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The Shelf Talker: The War to Settle the Score (and the Future of Book Publishing)

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Welcome to the Shelf Talker, a weekly rundown of news, gossip and recommendations from and about authors on book tour. Send rumors, asides and dirt bombs to TST@booktour.com.

Forgive the interruption. Each spring, The Shelf Talker extends its wings and heads south for the annual jamboree of big ideas and staying up too late known as South by Southwest. A music festival to most, SXSW has also hosted a technology and social change conference since the mid-90s when the internet was a series of blue underlined links powered by rows of monkeys at hand cranks. TST can remember 3 AM debates over whether "blog" should be spelled with one "g" or two and when "twittering" meant "what happens after swallowing tequila and hickory-smoked alligator meat at the same time."

Sigh. Days of innocence and awe.

Flash forward to last week, perhaps you heard what happened? TST found his poor lil' self at the center of a poopy storm whipped up by the two towers of his profession: Technology and Book Publishing. Evidence exists that both can get along, but more often they eye each other as representatives of a different genus, the way a cat might regard a change purse. Mutual utility isn't out of the question (my cat would love to purchase her own chewtoys, given a working thumb) if each could understand the others makeup and reason for being.

That understanding came out with the ease of a kidney stone this year during a panel discussion entitled "New Think for Old Publishers" where four publishing professionals, after some chit chat about nothing in particular, asked the audience for their own comments on what book publishing should be doing in this hyperconnected, allow-3-to-5-nanoseconds-for-delivery media world. A line formed at the microphone. Panelists leaned forward attentively.

And then the villagers stormed the castle. Read for yourself. Feedback helpful, but hardly kind.

TST was the third question-asker and inquired (plainly, we thought) why publishers act with suspicion and fear towards the very technologies and people that seek to cheerlead for their books -- literary bloggers, bibliophilic social networks, author event calendars and alert-technologies like Twitter. He'd been trying to keep his tone polite instead of shrill, helpful rather than scolding, but the room broke into applause as if I'd Simon Cowelled a loser panelist with a verbal tomato.

Praise, mutterings, an errant business card passed along. Twitter sang my praises. Followup sources informed me that, while the panelists appreciated my comments, the general mood in back home in Manhattan was publishing had arrived in Austin as ambassadors of goodwill and understanding and the digital barbarians launched the catapults at them for their trouble.

For the record, this is not the case. What did happen was a spirited discussion with the following takeaways: 1) Publishing professionals should have a clear-as-ice water idea of what their audiences want and also have the courage to be advocates for change inside of their own organizations and 2) Readers at the forefront of technology and change should be willing to aid publishers in getting there with both understanding and firmness instead of gleeful schadenfreude.

Complaints seem many, warring frustrations a blob that keeps sliding to another corner of the room. Really it comes down to this: Readers wish to be empowered as book lovers. Make it easy for them to not just buy and read books but celebrate, talk about, remix, dissect, talk back to and about books. It is the publishers responsibility to not just produce great books but enable a relationship with them.

In plain English, the answer to every inquiry from anyone spending their time to sing about their love of books (in blog, podcast, social network or scrawl on a restroom wall) is "yes." Yes to interviews, yes to excerpts, yes to review copies, yes to images, yes to event data, yes to whatever they want. If they act like jackasses and abuse that trust, then feel free to say no. Until then, the answer to anything short of "Will Joyce Carol Oates clean my patio furniture this Sunday?" is yes.

Nearly a quarter of the attendees at the "New Think" session claim to read a book a week. They may not have been polite to the assembled representatives of the book business but they are committed to their products. And any industry who ignores the enthusiasm of its customer marches in the evolutionary footprints of the dodo bird.

One of the panelists, Peter Miller, proposed revisiting the topic at next year's SXSW. An excellent idea that will no doubt receive warm reception from conference organizers. Little known but amid sessions on "Network Programming for Raccoons" and "Mobile Blogging While Undergoing Orthopedic Surgery", SXSW has been inviting authors as speakers and guests since its inception.

Writer of note this year included Jonathan Zittrain (whom is supposedly an electrifying presenter and also very handsome) Steven Berlin Johnson (a serene genius TST has managed to mix every time he has come through town. Curses!), Julia Angwin (whose book Stealing MySpace is being hailed as the 21st century's Barbarians at the Gate) and Anastasia Goodstein (the Lester Bangs of Generation Y, who invited us out for biscuits and beer with her colleagues). Our old friend Rachel Kramer Bussel threw down as well, first on the dais about food blogging, then at a signing for her anthology Spanked: Red-Cheeked Erotica (exactly as it sounds. Please combine with passion for cupcakes and pitch as "Blogging, Frosted and Bare Bottomed" for SXSW 2010. A request not an order, mistress. Please don't hurt us).

More authors will be back next year in Austin. Which should say to the entire book industry: The nation's largest music and technical conference has more room for books and authors than you think. We're only going to find a place in this brave new present if we both claim a seat at the table, then turn and shake hands to the weirdo twittering in the seat next to us.

Back next week with our regularly scheduled pitter patter. Keep tomatoes cocked and loaded.

Kevin Smokler is the Co-founder of BookTour.com, the world's largest directory of author and literary events. Send dish, comments and condemnations to tst@booktour.com.