Saturday, June 14, 2008

book futures

I spent Friday at BookExpo in Toronto, attending Another Country, the book summit put on by Humber College and the Book and Periodical Council. As expected, the day was filled with fascinating talk about the future of the book trade. Richard Florida, he of The Rise of the Creative Class and more recently Who’s Your City, opened the event with a keynote address covering the range of his socio-economic thought and loosely following an autobiographical narrative line that brought him from Newark, New Jersey to Toronto; from a young hippy with a guitar to the slick public intellectual he is today.

Florida’s thoughts on how the future economy will be populated by those companies that most successfully encourage the creative and innovative thinking of the knowledge worker had me wondering if the future economy has a place for big media, which seems in fact to be running down a completely different path – pushing the most intelligent and creative knowledge workers away from it with ridiculous contract demands and terrible treatment. If one buys Florida’s vision of where the economy is going (and I do), can huge, concentrated media afford to alienate the best and the brightest, and replace them with a class of compliant drones?

I was at the summit in my official capacity as Chair of the BPC, so I had some hosting duties to perform. I introduced two fascinating seminar sessions:

Marketing to Youth, with Mike D’Abramo of Youthography, the Toronto kid-focused ad and stat agency. Mike is the Cary Grant character from North by Northwest if he was played instead by a young John Belushi. In preparation for his session, he and I had an in-depth talk about what’s wrong with the Italian national soccer team, and why it is that the Netherlands might just win Euro 2008.

I’ve heard Mike’s youth marketing talk before. He stresses the point that the youth of today have little to no patience for anything that restricts their technological freedom. If your product can’t do what they want, either they force it to do what they want, or they just won’t buy it. I respect Mike’s research, but that point seems a bit simplistic to me when I remove it from a marketing context. It may apply to considerations of product development, but I’m not sure our society is best served by giving in to every fickle whim of an over-active youth marketplace.

My other session was Writer and Reader Collaboration, with Ben Vershbow, a terrific presenter from The Institute for the Future of the Book, a small think tank in Brooklyn, New York dedicated to speculation and experimentation with books as we grow into the digital age.

Ben is in his late twenties, and so presumably has little patience for technical restrictions, yet he showed a remarkable loyalty to the book as object and the concept of made-text even as he dazzled us with descriptions of some of the Institute’s fascinating projects, such as the creation of Gamer Theory, a collaboratively produced, textually restrictive, single-author book that was shaped by a constant comment stream on the Internet as each chapter was written. This session had me wondering about the possibilities for fiction writing in such an environment, though I (and Ben) doubt there’s much market for collaboratively produced traditional fiction (science fiction? – anything goes). On the other hand, the applications used to create Gamer Theory might find a happy home in large online book clubs, for interactive dissection and analysis of a book, line by line.

Of course, the day was also filled with talk of the new Copyright Bill. Lawyer Grace Westcott advised a cautious welcome for the legislation despite the doom and gloom predictions from the copyleft corner. Vershbow, who (one might expect) leans a little to the left on that topic, had this to say (paraphrased): While I understand and respect the need for authors and publishers to be able to control and protect their economic product, the new bill makes copyright seem like an economic model based on constant surveillance, which is kind of sad.

My own interpretation goes in a different direction. I think intellectual property is an economic model based on a constant request for respect, a golden rule interaction, and maybe this gets to the heart of my discomfort with the youth “market” as well. If Florida is right, and the engine of our economy is going to run on creativity for the next while, should we be treating that creativity the way we’ve treated oil and gas for the last century and a bit – with reckless disregard and a voracious market demand for cheapness? What’s wrong with a little conservationalist thinking around creativity?

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