biggest shake-up since the paperback, will come out the other end, transformed certainly, but alive nonetheless. That's my projection anyway.

An open slate

If you've never been to a "camp" or "unconference," you should find the next one near you, show up and dive in. These un/conferences vary from place to place and event to event, but tend to share a few characteristics: they are free, they are open, and the sessions are not formally presented by the organizers, but rather decided by participants. Everyone is supposed to contribute. The result is that you get a much wider mix of people and perspectives than at industry conferences.

BookCamp London started with a blank grid: 6 timeslots and 5 spaces (or 5 spaces, 6 time slots?), with participants asked to fill in the grid, adding sessions they'd like to discuss. (For some reason I didn't write anything in. First time I've ducked that responsibility at a camp.)

The sessions

Sessions included (paraphrasing titles): Talking to Terrified Writers about the Web, the Book as Social Object/What Happens When Books Are Free?, EBook Gadgets, Is the Web Making Writing More Oral?, Social Networks and the Book, Encouraging Kids to Read. And more.

Fellow-BookOvener Suw Charman-Anderson lead a session about the Book as Social Object; or, What happens when all books are free? The group struggled with this difficult question: what happens if writers can no longer make their money from just selling books? The answer wasn't so clear, but several things are certain: ebooks are coming; DRM won't stop infinite reproduction on the web; no one likes DRM; and no one really knows how the business is going to work in a decade. But music, for all the worries about the industry at the corporate level, is thriving. How will writing evolve?

The next session I attended was Bookkake: How to Start a Publishing Company in Your Bedroom. James Bridle,Bookkake founder & BookTwo writer, has published new editions of five public domain titles, using ebooks, print-on-demand, and covers designed from photos on Flickr. An inspiring view of indie publishing's future.

Michael Bhaskar of Pan Macmillan hosted a session on the web and the increasing orality of text, how text is taking on characteristics that we once associated with oral communications: quick feedback, ephemeral, linear, disposable ; Mark Johnson and Kate Hyde of HarperCollins (and Authonomy and BookArmy) lead a discussion of social networks and the book, that the successes and challenges they've had with their initiatives.

Lots of talking

In addition to enjoying talking with these smart people, I had great conversations with too many more to list, but some particularly good ones with Peter Collinridge of Apt Studio, Anthony Topping, of lit agents Greene & Heaton, Lucy Crichton, Alex Ingram, digital buyer at UK bookseller Waterstones, Naomi Alderman, and Adrian Hon. It was also nice to see some familiar faces, Aaron Straup Cope of Flickr, and Matt Biddulph of Dopplr, as well as Cory Doctorow, who I've crossed paths with numerous times online, but never met in person.

It was a great event, and I am very happy I decided to make the trip to the UK. My only complaint was that it lasted one day, and not a week.

Can you see the future?

While there are nerves about the future of the book business, the overwhelming sensation I had leaving bookcamp was optimism. What else could be the result of spending a full day with so many bright people, excited about books, and actively shaping their future?

For some other thoughts on bookcamp (I'll try to keep this up to date, as I see links) see: