One thing I am not very good at is synthesizing a ton of different pieces of information into a general impression that I can then articulate. So I’ve been taking notes on the Tools of Change 2010 conference, and now that it’s a week past, I have a better position from which to look back on the conference itself and examine it.
One thing I said over Twitter during the opening keynotes was that I love this conference. In 2009, when Kassia Krozser asked me to be on a panel presentation with her, Angela James and Malle Vallik, I had no idea what I was walking into. I was only there for the day, but that one day made my brain go into sparky overdrive. There were so many ideas and new products and pieces of software and discussions of opportunity and practice and it was all about… books. The process of creating and publishing books. My head, as they say, asplodey-splode.
This year, for 2010, I blocked off three-plus days to attend and visit as much of the conference as I could, and it was well worth it. I love Tools of Change in Publishing because it is, most of the time, a very appealing balance between theoretical, creative thinking and direct, practical application. Because the audience is part publishing, part programmer, part geek and part executive, presenters need to be able to not only bring in the noise of their new idea, creative concept or new methodology, but also bring in the funk of real, practical application and potential (if not actual) results of that creative idea. It’s a full-brain conference – by which I mean that both left and right brain perspectives are represented and explored.
One thing that I was nervous about as the conference began was the residue of the competitive dichotomy that came out of the recent Digital Book World conference. Much of the Digital Book World (not to be confused with the International Digital Publishing Forum’s conference, Digital Book) was held in January, and prior to and during the conference, my impression was one of antagonism and negativity toward Tools of Change in Publishing, which baffled me.
I didn’t want to hear more of the same at ToC because I absolutely don’t believe that progress in addressing the changes created by digital publishing opportunities can be made by placing blame and insisting there’s only one prophet to follow for The Right Way to Do Everything.
There isn’t one right way to do anything as pertains to digital publishing because people are still trying to figure out how to do all of it. So whereas some folks might hear a presentation as “UR DOIN IT WRONG” I tend to see each one as “Here’s another way to do it,” because the whole industry is new enough and growing in such a way that there’s no one way to accomplish any of it. While some processes need to be streamlined and organized (ISBN and author data, I am looking at you), other segments of the digital publishing world are wide open in terms of opportunities. So I see ToC as “Look at all the stuff we can do!” It’s delicious.
The best comment from the presentations I attended and participated in was from Angela James – and I was standing next to her when she said it, though even if I’d been sitting in the audience I’d have still been impressed. She recommended in our panel about the digital consumer experience that perhaps the best option is to try in small doses, and not make unilateral changes. Try a book without DRM, or a book released digitally at the same time as hardback. Try doing something differently on a small scale; there’s no way an industry as large as publishing can change everything at once.
From my notes during the conference, in no real order:
Y’all. BookSeer.com: have you tried it? It pulls recommendations from LibraryThing and Amazon based on what you’ve just finished (and presumably enjoyed). WAY cool. BookSeer is a project of AptStudio, which also created one of the recent Friday Videos, and is headed by Peter Collingridge, who helped create Enhanced Editions of books like The Death of Bunny Monro by Nick Cave.
The major theme of the keynotes was also the first word in my drinking game: disintermediation. Boundaries between publisher, writer, reader, vendor, and salesperson are all muddied, because some have had to take on or share what used to be the responsibilities of others. So the potential outcomes of the newly distributed responsibilities are fascinating – what happens when an author decides to go right to the distributor, or elects to function as her own publisher, for example? Are the results now significantly different from the results of another author five years ago, or five years from now?
Another hot topic was value, and Jane, Angie and I discussed that at length in our presentation. Skip Pritchard from Ingram also discussed it in terms of the consumer in his keynote presentation, which was among the best at ToC. My notes from that presentation:
If consumers can add value to things then they will be willing to buy it, and will be willing to buy this item to serve a purpose.
“Can’t compete with free” needs to be reframed as a new question. The question needs to be whether publishers are going to give consumers something that has value to them. Dynamic books shows how that could be done.
(Pritchard was addressing publishers but the advice is universal:) Know your strategy and what you’re good at, what your unique value is. Simplify and be the best at one thing rather than diversify.
Decide what you want to do and do it relentlessly better than anyone else.
Ingrams goal is to help content reach its destination.
“E” as we know it today will be replaced by something newer and better in a few years. Thus it’s important to know who your customers are – and where they are.
If you know where your customers are, you can help them connect. (Again, this advice applies to just about everyone in the books business).
Know who controls your destiny. Know your customer. Focus on their needs relentlessly.
Self imposed limitations hinder creativity.
During Arianna Huffington’s keynote, the following comments made me ponder and ruminate to the point where I wrote them down with asterisks – and at one point, some note that is so bizarre I have no idea what I was talking about. I suppose this means I may have been so moved I was speaking in tongues, but I doubt it. Huffington, it should be noted, is outstanding in speaking in soundbite. You can take lessons from her. Holy smoke.
- Marketing must shift from broadcast paradigm to conversation paradigm.
- Books are conversation starters. The purchase doesn’t end when the book is read. It’s another beginning.
- This is the golden age of engagement. People don’t just want to read. They want to talk back. They want to continue the conversation.
- It doesn’t matter what platform you’re reading on. The message is platform agnostic. Hardcover/kindle/cell phone – content is same. What matters is what is communicated.
- The question,“Has anyone read…?” is a question beyond politics and values. We need timelessless of books.
- We need to unplug and recharge with ourselves with a book.
- We also need to let go of antiquated concepts of value and success. The idea that “You have three weeks between pub date and oblivion. Forget about it.”
- Everything is interactive – this is an age of empathy.
- Self expression is the new sought-after form of entertainment.
- Reader interaction is based on significance and value. A conversation starts because the message has value and the item has value. (Ergo, placing limits on the connection and communication diminishes the value).
Interesting note: so much of TOC is covered live via Twitter that again this year, I saw people leave sessions when the tweetstream from another was more interesting. ToC is expensive to attend, and it was fascinating to see people using every method possible to get as much as they could from the program sessions.
Tuesday morning, I worked on the two presentations I had scheduled back-to-back, and after a lunch that was precariously balanced around the massive knots in my stomach, I started talking.
My first presentation, Test Driving the Digital Reading Experience was an overview of the Smart Bitches’ Test Drive. Kate Dugan from Sony USA and Malle Vallik from Harlequin presented with me on the test drive program, the reason we were each involved, and the results of the program itself and how they were interpreted and by each of us.
The presentation was standing room only – though it was in one of the smaller rooms, so it’s not like we sold out the ballroom – and the people in the audience asked sharp questions about the consumer experience with long-term hands-on demo opportunities for readers. The biggest obstacles for all of us were DRM, because it stands in the way of Sony loaning devices for large-scale demos (at hotels, or on cruises, for example) and at the time of the Test Drive, it meant that Harlequin needed to offer coupons for books through the Sony ebookstore and not their own ebookstore, because, again, at that time, eHarlequin books couldn’t be read on the Sony. The slideshow highlighted the opinions of the Test Drivers, who helped me immensely with preparing the presentation and results (thanks, y’all).
The second presentation was with Angela James and Jane Litte, on the Essentials of Digital Books from the Consumer’s Point of View. This panel emerged from the survey we did on ebooks and ebook buying and reading, and presented the consumer’s perpective on the digital experience. The highlights:
- 71% of ebook readers think publishers don’t care about them.
- Why? Quality is hideously inconsistent. Consumers are asked to pay the same prices as print or higher for a product that is often without proofreading or copy editing in evidence and filled with typos and illegible formatting.
- The idea that one format cannibalizes another is ludicrous from the perspective of the consumer, because regardless of whether its print or digital, what we want is a book. Consumers aren’t interested in one format succeeding over another. This isn’t Coke vs. Pepsi or an SEC football game. We just want something to read.
I was twitchingly proud of the presentation we’d built, and afterward we received many comments on it – including one from a gentleman we met later that day who couldn’t see us in the darkened corner of the ballroom where we were standing, and identified Angie based on the fact that he’d been in the panel, which he thought was excellent, and finally remembered where he’d heard her voice before. Heh.
The other presentations I attended were excellent as well.
Handselling in a Digital World was absolutely stellar. Bob Carlton can rock a presentation like no other, surfing board shorts included.
Carlton discussed the fact that readers and consumers are hyper connected, whether its via Facebook, LibraryThing/GoodReads, or, most likely, by mobile phone. It gave me a ton to think about in terms of how marketing works now, and what can be done differently – and more effectively.
It also highlighted how many different ways there are for readers to connect, and how many I personally use or don’t use. There are a heaping piling ton of people on Facebook, yet personally, I find Facebook confusing and exhausting but I know so many people who love it and conduct much of their interpersonal communication there. Like, Mr. Pritchard from Ingram said earlier on Tuesday: know where the consumer is, and go there.
So an Author, a Publisher, and a Reader Walk into a Bar… featured
Bob Carlton (LibreDigital), Malle Vallik (Harlequin Enterprises Ltd), and Rob Beauchamp (LibreDigital) – and a dancing can-can line of technical difficulties. Even with the tech bloopers, their presentation, which focused on encouraging social media connectivity surrounding Courtney Milan’s book “Proof of Seduction,” revealed how people connect, and how readers react to different connections.
One awesome point: reading a digital galley of Milan’s book convinced one reader to try more historical romance because “Proof of Seduction” was so powerful. She hadn’t read any historical romance before, and now she wanted more of it, lots of it, asap.
I came away from ToC inspired and curious, and uncertain. There are tremendously smart people at work within publishing, within technology, and within the somewhat fractious ground between them both. There is also a great deal to be decided and explored as ebooks become an ever-larger portion of the revenue stream each quarter – and therein lies the uncertainty. I can’t tell what’s going to happen next, and thank God it’s not my job to do so. But I am cautiously eager to see what happens next year.
If I had to pick one theme that wound through the conference, though, it would be this: “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”
And finally, the complete list of the ToC Drinking Game – words that were frequently used to the point where flasks would have been a nice conference gift. I wonder how many of these words we’ll see next year:
value of books
books as commodities
Best phrase: “the fairy dust of copyright protection.” (Does it sparkle?!)