BookExpo: The Myth of “Big Ideas”

There’s a desperate atmosphere evident even in the panels. And I’m not just talking about the execution, but the conception. One such panel that I walked out on, featuring the likes of Chris Anderson and Lev Grossman, was devoted to whether or not publishers still hold the keys to the castle. It was a sad and lifeless discussion that felt as pathetic as the hired dancers attempting to drum up some attention in the vestibule for some book that most people will forget about by tomorrow morning. (Indeed, it might be argued that people will probably remember their free cocktails over prospective titles. It is worth noting that agents are already wary of being solicited, and it’s just the early afternoon.)

But back to the panel. Chances are that if you’ve attended an O’Reilly conference, you’ve seen this type of generalism before. A bunch of men sit before some microphones and begin to spout off a bunch of technological libertarian nonsense. The participants often believe that, because there is some rumbling in publishing’s plate tectonics, now is the time to espouse some new sentiment or to seize some desperate stretch of land. It’s the dawning of a revolution! But these new politicos — who seem more inspired by Thomas Friedman than Thomas Jefferson — don’t understand that serfs can’t adapt from an agrarian economy overnight. Meanwhile, the old dogs never seem to understand that they can’t hold onto their vassal system forever. But there’s no time like the present to make impetuous statements that can only advocate one side or the other, but can never find a middle ground for both.

I spent ten minutes watching this “Big Ideas at BEA” conference, in which the only big idea that anyone wished to consider was whether or not Chris Anderson would have to hold a microphone after the trusted lavalier attached to his shirt couldn’t communicate his predictable patterns of prediction. There was something fittingly symbolic in the microphone’s failure. The very system that had catapaulted Anderson to fame was beginning to fall apart.

And the very discussion that Anderson and his cronies here wished to promulgate was no less interchangeable with any number of talks given at any number of conferences in any number of locations.

When in doubt, go for the predictable. It’s the only “new” or “big” idea that people seem to have in this melancholy landscape.

People actually paid hundreds of dollars for this when they could have stayed home and curled up with a Malcolm Gladwell book.


  1. Dude. You shouldn’t dis a panel you didn’t stay for. The conclusions, sad and lifeless or not, were the exact opposite of what you’re describing here.

  2. If you can’t say anything of substance within ten minutes, what then is the point of the exercise? You looked like a piece of driftwood up there, Lev, willing to accept any half-baked skeletal diagram of how you get something for free without question.

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