This past Saturday I attended the third Boston Book Festival, which took over Copley Square and environs for the day. We had cooperative weather -- mostly sunny and with temperatures in the sixties -- though the occasional gusts of wind were a reminder that we'd recently slipped into October. This was the place to be for anybody in the Boston area who loves books and thousands joined in.
I began the day by attending a workshop on Navigating the Publishing World. This session was conducted by Alan Rinzler, who has edited numerous well known writers including Tom Robbins and Hunter Thompson. He's old school, but knows the publishing industry very well and recognizes the massive changes underway. He reviewed statistics from the first half of 2011, noting that ebooks make up about ten percent of the business, but are growing at a phenomenal rate of 163 percent. This compares to a decline in hard copy sales of 22.9 percent during the same period. He summarized the current situation by saying that the publishing industry is in a state of crisis, but couldn't resist saying that in his experience, "this has always been the case".
He confirmed that traditional publishing firms work exclusively via agents and wasn't very encouraging about the prospects for writers to find an effective agent. But he also said that doing well in self publishing is a good way to convince publishers and agents that a writer has both a platform and an audience. It was a good example of how the conventional wisdom on self publishing has changed radically in the past year due to success stories like Amanda Hocking.
After a brief diversion for lunch at the Atantic Fish Company on Boyleston Street -- which offered a delectable crab cake melt -- I returned to the Trinity Church and stepped into the magnificent chapel just in time to attend a session on Frontiers in Science. The three speakers covered very different subjects -- the ancient philosopher poet Lucretius, the current state of cosmological physics and cancer -- but offered a stimulating discussion that took me way out of my normal areas of knowledge, but reminded me of why I'd fallen in love with books in the first place.
The next session I attended took me to more familiar territory. Bob Blumenthal talked about his experiences getting to know jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins and following his work over the past fifty years. He recently collaborated on a book devoted to Rollins with photographer John Abbott. The next speaker was Tim Riley, who's recently been getting quite a bit of attention for his biography of John Lennon. Some of his more interesting comments were about the way that Lennon is viewed very differently by Americans as compared to the British. It seems when John re-located to New York and never came back to the UK, many of his countrymen were upset.
Next, I attended another workshop called Jumpstart Your Writing conducted by author and instructor Lynne Griffin. She had lots of energy and walked us through several warmup strategies. She likes journals or free writing to warm up the writing muscles and tap the unconscious to write more deeply. After listening to other writers speak during the past several hours, I relished the chance to do a bit of writing myself.
My final session of the day was on learning. I had to leave early to catch my train, but first got to hear Nicolas Negroponte and Sugata Mita of the MIT Media Lab talk about their labor of love in trying to put laptops and tablet PCs into the hands of children within third world countries. Both of them shared numerous success stories on how young childen could quickly learn to use computers and how, with guidance, they could work together to solve complex problems. This was easily the most fascinating session of the day.
The entire day pulled me out of my normal patterns and help me reconnect with my love of books and lifetime learning. This is what weekends are all about.
If you love books, be on the lookout for book related events in your area. There is so much amazing work being published. This is an industry going through turmoil, but the book -- be it electronic or hard copy -- can still evoke the sense of wonder which originally drew me to books in my childhood.