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A Writer’s Adventures on the Digital Frontier

Novelist and non-fiction author Paula DiPerna is a strategic environmental and philanthropic policy advisor, an insider in the new era of digital publishing and a personal friend. For an insider’s viewpoint, I asked her to offer her impressions on the recently completed Tools of Change for Publishing Conference 2011. Opinions expressed here are her own, and I welcome the dialogue:

The vast Sheraton ballroom was as dim as a cave at the O’Reilly Tools for Change for Publishing Conference last week, where speakers and audience could hardly see each other in the shadows. “This is no place to pick up illumination,” I thought cynically, as I sat down way upfront for one of the keynotes.

I had come to learn more about digital publishing, which, until now, I have feared. But fear is a counterproductive force. It is time to move forward.

I should first admit that I have always done all writing that matters to me by hand, typing it up only after I have a good first draft. To me, writing is the process of connecting mind… to words… to paper — and thus to the near permanence of print.

Books are the bricks of civilization, in my view, and I love their heft, and the crinkly touch of paper. Countless are the hours I’ve spent wandering the bookstores of the world. And screens, however sleek, still seem ephemeral, vulnerable, and fleeting.

But honesty also makes me admit that my eyes were opened at Tools for Change. Though I had once thought of the tools of the digital revolution as good as wrenches pulling the arms off the professional writer, I can now see that these digital tools, with careful TLC, can unleash a formidable and unprecedented reader-writer dynamic.

By now many have cited poet Margaret Atwood’s engaging talk at the conference in which she reminded everyone of the core fact: no writers, no content. She posed the basic question of how today’s digital model can leave room for professional writers to make even a modest living on their work. She put the writer at the center of the transaction, where I think we should be.

Other speakers did the same, and with greater specificity. Technology guru Kevin Kelly proclaimed a “renaissance” in the digital revolution for readers, but came right out and added candidly, “everyone is benefitting from this new era except the producers.”

I had not expected our dilemma to be so clearly framed.

And, while “free content” is inevitable, clearly many businesses are frank in admitting that the customers most valued are the readers who are willing to pay reasonable sums for what they read. But what is that magic number? What is the cost of content and how is it valued? These are questions still to be answered.

Glad that we writers were in the minds of the techno-inventors, I felt more at home wandering around. I truly felt excited among the display booths, with so many new companies and wondrous technologies to stream, edit, display, turn pages, embed video, link to readers, liven up the out-of-print, and even “call home” like ET about a book while reading it.

Anyway, I picked up numerous cards and many ideas and my mind was brimming with the vision of new readers, new styles, new byways for words.

Of course, even the sharpest technologies depend a bit on luck. Once I got a lively note from a student who had read a book of mine in the library of his private school in Hawaii — a rarified location but somehow a copy had reached him like a note in a bottle.

That letter pleased me greatly, quaint as it now seems. Yet, how many more readers might have gotten that book had it been published also in cyberspace?

The question hung in my mind as I squinted up at that dark Sheraton ballroom stage.

Still, light did shine. It's not every day one gets to be in the flow of a revolution.

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