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How to Use “Best of” the year Lists

Cribbed from my monthly newsletter The Smoke Signal, your guide to consuming pop culture smarter. 

December is the month of Best of 2015 lists, all 7 million of them. It can be crazy intimating which ones to pay attention to, how much and what to do with the three dozen, “ohh I missed that’s” these lists are meant to stir up. So this issue’s Pop! Hacks! will be all about how to make Best of Lists work for you. 




 NPR Music’s Best of The Year coverage is both thorough, varied and beautifully organized, by genrecurator, by song or album. Their website also has an app which will play their favorite songs of the year in random order. Let it run for a half hour while returning emails and see what new music you discover. Rule of thumb (ear?): Look to discover 2-4 new artists, half in your favorite genres, half in genres you  know less well. If you’re music skews toward one genre, focus there. I usually take 30 seconds and crosscheck the artists I discover with the Village Voice’s legendary Pazz & Jop poll, just to see if I’m being an over-40 white guy cliche’ and swallowing whatever NPR hands me.

Once you’ve found 2-4 new artists you like, stop looking. Explore the other work of those artists on the  streaming music service of your choice. Make new friends not new music you say hello to in the hallway.    

Sit-down meals not snacking. 
If reading 2015’s “big books everyone talked about” is your priority, the New York Times Notable Books of the Year coverage will more than suffice. Again, 3-5 titles that stir your interest. More than that and by the time you finish them, it’ll be March and 2016 bookish temptations will already be clawing at the front door. 

For a more personal  take, Maris Kreizman, who runs publishing projects over at Kickstarter does a magnificent Best Books list that I return to year after year.  

Drilling into genres, the NPR Book Concierge does a great job overall. Paste Magazine usually picks a few categories to dig into each year with great flair. The AV Club’s best of coverage of comics and graphic novels is as dependable as an old friend. The folks at Book Riot do both great 30,000- foot Best-of-Every- Book-You-Can-Imagine reporting and strong by-genre lists as well. I also dig these Best Books by Women lists over at LitHub

Tempting here to just wait and see what gets nominated for your Oscars or Golden Globes’s and catch up on films you missed. Don’t. Award nominations too often focus on movies released after Thanksgiving and whose studios spend a king’s ransom on publicity campaigns. Instead of catching up on great movies, you’ll be wasting time catching up on 2015’s Best Movies at Stuffing the Ballet Box. 
Instead, make a quick trip through Rotten Tomatoes Top 100 movies of 2015 or Roger’s annual  Four Star Reviews feature. Focus on movies you’ve heard of but didn’t get a chance to see. Then for films you haven’t heard of but would like to try, watch their trailer on Apple Trailers.
If you like something, add it to your queue of record (Netflix, Hulu, Google Play, a legal pad) immediately to remember it.  


RIP Maya Angelou: A Eulogy for The Pulse of Morning

“Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.”

I was on the Washington Mall that clear January in 1992, 19 years old, having voted in my first election the November before, when Dr. Maya Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” for the inauguration of President Clinton. I will never forget that day, standing there in the freezing cold, with my mother and youngest brother, seeing a speck of a tall African-American woman in the distance speak of the new president and the America we all came from and was dawning that morning.

I thought of how my mother had marched for civil rights and the rights of women, how my father had welcomed the black friends of my brothers and I to our Passover Seder table then insisted on hearing about their families, their traditions and how my late grandfather, at risk of reprisal, loss of business and professional standing, had given good paying jobs and no interest loans to the African-American men who worked on his construction crews, simply because it was the right thing to do.

And I looked at that tall woman in the distance, whose voice and words rolls from the steps of our capitol, like thunder rolling down the mountains. I knew that woman’s personal history meant she had every reason and cause to be bitter and disgusted with the country of her birth, the country that broke its promise to her and generations like her.

And I heard her say it was our country, all of us, and at its root was not the promise to get it right the first time, to try and do it better next time, with year, each election, each generation. That to be an American was to believe, fundamentally, that from night always came morning.

I will miss you, Maya Angelou. You were the guiding spirit of one of my proudest days as an American.


10 Things I Learned at SXSW 2012:


I’ve been attending the South by Southwest Interactive Festival as an attendee since 2000, a speaker since 2003 and an advisory board member since 2005. Since 2008 I have hosted Fray Café, a storytelling event on the Sunday evening of the conference. Fray Café has been at SXSWi as long as I have.

In that same span of time, South by Southwest Interactive has grown from a few thousand attendees to nearly 25,000 in 2012. In 2011, it surpassed SXSW Music, the organization’s oldest and signature festival, in numbers of badge holders. What was once a conference occupying 1/2 of one floor of the newly-built Austin Convention Center, now includes 15 “campuses” all over the city. Many of the friends I first made at SXSW no longer attend as doing do is too expensive, too focused on “making it” rather than making anything in particular, no longer relevant or all these reasons combined.

About 500x that many attendees have never known SXSW outside of what it is now–Huge corporate-sponsored parties, companies and products getting “discovered” that week in Austin, long lines at everything and a breathless sighting of Pete Cashmore. Their experience is no better or worse than mine, just different.

Every year when I return home, I take stock of what I learned in an essay called 10 Things I Learned at SXSW (previous years: 201120082007, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002). This year’s version is below.

10 Things I Learned at SXSW 2012:

1. Justifying it.  I have a book due in June. And a lot left to write. That needs to be my focus right now and a week of staying out late and eating migas three times a day in Austin is a distraction. A lovely one, but still. Plus neither my wife (a conference speaker this year) nor I have a full time employer to whom we can pass along the cost of attending. That cost could buy you a very nice vacation or set you back until mid-July.

So how to justify the expense and time of going? Moneywise we got lucky and made cutbacks where we could. Timewise I borrowed a card from attending more businessy, less “bring-on-the-migas!” conferences (like this one).

I booked breakfast meetings. I went over the the speaker’s list and then my social media rolls about 3 weeks ahead of time to see if there was anyone in Austin who I had a) communicated with virtually but never met or b) met in a business context but would like to get to know socially. Know some of these people better might benefit me professionally someday. Making new friends is always a benefit on multiple levels.

Since I’m almost 40, I don’t stay out as late as I did at my first few SXSW’s. So it’s easier to get up in time for breakfast and grab coffee and toast with someone before morning sessions begin. About 1-3 of those meetings in the morning and I felt ok spending the remainder of the day screwing off.

Meetings also have a cosmic momentum of their own. At nearly every meeting this year, I would get a couple of text messages from someone else asking if I had a moment to meet. This isn’t because I’m Mr. Superstar or something. I think you put that energy out and the universe can sense it.

2. Panels.  This strategy felt ok with me because, the more I attended throught the week, the more I felt like panels (with few exceptions) were a waste of time. It wasn’t lack of content but way way too much content to keep straight and sort. Hundreds of sessions, talks, conversations and panels means an attendee either a) spends several hours pre-conference deciding what they’d like to see knowing full well they’ll get to maybe 20% of it  b) plays it safe and only goes to panels squarely in their area of interest or c) plays it equally safe and only attends sessions put on by famous people. The last option means waiting in long lines, punting on other sessions in order to wait in long lines and running the very real risk of being crowded out of the room anyway.

Those options all kinda suck. SXSW has hit a point when the attendee must either be uptight, myopic or a star fucker to derive benefit from conference sessions. The solution lies in certain tweets user experience, something South by Southwest, for all its talent firepower, has never been  that good at.

What if somehow the conference could take a list of interests and preferences you supply and spit back a list of sessions you’d probably like? And what if you could tweak that list based on what what hotel you’re staying at, where you’d like to eat lunch and how much time you’d like to walk between sessions?

That’s probably harder than I’m making it out to be. But if anyone has access to the talent for it, it’s this conference. Or they could confer their blessing/assistance upon or Plancast or some other company that has already built most of the technical infrastructure for such a thing.

And even though I’ve said it a thousand times, a clear, systematic approach to recording and podcasting sessions would go a long way towards solving this problem. SXSW has largely rolled out recordings unannounced, haphazardly, and buried-deeply-in-its-site-1996-hide-and-go-seek-for-the-user fashion.

If I knew what was being recorded, how and when I could get it, I could make smarter decisions about what panels to see now and what to wait and catch up on at home.

If I’ve paid for a conference badge already, what’s the harm?

3. Annoyance. SXSW Hassle is now an annual ritual. Every September I try to reserve a hotel room for and am asked to surrender my right lung for the right not to sleep on the street during the festival. I then find myself saying “1000s of dollars, 2 hour waits for lunch and endless jostling by hordes of strangers because my friends can no longer afford to attend. This is the last year I will submit to this nonsense, SXSW! Good day to you sir!”

And every year I come back and it’s not as bad as I thought. The crowds and inflated prices are now a fact of life. I can be mad at them or I can not go. Thus far I have still managed to spend time with the people that matter to me, make a few new friends and attend and produce events that make SXSW so special to me. The Red Eyed Fly, home of Fray Cafe for the last 8 years, gives us the room at very favorable terms. Ditto the site of my last-night-of-SXSW dinner, a 9-year tradition. And my friends old and new still manage to find enough places to eat, have coffee or meet up that haven’t been so totally overrun as to make them unbearable.

4. Must Haves. As a result,this year was the first time I put it to words my list of Must Haves. There may very well come a day when not enough of my friends can afford to attend or venues can’t afford to cut us a break or I can’t spare the time or the money or the headspace anymore. At that point, South by Southwest and I will have lived out our meaningful life together and will part as friends. I take things a year at a time. Minus Fray Cafe and 20×2, a critical mass of friends and the opportunity to make 3-6 more, SXSW will not have enough for me to return. That hasn’t happened quite yet.

5. Fragility. I would be an idiot to not to keep in mind how fragile this all is, how easily jobs or kids or the economy or the passage of time can keep anyone or all of these wonderful things from happening. And how that is no one’s fault. South by Southwest is wonderful but it is not life. It is a ship-in-bottle-sized version of the spirit we want our lives to have–inspiring, loyal, supported and real. But to get angry when life interferes, when someone must stop going or can’t go this year or a venue closes, or new people show up or an event is simply not possible is yelling into your own pocket, an angry, myopic, silly waste of energy.

SXSW is a growing/evolving thing as we are. The challenge is to accept that, move with it and STILL make it special.

6. Newcomers. “Every year is someone’s first SXSW” my wise friend James McNally said, which I take to mean “Don’t be the schmuck moving the goalposts and saying ‘everything was awesome when I first got here. But now that YOU’RE HERE it’s not anymore.”

Put another way, to an entire generation of attendees, South by Southwest is about loud parties and waiting in line, and seeking out venture money and free beer. And they would look at my friends, with our out-of-the-way gatherings, and paying our own way and say “Why?”

They are entitled. They’re entitled to have the experience be anything they want it to be. As am I. It’s pretty easy to stay out of each other’s way and no one is hurting anyone else just by being there.

7. Newcomers Part II. New comers are inspiring. They remind me that South by Southwest is an experience that can give over and over, to diferent people, at different times in life. And there are always more looking for the rewards I have found from it.

In the weeks leading up to SXSW, I heard from at least a half-dozen acquaintences that they were coming for the first time. I invited them to everything I could, advised where appropriate and tried to meet individually with as many of them as I could. I can say that now most, if not all, are friends.

That’s the beauty of that second week in Austin. You get to know each other quick. And yet it feels 100% real and usually endures.

8. Breaks. On at least 3 occassions, I took a long walk with an old friend I’d run into on the streets of Austin. I was probably missing a panel or a free taco or a spotting of Sean Parker but whatever. Those things will happen if they are meant to. Time with an old friend in this midst of that chaos is a precious gift. And a needed repose when you are no longer the 25 year-old adventurer I was my first year at the conference.

9. Shoring up. Footnote to #5. Just because certain things are fragile doesn’t mean we should be content with them staying that way. So after I turn my book in this summer, I’ll be putting in some hours to make sure the parts of SXSW I care out have solid home bases and enduring legacies.

10. Take off and go. I crossed the half-way point of my book right before we arrived in Austin. I’ve a ton to do before my June deadline. SXSW was both a break from it (I didn’t write while there) but also a reminder, a reminder that I am excited by the path I am on, incredibly lucky and grateful that I still get to do this each spring and feel as though my relationship with it gets different but better with time.

SXSW and I are in the long game for now. There are many adventures left to be had.



Ten Things I Learned at SXSW Interactive 2011

I have attended South by Southwest Interactive every year since 2000, have been a speaker since 2003 and on the advisory board since 2004. This year’s festival was held March 11-20 as always in Austin, Texas. 

Each year as soon as I get home, I put together an essay on my impressions of the event in the form of a list of ten things I learned (previous years: 20082007, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002). I haven’t done this in a while but have a commitment this year to not let the festival vanish like a dream as soon as it ends. These essays are a way of remembering what happened at South by Southwest and trying to make it relevant afterwards.

With that I bring you…

Ten Things I Learned at SXSW

1. SXSW is not “over.” Maybe for you it is. But please stop saying so, because I’ve heard it all before. I’m an 11-year veteran of the conference. I’ve heard moans that its moment had past since about 2003. What that really means is “South by Southwest is no longer what I want to be. So I’m going to resent its success and salt the earth so nothing may grow there again. Since it’s over for me, I declare it must be over for everybody.”

That’s just as egotistical and silly as it sounds. SXSW is different. Bigger, louder, more monied and crowded, yes, and in many ways replete with assholes marketing something you don’t need and will probably never hear of again.

You also need not engage with any of it if you don’t want to. You don’t have to go to the huge official parties or even acknowledge the poor sunburned college kids  hawking you “free water. Free breakfast tacos” if only you’ll listen to a few words about their startup. Just as there are plenty of Penn State students who never attend football games, South by Southwest is now big enough (about half the size of Penn State actually) that your experience can simply be what you make of it. Don’t like big crowds? Go to lunch with a few friends instead of the keynotes. Would rather talk about ideas than products? Make smart decisions when selecting panels. Sick of hearing about the must have app? Download none of them. Think the conference is no longer as geeky as it should be? Check your facts. Journalists, artists, academics and filmmakers who have never written a line of code have been come to SXSW Interactive since the day it was born. If your definition of “geek” is “people who know PERL”, then SXSW Music might as well mean “only for people who can tune a Gibson SG.”

If you can’t wrap your head around the change then 1) You’ve moved on which is fine. Life is all about change or 2) You lack imagination. Either way, saying “it’s over” is terribly unfair to the staff who put a year’s worth of work into the conference existing at all (and do a damn fine job of it), the volunteers who sacrifice a week of their life just so you don’t get lost looking for Ballroom D, the speakers who prep for months to provide you the attendee with good content and most of all, the first timers and newcomers who weren’t lucky enough to have been there in the imagined “before” where everything was so wonderful.

As my friend and fellow conference vet James McNally once said “Every year is someone’s first year. Do you want to be the jerk who keeps talking about how great everyone was until you, the newcomer, showed up?”

I would rather live in the solution than the problem. And I learned from SXSW way back when it was something smaller, but different, not better.

2. I still wouldn’t want to be a newcomer now. I had the good fortune of first attending SXSW when a conference badge cost a few hundred bucks and there were as many attendees then as there are speakers now. I could afford, in all fashions, to know nobody and make stumbling, incremental progress towards having purpose and conference friends I still spend time with today. When I felt like I belonged (around year #4) I made damn sure that any newcomer I met was welcome to spend time with my group of friends and learn a few ropes. I was afraid if it took them as long as it took me to feel at home that they’d never come back and never get any of the priceless gifts the conference has given me.

Now, South by Southwest is a) way too costly for this kind of gradual learning and b) So large that many newcomers take one look at the schedule and declare failure or exhaust themselves trying to attend everything. They end up frustrated and beaten down by this thing everyone has told them is a miracle. And who wants to pay a king’s ransom for that kind of letdown?

Conference staff has made valiant attempts to make freshman year at SXSW a little easier. The annual “How To Rawk SXSW” panel is a great first day orientation session. I’ve heard veteran/newcomer meetups were part of the official program this year though I also heard its damn hard to get veterans to sacrifice an hour in their schedule for them.

This is a very big knot to untie. Newcomers don’t always identify themselves as such and are attending South by Southwest for such different reasons that a one-size-fits-all solution is folly. I will say this though: I know of at least a dozen old-timers who, for the price of one platinum badge, would be more than happy to both participate in and/or administer some kind of “SXSW Big Brother/Big Sister Program” where a vet is paired with a greenhorn (or several. Like student advisors in college) and acts as a personal resource leading up to and during SXSW itself.

It’s very labor intensive solution but exactly the sort of thing that makes the conference so special.

Whose gonna take that one on? I promise you Hugh, Shawn and the folks who run SXSW are listening.

3. SXSW is a lousy place to launch a product. There are a class of first timers who know precisely why there are in Austin and what they must accomplish. They are the proprietors/early employees of startups who are hoping catch the attention of the 20,000 attendees (whose presence at least indicates an interest newfangled technology) and repeat the success of Twitter and FourSquare who both first caught fire at the conference.

We hear of those success stories because they are rare exceptions. South by Southwest is a fantasm of noise, information and over stimulus all washed down by alcohol, breakfast tacos and too little sleep. After 5 days of it, You’re lucky if you remember your own name. A few more responsible souls than I come home, dutifully sort through their swag then try new products they’ve heard about at SXSW then tell their friends about the ones they like. The rest of us get home and regard those products as noise we’re ready to turn off.

If you’re one of the lucky startups with a boatload of money, go ahead and sponsor a giant party. I won’t be there but someone–lots of someones–will. If you’re small and wily (like Freshbooks, like Squrl) do something clever like cooking bacon on a mobile grill (Freshbooks again. Those wonderful Canadians) or just hang out and have good conversations. But don’t…

4. Market something at SXSW by shooting for the middle. Somewhere between small and wily and giant and omnipresent lies the path of douchbaggery. Or as my best friend Dave (a 9-year conference veteran) said “the douchbag is the early adopter of the mainstream. Someone who knows there’s money to be made off a trend but didn’t get to the party fast enough to be part of it.”

If you’re wondering if you’re a douchbag, you probably are. But don’t worry. Easy to avoid for SXSW 2012. Just follow these simple rules.

a) Stop hardselling. Whatever silly rules you have about “not letting them out of the room”, leave at home. The attendees at SXSW are too smart for that.

b) Stop bragging. Nobody cares how many times your product was mentioned on CNN. Presidential candidates and heads of state have stalked these halls. Your app for bulk purchase of car insurance does not impress us. The attendees at SXSW are too smart for that.

c) No booth babes, backward baseball caps, street barkers. or yelling “free stuff” into a crowd. This is SXSW not frat orientation day at Fresno State. The attendees at SXSW are too smart for that.

Are we getting the message? There’s a reason why people love SXSW and tolerate say, CES. Because its about something more than selling. Violate that and we’ll not only ignore your product, we’ll make fun of it and you behind your back.

Side note: This entire list was developed over the course of 1 hour myself and my friend Carla Borsoi spent at a Westside Austin mansion that smelled like spilt Red Bull listening to some douchbag talk about which hip-hop musicians use his product. That’ll teach us to hop in a nameless hummer limo instead of going to lunch.

5. You will miss something. Worrying about what you might miss if you decide to do x (hoping in a strange limo) instead of y (being an adult, sane person) is a waste of time. You will miss something. Lots of somethings. In the week or so leading up to SXSW, I dutifully go through the schedule and fill in checkboxes knowing full well there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do 90% of the things that sound interesting. It’s an activity that maps nicely to awaiting the arrival of a guy named Godot.

I do it anyway. A schedule is a baseline, to know what South by Southwest has to offer should you not know what to do next. It is not a commandment. Thanks to age we live in, nearly every presentation, film screening, even band is either documented for posterity or available thanks to the webernet afterwards. The enthralling conversation you’re in with someone you just met is unrepeatable. And moments like that are why conferences, despite their wild expense and bulk, endure. The spontaneous collision of people and ideas cannot be replicated in virtual space. So if you’ve made the commitment to come to SXSW, take full advantage. Wherever you are if you’re creating, learning, growing or just enjoying yourself, that’s where you’re supposed to be. Don’t second guess it.

6. What does your body need? Just because you’re not at home does not mean the laws of nature don’t apply. And you will get nothing out of SXSW by not listening to them and therefore spending the entire conference tired, sick, and half-tweaked out on 3 AM beer and queso sludge.

I’m 37 and an early riser. But I get to see my SXSW once a year and I’d rather not turn in at dusk every night while we’re all in one place. That means I do one large coffee in the morning, a nap around 5 PM, another large coffee when I wake up, multi-vitamins every morning and a little time at the hotel gym if I can manage. And I don’t screw around with it. Because its the only way I can actually do SXSW and enjoy it rather than try and beat it at its own game and complain I’m not as young as I used to be.

7. Breakfast. I’m good in the morning, even when I’m tired.  I was baffled by how many people I wanted to meet were too. So while I had zero luck scheduling meetings during the day (my friend C.C. Chapman is a master at this. I’d like to know how) I met with someone for breakfast nearly every morning and started the day off feeling on fire before 9 AM. The 30 minutes between when the alarm goes off and you sit down with your migas are murder. But the rest of the day, at least for me, is always better if I make something of the first half of it.

8. Limits. Since 2006, I’ve tried to fit in at least a few days of the SXSW Music festival which happens right after Interactive. Since 2009, my wife has been part of that crazy project with me.

I don’t know how many more years we’ll be doing this. We’re just too worn out by the end of Interactive to want to take part in much of anything. And much as I we would like to just keep to ourselves and go to movies and concerts, the giant, loud, not-as-nice crowds for music make it rather unpleasant. We’ve got several good music festivals at home or maybe we’ll try CMJ one autumn. But we’d both rather leave Austin on a tired-but-up note than a beaten down regretful one.

9. Priorities.

I’m no longer at a place in life where I need SXSW for my big insights. My insights build up continuously over the year. Since my job pays for some portion of my attendance at the conference, I need to hold meetings and attend sessions relevant to our future as a company.

But most important is time with friends, relationships I’ve built over 11 years of people I love I only get to see once a year. So while I can’t just declare Austin a 10-day vacation, real, in-person, intimate time with friends wins out over loud parties with celebrities. As seductive as the chance to dance with Pee-Wee-Herman or her DJ Diplo spin live is, those guys aren’t going anywhere. And friendship is too precious and valuable a thing to swap out for that.

10. I’ll be back. In spite of all the inconvenience that comes from SXSW Gigantism, I will be back next year. I still love the people, the knowledge, the vibe, even in my creeky veteraness. I’m proud of the staff for what a remarkable job they still manage to do despite its growth. I’m incredibly grateful that there is still room on the docket for events like The Old Timers Ball, Fray Cafe and 20×2 stalwarts of the SXSW of old. I love that my wife was a speaker this year, her 3rd, and I get to see the conference through her younger less-jaded eyes.

Most of all, I how many wonderful people coalesce around this conference, people with passion, big ideas, and an optimism as boundless as the sky. That those same people see kindness, sharing and brotherhood as just as important, says a lot about them. And just as much about the event, the call across continents that brings them to Austin each spring.

See you next March!


Report from BEA 2010: “Think Outside the Shop”

Book Expo America this past month in New York marked my seventh time at the publishing industry’s annual get-together and my first  feeling like a grown-up. I wasn’t there to grab armfuls of free books (tempting, but given new airline bag regulations, impractical) nor visit with friends I’d made over the years (would do anyway) nor to make more friends leading to more free books (see above and my new wife, rightly entitled to half the shelf space in our now shared dwelling). As the CEO of a small business serving authors and publishers, I had meetings scheduled, demos to demo, and our future to chart. In short, I came to an industry conference for the same reason most working adults do. I came to “talk shop.”

My “shop” in this case sat in a cul-de-sac next to other tool and service providers, our faithful customers  and a loose confederation of wise heads thinking about the smaller, nimbler future of book publishing. It was “shoptalk” to its bones as “shop” the noun connotes smallness and specialization of purpose. Children are not misplaced at “the shop” nor can one get an oil change there while buying a recliner. The issues at play at this BEA might have been quite big for our little company–new products, new company focus, unfamiliar map tacks in a line pointing to our future. But the community we introduced them to was quite small–trusted friends and colleagues going back. BEA was a nice excuse to to see them in the flesh but hardly the convening of a dialogue. The conversation about the future of our industry happens nearly every day in social media. Many of our colleagues we met that way.

One of these community members described BEA as “my twitter stream come to life.” Quite so, but what is the benefit of that? The solidifying of relationships between old friends who’ve just met or inspiration waiting for the collective ” us” to ignite? Are we here for comfort or possibility? Both get used to justify attending an industry conference which by nature will include many appendages, all attached to the same beast. Many have needs unfamiliar or competing with ours. Some we have no time to even think about. Nonetheless we all  belong to the beast and when the beast sickens, so do we.

Book Publishing, our beast is, to put it nicely, in a period of great transition. And not just because of ebooks or KindlePadNooks or “Agency Models” no reader cares about. We are in the great uncomfortable middle  of deciding as an industry, what approach will be best for both ourselves and the common goal we all have–To put as many good books into the hands of as many readers as possible with a minimum amount  of inconvenience to them as possible.

Those interests–between publishers and authors, between librarians and booksellers, between technology and tradition–often clash. Its tempting then to ignore the obvious business parable–that books are a small pie industry and fighting over crumbs leaves everyone hungry–and arrive at the annual meeting prepared to tally up who your friends are and see how the battle lines have been drawn.

I don’t then for a moment begrudge say a librarian at BEA for wanting to talk to other librarians about how they do their job best and how libraries fit into the industry’s overall dynamics. But that librarian has publishers as vendors, readers (not allowed at BEA) as customers, local book bloggers and literary media (hopefully) as allies and booksellers as frenemies. A giant industry conference is the perfect excuse for these parties to have a drink together as their common destiny mirrors the industry’s own futures. Why do I feel then like this happens in the afterwards, at darkened hotels and loud parties, and not where it is most important, at BEA itself?

I heard one the nation’s most respected booksellers say to a packed panel session that his store has no relationship with local book bloggers. “Buzzworthy Book” panels seem great for sales agendas but curiously backward thinking without any plain old readers allowed in the room. And the conference’s opening plenary had CEO’s, agents, and authors arguing like brats over whether the book should be a physical object or a digital file (settled already), whether authors should get a larger share of the revenue (of concern to no one but them) and whether the price of a book has been “pre-determined” by cheap ebooks (again over and done with).

Each example is a sad illustration of the same dangerous idea. We come to BEA to talk to “talk shop”–to converse with  people just like us who understand how hard it is to be us everyday. That bookseller may think his staff has “no time” for local book bloggers but he then has his head in the sand about his relationship to his community and his business’s survival. The “buzziness” of a book is ultimately determined by readers at least as much as booksellers and librarians and to think otherwise is to simply ignore reality in favor of collegiality. And for an opening plenary–the “big vision” slot of reckoning at any conference–to devolve into childish mine-not-yours bickering is illustrative in two scary ways. 1) That those at the tippy top of book publishing still think their concerns mirror everyone’s and that 2) none of them for a moment thought their myopia and fear would reach anyone outside that room except by pre-approved media outlet. They obviously did not count on their words being scattered to the four winds by everyone in the room with an iPhone. Of course not. Because when you “talk shop” who outside the shop is listening?

I once heard a web designer summarize the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (tagline “Tomorrow Happens Here.”) as “a chance for designers and developers to talk shop.” To you perhaps. But as an overall assessment, that sounds like calling The World Economic Forum “Heads of State, talking about Heads of State stuff.” In the 21st century, the value of going to a conference is the collective energy of the entity itself. That energy should be transformative–new ideas derailing old ones, inspiration leaking from the windows, lives changed. If the takeaway is instead a  “yeah, me too” colloquium between members of the same club, can’t we schedule a weekly “Heads of State Stuff” conversation on Skype and call it a day? What’s the point of the money and time spent on conference attendance if the aim isn’t to be inspired but see who else is like you? If you’re in regular communication with your colleagues, shouldn’t that be happening all year long?

I love to “talk shop.” It makes me feel empowered, with brethren, not alone in this crazy business of ours. But I am also in this crazy business because I believe it is at a thrilling time in its history and I want to play a small part in that change. That change is as scary as it is exciting. But we will all be more ready for it the more we open ourselves to other voices, varying concerns, the more we think outside the shop and see it as part of a noisy, bustling marketplace. We all want the shoppers to come to our booth. But we also must assure, first and together, that they are in the habit of visiting the shops at all. And we can’t do this if our default mode is “nobody understands.”


I Invented a Holiday Called National Magazine Day

What:  Magazine Day: a celebration of magazines and attacking the stack of unread titles piling up next to your bathroom sink.

When: Saturday, February 27th, 2010. That’s in a little over 2 weeks. It’s also my dad’s birthday. He got me hooked on magazines as a young pup.

How? On Saturday, February 27th, ordinary folk across America (like you, like me) will spend the day “attacking the stack” or reading their way through the unread magazines they’ve accumulated. If you’re a big goody-goody and read your magazines straight through the moment they arrive, you may spend the day at your local library/bookstore/university exploring new periodicals, discussing your favorite magazines with friends, tweeting your favorite articles. As you wish.

Where: I live in San Francisco, California and will be hosting a Magazine Day celebration at Booksmith bookstore in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood from 1-6 PM. Five dollars reserves you a spot which includes all the coffee you can drink, all the snacks you can eat, free reign of the store’s ample magazine racks and admission to a 6 PM panel discussion entitled “The Future of Magazines.”

Magazine Day is open to everyone, no matter where you are. Invite friends over and rumage though each other’s stacks. Spend the day reading at your local coffee shop or library. Multch your magazines and construct a giant paper mache wildebeest. It’s up to you. The idea is to spend the day having fun and forming community around a shared love of magazines.

Why? 90% of Americans read magazines, including me. I love magazines and hate waste. I buy way more magazines than I could ever read so without designating time for them, they will remain next to my toilet gathering dust. And that’s a shame.

Does that sound familiar?

Who’s idea was this? Mostly mine. I’m Kevin Smokler. Although friends and followers on Twitter did plenty of egging on.


  • In the next few days, I’ll be putting together an FAQ and  “How to Host a Magazine Day Party” dossier. Keep an eye out.
  • I’m defining “magazine” as “any collection of printed matter you’d like to read that isn’t a book.” Newspapers count. Xeroxed articles gathered in a pile? Fine.
  • This is not a project sponsored by or in conjunction with my employer
  • Magazine Day questions can be left in the comment section here or on twitter under the hashtag #magazineday.



RIP John Hughes: A Eulogy for a Generational Hero

This essay appeared in The Huffington Post on August 18, 2009

Director John Hughes died on my 36th birthday, which means I’m now the age he was when Ferris Bueller took his day off. Hughes reportedly wrote Ferris based on the high school adventures of his best friend, himself, and his girlfriend, whom Hughes married shortly after their graduation in 1968. By the film’s release in 1986, when John Hughes was the reigning master of what Courtney Love called “the defining moments of the alternative generation,” he was also a father to two young children, a boomer family man and the demographic against which his audience saw their identity as an “alternative”.

Following his fatal heart attack at age 59, that audience (now family men and women ourselves) hurried to claim Hughes as ours. Director Kevin Smith called him “Our J.D. Salinger.” Jud Apatow: “None of what I do would exist without him.” Diablo Cody: “An idol to this magna-zoom-dweebie.”

I went ahead and emailed my parents, explaining that this passing meant to me what John Lennon’s death meant to them. “We liked John Hughes movies too,” my mom wrote back.

Of course they did. The same way they liked American Graffiti and Splendor in Grass as late-youth fables from at a time long ago. My 13-year-old cousin Zoe probably files Pretty in Pink or Weird Science next to Mean Girls and She’s all That, befitting the endless now adolescence feels like when you’re in the middle of it.

With the petulance then of an overlooked middle child, wedged between Boomers and Millennials, my generational urge to lock up Hughes’s children up in the library then stand out outside the door screaming “Mine! Mine!” isn’t just a personalization of loss. It’s also an endowment of cultural legacy, a declaration that Duckie, Watts, Cameron Frye and Jake Ryan belong yes, to history, but really to us.

Every generation slams the door on the one behind it. We can only grant Tie Dye, The Muppet Show, Pearl Jam or Facebook to those borne of one age by implying everyone else is too old to “get it” or too young to understand. As if by nature, generational identity seems a fierce melding of two unequal parts — what it is and everything else it isn’t.

With John Hughes, this had the unintended consequence of turning appreciations of his work into a nostalgic land grab, relegating it to the same garage shelf as New Coke or the Atari 2600. Michael Jackson, another recently deceased ’80s icon, had the benefit of a career with his brothers the decade before and presence in the tabloids until the day he died. Hughes last directed in 1991. It’s easy then to confine his contributions to his heyday, the middle years of the Reagan administration, to shoulder pads and Spandau Ballet.

But if that were the whole story, would there have been this kind of outpouring? We return to John Hughes’s movies because they didn’t just speak to a moment in time — they also transcended it. Remove the floppy disk jokes and Sixteen Candles is ageless as a Hudson/Day romantic comedy. Ferris Bueller may as well be subtitled Chicago! Chicago! It’s a Wonderful Town! Call the Breakfast Club an adolescent Iceman Cometh, a chorus of characters imprisoned and waiting for something to happen who realize they are the only something that will.

Hughes’s are not just movies about the mid-1980s, but movies set in the mid-1980s that now live as archetype and fable. I know this because, last year, I threw myself a “Come Dressed as Your Seventh Grade Self” birthday last year and guests from ages 20 to 55 all showed looking like his characters. I didn’t ask them to. They assumed “John Hughes Movie” and adolescence meant the same thing.

None of my friends, however, dressed like The Athlete, Brain, Basket Case, Princess and Criminal of The Breakfast Club, perhaps because the lessons of that film are too painful for a celebration: The world wants to separate us with labels. If we look past those labels, at least we have each other. It’s garden-variety adolescent alienation, sure, but of a very different kind than the majority of Hughes’s work. Which is probably why fans regard The Breakfast Club as his greatest achievement and a generational touchstone in a way that, say, Weird Science is not.

Courtney Love and her cohorts would spend the early ’90s glorifying the alienation Hughes offers up in The Breakfast Club. But amid his filmography, it’s a rare exception. Overwhelmingly, The Hughsian hero does not question the rules of adolescence but tries to find their place within them. Samantha Baker wants to be cool like Jake Ryan and they meet somewhere in the middle sitting atop a dining room table. The lovers of Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful accept that money and class divide them but make a go of it anyway. Ferris Bueller most likely walked in his high school graduation while the parents he loved applauded, then went to a good college. He most likely did not drop out, form a band and never speak to them again.

If the cinema of the 1990s was all about the created family in absence of the biological one (Goodfellas, Boogie Nights, Reality Bites), Hughes venerated the traditional family in a manner both of and ahead of his time. Remember the mid-1980s was the era of The Parents Music Resource Center, the Satanic Panic and a cinematic alternative to the Hughesian Mainstream (The Legend of Billie Jean, The River’s Edge) about generational hostility and its violent consequences.

The message? Parents and kids don’t understand each other, don’t want to and never will.

But that’s not what happens outside of Shermer High School. In rest of Hughes’s teenage canon, venerable character actors like Harry Dean Stanton, Paul Dooley, and John Ashton play fathers whose arcs end in sympathy and understanding for their teenage children. John Ashton relents and lets Keith, the hero of Some Kind of Wonderful, not go to college. Harry Dean Stanton gives Molly Ringwald the pink dress she wears to the prom. And Paul Dooley, as Samantha Baker’s dad in Sixteen Candles, has one of best parent/teenager scenes in recent memory. “If he can’t see all the beautiful and wonderful things I see in you” he tells his grieving daughter, exiled from her room on her birthday and ignored by the popular boy she likes, “then he’s got the problem.” He finishes by telling her “not to let him boss you around,” a proto-feminist idea a half-decade before Riot Grrls.

Jim Baker, Jack Walsh, Cliff Nelson and Tom Bueller represent the value Hughes placed on intergenerational tolerance, where dads like him admitted their mistakes and struggled with empathy over judgment. We don’t see much of it in The Breakfast Club, where detention is a lonely island surrounded by adult misunderstanding. Fast forward and we can imagine that long Saturday inspiring the cultural mileposts of the 1990s — grunge, strong coffee, Quentin Tarantino, and Napster. But it would be the “nice” Hughes families whom would have the last laugh. Another son of Illinois would mirror their attempts at open communication and declare moving beyond the psychodrama of generational warfare his highest priority. It got him elected president.

I’ll be married next spring, shortly after The Breakfast Club‘s 25th birthday, where friends, parents and grandparents will all dance to “Don’t You Forget About Me.” Perhaps if I were in my early 20s when John Hughes died, I too would have eulogized him as the poet laureate of my youth. But I’m an adult now, maybe a parent someday. Sam, Duckie, Ferris and Keith have all grown up and so have we. Part of that means remembering John Hughes for all that he was instead of just all that he was for us. And what he captured onscreen was an adolescence to be learned from instead of suffered through and forgotten, where parents and their teenagers tried to do right, even though they couldn’t always do good, and, in the end, understood that We Are Not Alone.

It’s an adolescence I wish I had. Thanks to John Hughes, it is an adulthood I can imagine and make real.