On Friday, I was a keynote speaker at PubCamp at SXSW Interactive. This is the speech I gave, more or less. My focus was on that of the reader’s role in the production of books—why readers, who read because they love to and are passionate about books, are so important to publishing.

I’ve long thought that readers are the small road at the intersection of book production. Imagine a four-way intersection and in the middle is the process of book publishing. There’s the winding, beautiful two-lane blacktop of authors; the very twisty, exhilarating and alarming switchback road of bookselling; the highway of publishing…and the reader’s road. It used to be somewhere between a dirt road and a gravel road, maybe paved. Imagine the intersection as the conversation and the process of how books are made, with books going down the reader’s road and not much traffic into the conversation of book production coming out. There are rules that dictate how to yield, who has the right of way at what moment. Most of the traffic on these roads ultimately heads down the reader’s path.

DID YOU MISS THE LAST SMART BITCHES, TRASHY BOOKS COLUMN

Then, with the arrival of the Internet, that dirt road became the information superhighway and there were reader blogs. Growing numbers of readers started entering the conversation about books, responding to authors, even to publishers and booksellers, through blogs and Facebook and communities online.

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Readers are a strange, sometimes unwelcome, sometimes baffling, sometimes irritating and yet an absolutely important part of any conversation when it comes to the way the road to publishing is traveled. In the past six years, my site has grown exponentially to include readers from more than 150 countries, representing every time zone, as well as authors, aspiring authors and publishing professionals.

So if you’re wondering, why the hell is a blogger who writes about romance novels talking to publishing professionals before PubCamp, well, that’s why. I speak with of hundreds of thousands of readers from the world over. I speak for the readers and what we all need.

I’m also an author. I’ve written two books, one coming out in October, and while writing those books and talking to readers, authors and publishers, I’ve come to occupy a very strange hybrid space—I hear from everyone, and I learn about the different parts of each perspective. But my position is usually most often from that of a reader and that is where I’m speaking from today.

We readers know that things are changing, times are hard and many things about the publishing world today are completely baffling. And I’ll be honest—we’re more than a little discouraged about the way some have chosen to adapt to the changes lately, particularly those of us who adore reading books digitally. I’ll get the glum news out of the way first.

From the reader’s perspective, there’s been a lot of bad news lately. The reader’s road is paved with roadblocks—often put there by the very organizations producing the books we love. While Avon begins a digital-first imprint—curiously without a website of its own—HarperCollins announces a limit of 26 checkouts for digital library books, thereby forcing already budget-stripped libraries to re-buy books after 26 patrons borrow them. Despite librarians demonstrating in video that 26 checkouts is hardly a dent in the shelf life of a physical book—and despite HarperCollins offering a lifetime guarantee on the wear and tear of some of its print editions specially made for libraries—HarperCollins is sticking to this strangely arbitrary limit as a remedy for the semi-permanence of digital media, and as a result, library consortiums are deciding to no longer purchase HarperCollins digital books, because it just doesn’t fit their budget. The result? Readers don’t have access to those books. We lose. Any book that can’t be read when a reader seeks it out is a loss for all of us.

There’s the slippery prices of agency model digital books which, miraculously, slide up instead of down, wherein digital readers are asked to pay more than paper book consumers yet receive a copy hobbled with restrictions, sometimes without a cover, and often without properly formatted metadata so that I know I bought A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton instead of A-9432540654.prc by Author Null. Pay more for less. That’s not a business model I can believe in.

We hate DRM. We hate geographic restrictions. We read books in English even when English isn’t the first or even the second most common language in our country, but much of the time digital books are not available in the internationally connected marketplace that is the Internet. We literally and figuratively speaking have no Borders. We don’t have local bookstores as much anymore, but we aren’t tied to international borders when we look for books to read, either, even though the books themselves are.

Some problems face everyone equally regardless of our preference for print or digital text. There’s the shrinking shelf space of library purchasing budgets, and people who now face a journey of up to two hours to find a bookstore. There’s avid, loud, fractious and enthusiastic passionate communities of readers online, but very little linking them to physical book communities. We’re connected, but not in ways that one expected. The amount people spend on books doesn’t always match up nearly well enough to the costs of producing books—and the more there’s free streaming of video content, the less there are people reading. The loss of physical stores and the intrusion of DRM technology form a line of hurdles on the road between a reader and her book, and on the sidelines are 14 million movies and TV shows that are easy, fast, low cost and available right now if I’d just stop trying to read for a minute.

That’s the bad news from the readers’ perspective.

The good news is that I and other avid readers are not going to stop reading.

Every day, another reader starts a blog to talk about the books she’s read. Every day, I get a promotion sheet in the mail with a book that lists review quotes from book review blogs I’d never heard of—new readers to talk to every day. There’s GoodReads, and it’s growing community of 3 million-plus readers. There’s places where readers gather to talk passionately about books. Big books, little books, short books—books that have print runs of less than a few thousand copies and a digital run of millions—we are passing along recommendations that create sales. To quote author Jaye Wells, who I get to sit next to at book signings due to the awesome laws of the alphabet, “Any book that sells is good for all of us.”

More readers are creating in response to books they love. Readers want to interact with their entertainment and create in response to the books they’ve read. Reading is not a one-way street anymore. In Cognitive Surplus, author Clay Shirky describes how we have so much leisure time at our disposal—more and more with each generation. That surplus of time and cognitive energy has created a desire to interact with our entertainment. We want to create and respond to the entertainment we consume and enjoy. From social media to videos to joining communities based around books in a series, entertainment is no longer one-way consumption. Author Marianne Mancusi created a university for fans of her Blood Coven series, where fans join and earn points for completing creative tasks associated with her books. She recognized that there’s a need for creative response, one that she wanted to welcome and foster. There is value in reader enthusiasm, value that can’t always be easily measured, but value that is tangible just the same.

But most of all, each one of you is a piece of good news. You’re here. You love books as much as I do. You wouldn’t work in publishing in any capacity if you didn’t. I have never heard a single person say they worked in publishing for the money.  

I just finished writing a book called Everything I Know about Love, I Learned from Romance Novels (October 2011, Sourcebooks). This has become something of a theme for me—I’m now looking to see where I learned something and how I learned it. The title of Friday’s SXSWi shenanigans is “PubCamp.” And as a former camping professional, I can tell you that everything I know about working with other people, I learned from camp—summer camp, not pub camp, though the similarities are key.

Sourcebooks has an amazing program wherein individuals from different departments, like IT or administrative support, choose books from the upcoming catalog that they’re personally excited about and help the editor with her sales presentation for that title. I love that idea of collaborating across the boundaries of responsibility because the No. 1 thing I learned in my former career working in overnight camps all over the northeast United States is that at summer camp there is No Such Thing as Not My Job. Everyone helps, everyone makes an effort, everyone is responsible for the success of the summer.

So I love conferences like this. Love. I can’t tell you how much it makes me proud and excited and curious and ready to do an embarrassing Snoopy dance that so many people have taken extra time and maybe an extra night’s hotel stay to come here and talk and ask and question and listen with a communal interest in one topic—really good books for everyone as much as possible, as soon as possible. Another good book is good for all of us.

PubCamp is not an environment where anyone would say, “That’s not my job.” It’s everyone’s job to put the most into the conference and get the most out of it, and I can’t tell you how excited I am to be here, how much I cannot wait to hear what you have to say, to learn from everyone’s experience. There isn’t enough of that type of collaboration of authors, readers, publishing professionals from various departments, all looking at the same questions. I am so humbly proud to be part of an event like this. 

In an environment like this one, we also gather to exchange ideas. Here’s my idea, the project I’ve been pondering for awhile, the goal I’ve set to figure this out in the best way possible to make this idea reality. If you have ideas or would like to suggest ways to help, please come find me. I want to hear what you think.

Why isn’t there a cumulative acknowledgment of book sales? I know publishing resists the music industry comparisons, but bear with me. Records that sell in the multiple thousands, in physical and digital form, including as ringtones, are labeled as gold, platinum and multiplatinum. Why don’t we acknowledge the longevity and abiding success of books that continue to sell? There’s mentions in publishing circles of “multiple printings,” but aside from occasional tweets or mentions in trade publications, the consumer doesn’t know that Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie has been in print since its release in February 2004 and has sold over 500,000 copies, or that her book Welcome to Temptation was released in 2000, and has also sold over 500,000 times. In the music industry, that’s a gold record.

To keep a relationship healthy, you need to acknowledge the accomplishments. This cumulative recognition is an acknowledgement that is long past due, for the books and the authors and the publishing industry and the readers who continue to seek out these books. We need cumulative acknowledgement of books that have a lasting impact on our culture, one that is meaningful to readers. I want to make that so. If you have an idea of how to make it happen or want to tell me I’m nuts, I welcome the conversation.

Dr. Seuss’ birthday was two weeks ago. In closing, I want to borrow his words to explain why participating in events like PubCamp are so important:

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot

Nothing is going to get better. It’s not."

But you are here, and you do care, and I cannot wait to hear what you think. Things can only get better, so long as the reader still reads.

Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.