O’Reilly has been publishing books since 1986, but I’ve often said that we consider ourselves more of a technology transfer company than a typical publisher. Twenty years after our first book, Unix in a Nutshell, we realized that the insights and connections we’d garnered through our unique position at the intersection of computer technology and publishing could be useful to other publishers, and we launched TOC, the Tools of Change for Publishing Conference. Now, after seven years of convening the industry, we are retiring both the TOC conference and the TOC blog.
The decision to discontinue a popular conference was not one we made lightly. But after TOC 2013, we realized that a conference was no longer the best vehicle for us to contribute to publishing’s forward movement. When we first announced TOC, I said:
“Publishing isn’t about putting ink on paper, and moving blocks of said paper through warehouses to readers. It’s about knowledge dissemination, learning, entertainment, codification of subject authority — the real jobs that authors and publishers do for readers… Our goal is to bring together people who are pushing the boundaries of publishing and those who want to learn from them, and to provide a table of contents (TOC), so to speak, on what modern publishers need to know.”
Seven years on, “digital publishing” is well on its way to simply being “publishing,” and options for both publishers and readers continue to evolve and expand. Publishers are significantly more change-hardy than they were in 2006. And there are plenty of other events that are helping publishers keep up with new technology offerings in the space.
This doesn’t mean that O’Reilly is no longer committed to pushing forward the reinvention of the publishing industry. But we’re shifting the focus of our publishing tools group from hosting the conversation about publishing technology to bringing our own tools to market.
We’ve been developers of publishing technology since the days we first started publishing. In the “scratch your own itch” spirit of the open source movement, we co-created DocBook in the early ’90s, published the first commercial web magazine, GNN (initially developed as a demo to help bookstores grok the Internet!) in 1993, and launched Safari Books Online in 2000. And we’ve used the internal production toolchain we built over the years to create a digital distribution business that now provides DRM-free ebooks in multiple formats not only from O’Reilly but also from Microsoft Press, Wiley, Elsevier, No Starch, and many other technical publishers.
For the past few years, we’ve been focusing on development of a platform code-named Atlas, and bringing that to fruition is central to our future plans. Atlas is a tool for collaborative writing (currently being used by authors of about two-thirds of the books in our pipeline), one-touch publishing in all formats (including print-on-demand), and an interactive online reading platform that takes full advantage of the digital realm. We believe it takes a big step towards fulfilling the promise of digital publishing. You’ll be hearing much more about Atlas in the coming months.
TOC was a great ride, and we’ll miss many things about that annual gathering of the future-positive publishing community. Ideas and connections from TOC will continue to inform our work and, we hope, yours. I especially want to thank TOC program chairs Kat Meyer and Joe Wikert for the passion, creativity, and commitment they brought to their work. I wish them well, and am confident that they’ll continue to help shape the publishing industry’s future.
Mobile retail access is a vital part of an overarching brand experience
It wasn’t one of my proudest moments when, a week before Christmas last year, I was hunched over my smartphone towards the back of the famous Hamley’s Toy Store on London’s Regent Street, composure tethered to an elusive bar of 3G network. The thing was, that bar had been easier to find in-store than the toy I planned on presenting my nephew with for Christmas. When I placed my order on Amazon with a plethora of merchandise within arm’s length, a nagging sense of irony did not escape me – nor did a whole new understanding of retail pain points. To be fair, Christmas shopping in a metropolitan area probably blasts through higher-than-average pain thresholds.
The publishing industry is like a doctor who ignores their own advice
Perhaps you’ve also wondered why the publishing industry produces and distributes all the major climate science information available but doesn’t read it. If it did, publishing could become the standard bearer for global reduction of carbon footprints. This business challenge and its opportunities for growth would benefit everyone.
Publishing, even in its unique position of having catalogues of books and journals detailing the dangers as well as the solutions of climate change, seems impervious to what it produces. As to why, we can ignore that question for now. The world can’t wait for our soul searching. But simply stated, how we produce all books has been separated from what we produce. Therefore we’re not prepared to take our own advice.
Attention is the ultimate currency and the only commodity that matters
As an industry I think we’re getting weary of all the various “rich content” experiments and products floating around these days. I have to admit that most make me want to yawn and move on to the next item in my email inbox. Too many of them feel like a Frankenstein project where elements are grafted onto a traditional book and there’s a giant bolt sticking out of the neck.
Will the ebook transition span an entire generation?
My favorite number at the first TOC buchreport in Berlin on April 23rd was 20, as in 20% of the 2.4 million ebook buyers in Germany in 2012 had not bought any books in the previous twelve months, according to GfK, as quoted by Carel Weltbild, CEO of Weltbild, the second largest book chain and online platform for books in the country.
It was a long day, packed with panel debates and keynotes, with discussion topics ranging from ebook strategies in large- and medium-sized houses as well as newly-launched ventures, to author/publisher relationships to big data analysis in publishing, to lessons learned from the music industry. Yet in every detail the focus was (for once) not on some English language case studies but on the local German market.
In screens vs paper, paper may have an edge; Churnalism US launches; and a chef takes cookbook publishing matters into his own hands.
Digital vs paper: ink on paper may still have the advantage
In a recent edition of Scientific American, Ferris Jabr took a look at how technology is affecting the way we read and the differences between reading on screens and reading on paper. Jabr says that though many studies have been conducted across many fields since the 1980s, the matter of digital versus paper is far from settled. Still, he notes, there is compelling “evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports” that shows a notable difference in the tactile experience of reading on screens versus paper that leads to navigational difficulties when reading lengthy texts, which may in turn have negative effects on comprehension. There’s also evidence, he says, that reading on screens may be more taxing on our mental resources, making retention a bit more difficult.
A classic text provides some helpful and timeless advice
I know from talking to many of my clients that most have read Jim Collins’ book ‘Good to Great’. I have also been inspired by his research into what makes great companies great. Many of you will recall an article I wrote on applying the lessons of Jim’s more recent book ‘Great by Choice’ to publishing. Thus inspired I recently read his earlier book ‘Good to Great’ for the first time.
In ‘Good to Great’, Collins and his research team discovered that the great companies didn’t ask what product or which strategy first. They instead asked who. Who do we need on our (company) bus for a successful business journey? Company owners Hewlett and Packard, for instance, consciously built their future by hiring outstanding people even before they knew what they’d be making or what direction they’d be driving. Whenever they found these people they hired them even without a specific job in mind. Hewlett Packard became one of the great American success stories and outperformed the stock market by many times. They were one of many cases that emphasized having the right people is the most important element for an organization to achieve greatness.
Your direct channel needs to extend well beyond the English language
O’Reilly has long been a leader in fostering community and building a direct sales channel. This week we took the next step in enhancing the customer’s direct buying experience by offering German editions for many of our ebook titles. Take a close look at the bottom of this screen shot: