If you follow me on Twitter, you might remember that I ended up in Twitter jail for tweeting so much about Tools of Change two weeks ago. You likely already heard a lot about the conference. The last day of ToC, I received a message that a friend of mine suffered a death in his family, so immediately after leaving Tools of Change, I traveled some more for the funeral, and thus this recap is later than I expected. But the time between the end of the conference and now has served to better adjust my thinking of the whole event.
I met some really interesting people and learned about projects that suffused me and the people around me with a heady dose of, 'Oh, that's cooool!' – such as Paperight, a chain of print-on-demand copy shops at cafes in South Africa, which was featured in the ToC Startup Showcase:
Using the Paperight website, copy shops can quickly, easily and legally print out and sell textbooks, novels, children’s books and more. Paperight’s outlets are predominantly in underprivileged parts of South Africa. Paperight outlets pay a small rights fee to the publisher for each print-out they make. Publishers license their books through Paperight to reach new markets, and to put their books in places where they can genuinely change people’s lives.
I also noticed a lot more pessimism and anger at this year's conference. Part of the crankypants' crankypants might easily come from being a person in publishing who is continually told by tech gadflies, as Emily Williams termed them, “you're doing it wrong.” I can see why that would get really old, really fast.
But I was surprised by the degree of hostility I heard and saw, from people who outright rejected the ideas being presented or who challenged the panelists.
One example: the Q&A at a session about “the Netflix of Books,” discussing subscription models for readers who, depending on the amount they pay, gain borrowing access to a selection of books. Two of the speakers were discussing programs available in Europe. An author got to the mic and said, essentially, “I'm not making any money in your service. Explain that to me in front of all these people.”
It's a valid question, no doubt: what's the benefit to an author who participates in a subscription library type service? Nonetheless, I was surprised by the hostility in the question, and the choice to air that anger in a room full of strangers. That was also the theme of some of the responses ranging from dubious to outright scoffing that I heard: Yeah, whatever, but how is this going to make any money?
Some of that hostility in the audience at times came from me – not because I wanted to know how to make money, but because I was being fed promotion from someone who wanted to make money off me. I attended a few sessions that were infuriating because they spoke generally and nonspecifically about a topic, then turned into self-aggrandizing promotion. I have made a new rule: I will not attend any tech conference session that is hosted by one person, unless I am absolutely sure that that person isn't trying to sell me something. By the third such session, with one person hosting a promotion for himself, I was pretty irritated.
The keynotes were more pessimistic, too. There was ranting about how Amazon is awful – which, ok, I get that, too. If you work in publishing, Amazon is always an issue on the periphery of much of what you do. But here's a question: how many of the people in that room were also Amazon customers, personally or professionally? I'd bet most. I'm not being won to your side or being tempted by a product if you insult me for my buying choices.
What seemed like a collaborative atmosphere at ToC in past years seemed more combative this year- and perhaps that's natural. The “change” in publishing isn't coming. It's here. It was five minutes ago. Now folks have to figure out if they and their jobs are going to be just a tool, or be a useful tool.
The thing that bothered me most was the unilateral pronouncements like “social media does not sell books.” I beg to differ — and started sketching out what kind of panel of smart people would be able to refute that idea while in the audience listening to someone rant about how social media is a useless medium.
I was not the only one to hear the pessimism. Laura Dawson's session about open books, which she recapped a bit was one I missed and am sorry that I did. She also noticed a similar tone about the sessions and at the sessions:
The question is whether that opening happens with or without publishers. And that is the elephant in the room.
That elephant was very firmly in the room during my “Open Book” presentation on Wednesday. It was a short talk, making some short points – that there has been explosive growth in published text over the last 14 years. That putting all that text on paper is not scaleable as a business. That digitizing it is scaleable, but invokes the problem of discovery. That discovery is best enabled by interoperability and structured markup. And if publishers are not making their own texts discoverable, someone else will.
Presumably publishers are publishing because what they are publishing has value. The fact that someone else perceives that value and makes the content more valuable is – again, presumably – a good thing.
The implication, however, is unnerving to traditional publishers. Opening up content – willingly or unwillingly – means a lack of control of that content. And dialing back “control” to mere “participation” is an idea that’s extremely tough for traditional publishers to get comfortable with. For 500 years, publishers have been broadcasting, not conversing.
But the Web is a conversation.
Putting aside my own cranky pants for a moment (they itch and are ill-fitting), there was a good amount that I really enjoyed, too. My favorite sessions (no surprise here) were the sessions that focused on readers and library patrons.
You can see the GoodReads slides here to get a peek at the graphs I tweeted the hell out of. I was so taken with graphs, it was as if I'd never taken a course that required me to draw some.
They paralleled the journey of The Night Circus and Gone Girl on the Goodreads site, examining how it was added to reader's shelves, and what might have caused the activity. The data also looked at where readers hear about books, which I questioned somewhat because some of the methods described on the slide were a medium, and others were a source. For example: I might have heard about a book from an author or another reader – and remember the source – but was it on Facebook? Twitter? A blog post? A comment during a library checkout? The source is more prominent in their results than the medium of communication.
That said, I always dig reader data.
SPEAKING OF, the session I was waiting for was one of the very last: more data from the Library Journal patron survey.
You can watch the video online at the ToC site and download the powerpoint slides if you'd like, but the gist of the data was that, as many of you already know, library borrowing is not a stolen sale. Library patrons buy and borrow. And library usage is increasing as more people lose their local bookstore.
I think it's a good thing that ToC ended with the lovely library data, and that immediately afterward, instead of cogitating and analyzing the conference, I was too busy to think about it for about four or five days. Now that I've come back to it – and it feels like it was a year ago, what with all the last minute traveling. Isn't it funny how traveling rearranges your sense of time? – my perspective is more mellow. It serves me no purpose to get hostile about any hostility toward digital initiatives in publishing. A, it doesn't affect me directly, and B, change is scary and everyone deals with it differently. Ultimately, for my use of books, not much will change, and regardless of any hostility, I will still pursue and buy digital as much as I can.
I'm curious, though, how next year might be different, and whether the resistance to change will be palpable.
You know how, at odd moments, a song will get stuck in your head that you haven't heard for years, and you realize after humming it for two hours that the lyrics are applicable to whatever is bothering you? (I hope I'm not the only one this happens to.) Wednesday afternoon, a Fiona Apple song lodged itself permanently on repeat in my brain, and I didn't think much about it until I heard myself singing the lyrics:
I noticed that my opponent is always on the go, and
Won't go slow so's not to focus
And I notice
He'll hitch a ride with any guide
As long as they go fast from whence he came
but he's no good at being uncomfortable
So he can't stop staying exactly the same.
Putting aside the pretentiousness of including music lyrics (sorry), change is uncomfortable, so I understand the negative reaction to being introduced to lots of tools of change. But that's the name of the conference. It's about possibilities, not the palliative reassurance that everyone's doing fine when they're really not.