The Classroom in My Living Room

The highlight this week has been Kickstarter’s virtual conference, The Next Page: Creating the Future of Publishing. It was a free all-day affair that featured panel discussions on the ever-present impact of technology, the need for inclusion and representation in the industry (both in the staffing and in the published works), the economic landscape of publishing today, and an exploration of collaborative communities within the field. It was a fantastic way to hear what several professionals have to say about these topics, and even better, I didn’t have to figure out the logistics of spending a day (and lots of money) in a convention center. Kudos to Kickstarter for their tremendous efforts to pull this off!

Children learning geography in the hospital school. Photograph, 1921
Literally old school…

My first thought when reading about this event was to expect it to be an all-day advertisement for Kickstarter and its services to artists, self-publishers, and other creatives. So many individuals and small companies have funded their projects this way that I would have eagerly tuned in to hear their experiences and tips for successful campaigns. However, to the conference organizers’ credit, the discussions covered a wide range of options and viewpoints. I was almost disappointed there wasn’t more talk of crowdfunding, but I know I can find excellent guides on that elsewhere. Instead, they approached it through a wider lens, and brought in publishing industry pros and contributors from both small, independent presses and traditional New York-based agents, editors, and strategists.

I gained a lot of useful information about tools we might want to start using at NWQP, such as Airtable for better data visualization, machine learning and AI-based analysis and development through companies like Storyfit, the potential for publishing works via cloud-based file systems (and even automating that process) at sites like Hederis, and crowd-driven social storytelling on sites like WattPad. (Even if such tools are not a good match for our mission or budget, it’s good to keep abreast of what’s available and what other publishers are using.)

Radical Representation, the discussion on inclusivity, was quite insightful, especially the contributions by Ace Ratcliff, a writer and advocate for intersectional feminism with a specific focus on disability rights. She brought home the realization that the Americans With Disabilities Act is now 30 years old, and there are still many physical and intangible barriers to entry into the publishing industry, or into accurate representation on the page. I was struck by her description of the continued lack of a corporate thought process into such inclusion, and that much of the gains continue to be afterthoughts or reactive measures. Her words packed a punch when she said she doesn’t believe there’s anything “radical” about representation, or at least there shouldn’t be. I also had to agree with cartoonist and storyteller Ronald Wimberly when he cautioned against using the term “expert” when it comes to sensitivity readers. I wholeheartedly believe in writers and publishers seeking to ensure that people and groups are portrayed with respect and accuracy through the use of such readers, but none of us is fit or experienced enough to stand as the sole arbiter of any group’s culture, standards, expectations, etc., even if we are a full-fledged member. If I’m going to write about a life of which I have no personal experience, I’m going to gather as much feedback and consensus as I can. (Better yet, in this case I am probably not the best one to write this tale. I always want to work toward creating space for people to tell their own stories.)

In keeping with other events and forums about publishing I’ve experienced, Paying the Way: Economic Sustainability in Publishing, presented a cautious outlook. The panel included Kickstarter’s Senior Director of Publishing, Margot Atwell, literary agent DongWon Song, author and Director of Literature at the National Endowment for the Arts, Amy Stolls, and Portland’s own publishing hero and founder of Microcosm Publishing, Joe Biel. More than a sad recounting of the challenges publishers face in a world where they bring home about 25-50 cents on each $20 book sale, this panel also discussed the economic viability of even making this a career choice. They talked about the inequity inherent in determining who can afford the educational and cost of living expectations for professionals in the traditional New York presses, but then Joe gave a great example of how he forged his own path to viability, outside those established parameters. I’ve read anecdotes he’s shared in the past and remain inspired that a labor of love can still lead to a good and worthwhile life. His answer begins at 5:54:32):

Kickstarter panel video

The day concluded with a great discussion on collaborative communities in which authors and publishers can be good literary citizens, as Jane Friedman calls us, offering each other mutual support and camaraderie. It’s in my nature to do this anyway, and I greatly enjoy signal-boosting the work and careers of others in my field. I believe in an abundant universe and I think there is room enough for all the artists and makers to thrive. However, the field is crowded and the breadth of creative works vying for our attention grows exponentially. (Joe Biel mentioned that when he first looked at the production figures while writing his basic author contracts, 3,000 books a day were being published. Since then that number has grown to 8,000 a day!) Obviously, we need to act as allies to each other and help shepherd each other’s stories into the hands of readers we think will enjoy them. The panel members gave great examples of how they engage with the community and help to nurture a diverse and lively community.

I have barely skimmed the surface of all the great information available throughout these sessions, and I am grateful to Kickstarter and all the panelists for sharing their time. I hope they consider offering more digital conferences in the future. I not only took a ton of notes and followed all of the participants on social media, widening my exposure to their input and continuing the conversation, but also had the ability to befriend other folks interested in publishing in the ongoing chat that accompanied the talks. In every way, this event was a great service, and I look forward to participating in many more.

Image Credits: University Children's Hospital, Vienna: children learning geography in the hospital school. Photograph, 1921. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

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