Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Looking into the Future: Partially Obstructed View

I have already referred on this page to a classic children's book, Hugh Lofting's The Story of Doctor Dolittle. I thought of it again this past weekend, when I attended the Writing the Future conference at the Writers' Center of Bethesda, organized by Creative Nonfiction magazine.* I joined a  group of panelists discussing various topics around the central theme: that question we have all been asking ourselves for some time now, What's going to happen to writing and publishing in the digital age? 

There were several sharp and articulate presenters:  Creative Nonfiction will be posting information and videos from the conference on Facebook, and many of the key points can be plucked from the Twitter stream of attendees here

Nonetheless, this gathering brought home to me once again: nobody knows what the future of publishing is. In some sense, editors are always hoping to guess the future, to anticipate what people are going to want to read about a year or two down the road. But it's a chancy business, because as I said at the conference, to make such guesses based on the present or recent past is a great way to be disastrously off base. A mistake our industry repeats over and over is rushing to sign up books on a topic that's all over the news today. Alas, when that book comes out a year or two from now, the hot subject du jour is yesterday's news. And I mentioned in my last post, publishers who decided at one point that science was a hot category quickly glutted the market and made it ice cold. 

Predicting the future of reading or writing--what kind of devices will be used, what kind of writing will sell (long or short, fiction or memoir, etc., etc.), what can be "monetized" and how--is even more challenging than predicting the sales of a book on Bernard Madoff or the Tea Party, because there are so many more variables.  I came away from the conference reinforced in my enduring belief that fresh ideas and good stories, well told, will always have an audience, and a market. As my fellow panelist (and, full disclosure, Bloomsbury author) Pagan Kennedy pointed out, Thoreau's Walden would have made a terrific blog.

So what does this have to do with Doctor Dolittle? More on that tomorrow. 

*Creative Nonfiction has just revamped its format and its first new-look issue is out, featuring Dave Eggers, Richard Rodriguez, Bill McKibben, Carolyn Forche, and others.  Take a look here.