PART ONE – I went to a Digital Publishing Conference at the European Parliament

I don’t particularly enjoy writing about book publishing, its production and the shake, rattle and roll of what’s going on in digital media. I’d rather write another book, make another video, edit my on-going audio books. But I do know publishing, live it, work it, study it, know it. Same with social media. There’s just not much teacher type in me, so Explaining Things in essay form is like kicking hard dirt.


But. That word that makes me go back on personal inclinations. So. Recently I attended a conference at the local European Parliament called “Publishing in the Digital Environment: First Dialogues “Author-Publisher.” I knew a lot about this; I wanted to see whether they knew something new.


After arriving at the European Parliament and being lead, with others, up escalators, across interior bridges, into elevators that didn’t work because there was an unknown emergency and so up some stairs and down some corridors, then landing us in The Location where free sandwiches and drinks waited for mouths. Also, the conference room where “Author-Publisher” event was to occur had been double-booked. So we needed to wait while the conference group inside finished a presentation, after which they were hustled out and our group was then allowed in. We took our places in an expensive, imposing conference-happening type structure. Some of the panel took their slightly more fancy seats up front. We were then informed that the European Commissioner who was supposed to be there and moderate this conference wasn’t going to because he had to be somewhere else in another country. Good scheduling skills. So far so not so good.


Some other male who would be the Head Guy would moderate. I didn’t retain his name because I was there for the publishers and the authors and not the bureaucrats. His opening remarks briefly mentioned the theme of the conference before he launched into higher pitched oratory concerning VAT and income tax and how it was imperative to make certain this “new” digital world needed to be legislated into obedience on this. People were making a living in the digital world without contributing to paying his salary and the upkeep of this conference hall (VAT is what keeps this EU universe functioning). Then a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) made some introductory comments that left little impact on my brain as the thoughts were rather generic and dusty. She did state that this was to be the first of many dialogues and debates on this matter. I was going to find that “dialogues and debates” was going to be an intention rather than a reality.


Val McDermid, who, according to the hand-out material I was given, has sold over ten million books and is thus a millionaire, spent a little time on the Author-Publisher relationship, basically saying her books were only so good and she needed a trusted editor to make them better. Only twice in her publishing life did her novels not need heavy editing and rewriting. So after confessing that she could not write her books without help, she launched into pointed remarks about digital theft. “Thieves take my ebooks without any payment and say they are sharing them as they make them available for free, but they don’t share anything with me in return.” I began my first squirming in my seat. Her Little-Brown publisher earnestly spoke of the need of putting protections in place for established publishers in this undisciplined digital world.


After that, the Head Guy—an older guy nearing retirement, slicked back hair, jowly—sitting up there on the dais with the speakers then opened the floor to the first “dialogue” part of the conference. He pointed to a member of the audience seated a row or two before me. She proceeded to thank the author and the publisher for their comments. Especially on the matter of “sharing”, which they, the MEPs, would keep front of mind. The Head Guy then pointed at another woman, next to the one who had spoken. She said more or less the same thing. A third one, a little to the left of me, was called upon. She repeated the thankful mantra that had been established. I got it. Those being called upon for “dialogue” were MEPs, and they all agreed with one another.


My butt squirmed some more. I have friends and acquaintances who work, or have worked, in or with the various European Institutions. Know some writers for various publications covering the European Institutions, even some lobbyists. I also know a number of non-EU connected people who gossip and moan about how the EU Institutes have too much money, too much power, just generally too much. Others believe the EC and the Parliament have simply turned into Institutional Power speaking primarily to Commercial Power. I was now wondering, sitting there, whether this dreaded scenario was being acted out right before my eyes and ears.


Then the German Author-Publisher tag team began to have their similar say. I turned and looked around. One after another of the audience members were taking notes. Without exception, from my vantage point, each and every one was putting pen to paper. I’ve been to enough trade fairs, digital and otherwise, such as the London Book Fair and I’d say at these conferences over 70% of the audience made their notes using mobile phones, iPads, portables devices generally. They actively twittered to online audiences from these conferences. Yet here we were, supposedly discussing the budding digital environment, and everyone was functioning in a pen and paper era. Not awful, just indicative.


Talk went on of saving the world from the bad writing and bad books the unregulated digital world was creating (as we all know, commercial multinational publishers never allow bad writing/books out into the world). Further urgent words were spoken on the controls needed for digital publishing.


So far this author-publisher dialogue was mainly concerned with profit protection, taxes and a legislative control of the digital publishing landscape. What was weirdly missing was any hint of enthusiasm for the rich spread of ideas digital media now allowed, or the power digital publishing opened to individuals. Sure, the corporate publishers said that the digital world opened many challenges and revenue opportunities … but only if the correct protections were in place. Now I was wondering if this conference was orchestrated by publishers so MEPs would hear their legislative concerns. Was this just one big lobbying effort?


Meanwhile, something odd happened. While the Germans were speaking, our moderator, the leader of the conference, the Head Guy, left his chair at the front, and came down to the audience. He made for the front rows right before me. He had a big smile on. He began greeting and cheek kissing the MEPs he knew and had just called upon for remarks.. A hello, a cheek kiss, a few murmured words, kissing the hand, then on to the next MEP, all women. He worked the room while the conference continued with his back turned to it.


Once returned to the dais just as the Germans completed their comments, he asked for more questions, to “continue the dialogue”. Again, he selected one of the MEPs he had just cheek kissed. She began by agreeing with everything that had just been said.


As yet, I could detect no debate or any dissent. Statements were being made by corporate publishers and MEPs agreed with them. My squirming increased. So, when the MEP before me concluded, and the Head Guy in front warmly smiled at her, I popped up my hand, which he could not fail to miss, since from his point of view my arm probably seemed to come out of her head.


He smiled, less sweetly, and indicated I could go ahead. I leaned forward and bent the microphone toward my lips.


(Part Two will be posted tomorrow.)

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2 Responses to “PART ONE – I went to a Digital Publishing Conference at the European Parliament”

  1. leemans says:

    aaahhh I want to read more, cannot wait

  2. Eddie says:

    This is so funny. Being there, alas, must have been a lot less. Sometimes I think Soviet-style bureaucracy (“dialogue”, “debate”, “consultations” and such like) didn’t die but lives on in our beloved EU institutions (except of course “self-criticism”, abject or otherwise, which doesn’t exist there). I hope you made their evening a little worse.

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