Seeking “Aha” at O’Reilly’s Tools of Change Conference

In Digital by Hannah Johnson

By Hannah Johnson

Andrew Savikas at TOC

As the Tools of Change for Publishing conference concluded in New York City on Wednesday, people were looking for that “aha” moment, but not one so jarring that it makes them feel “uh oh” and knocks them out of their comfort zone. Many people in book publishing right now are looking for inspiration: an idea or insight that will give them confidence that they still have the skills and knowledge to succeed in a turbulent and unpredictable marketplace and to do the jobs they were hired to do. If you ask me, that is a tall order for a conference to deliver.

According to Andrew Savikas, Program Chair for the conference, the first day (Monday) had a record number of attendees and overall registration was over 1,250 people. So despite some grumbling at TOC that a few of the presentations were too theoretical or too surface-level, more people than ever came (high expectations in hand).

It was clear from the presentations and audience questions that there are four key issues facing the publishing industry: 1) how to create content for digital AND print consumption; 2) how to organize and distribute that content; 3) how to connect more directly with consumers; and 4) how to innovate business structures and strategies that will enable them to do the first three things.

Tim O’Reilly, in his keynote speech that concluded TOC, said that publishers are not in business to compete in a technology race with other industries, but rather to provide services for authors and readers. Enhanced e-books are nice, but does the market really want them? In order to figure things like that out, publishers first need to ask that question and then they need to connect with their customers.

In a presentation of the results of a BISG survey about consumer e-book preferences, Kelly Gallagher of RR Bowker said that the top three e-book features readers would pay extra for were not video or audio, but rather social media and sharing features. Readers want to interact with their friends and networks through their e-books.

That is good news for publishers because when readers interact with each other, within e-book reading platforms or on social networks, that activity is measurable. Metrics and analytics were another huge topics at TOC, primarily because they allow publishers to find out, in real time, which of their products and services people will buy, and what people are saying about them.

Gone are the days when publishers had near-exclusive access to distribution technology and could dictate the rules of the game. Michael Mace (Rubicon Consulting) said that when 20-30% of readers are primarily using some kind of digital reading device instead of print, it will be more profitable for authors to self-publish e-books than to go through a publisher.

TOCSo what can publishers do? This is where social media marketing and community building comes in. Tim O’Reilly spoke about the idea that as a community grows, the number of influential people shrinks. In a room of 20 people, everyone has time to listen to everyone. In a room of 10,000 people, you can only listen to a few. Publishers can be one of the few voices that help people decide which books to read.

But Dale Dougherty, co-founder of O’Reilly Media and publisher of Make magazine, cautions that the people on Twitter and Facebook are not there to interact with a brand. They are talking about what matters to them. The best thing a brand can do within an existing community (romance readers on Twitter, for example) is to “amplify and magnify what the network is doing.” This doesn’t mean you have to have more followers than Ashton Kutcher or Tim O’Reilly to be an effective and valuable member of a social network. It means you have to find the people who care about your books, and care about them back.

This is all great advice from people who have thought long and hard about publishing, but maybe none of this applies directly to you; none of it pumps up your profit margins, sells more books or gets you 10,000 Twitter followers. Well, none of these speakers at TOC had their solutions handed to them on a silver platter. Instead they acted on their ideas, and have made those ideas work within their own businesses

So for me, the “aha” moment at TOC was realizing that you can listen to presentations and keynote speeches for three days in a row, but the ultimate innovations happen when you step outside your comfort zone, act on the ideas that you think will work, and stop accepting that book publishing is in decline.

Hannah Johnson is the Deputy Publisher of Publishing Perspectives.

WATCH: Videos of keynote speeches and speaker interviews from TOC

DISCUSS: What did you learn at TOC?

About the Author

Hannah Johnson


Hannah Johnson is the publisher of international book industry magazine Publishing Perspectives, which provides daily information and news about book markets around the world. In addition to building partnerships with international cultural and trade organizations, she works with the Frankfurt Book Fair to organize and support a number of its overseas initiatives. Hannah has also worked as the managing editor for an online media company, The Hooch Life, focused on craft distillers and cocktail experts. Prior to that, she worked as a project manager for the Frankfurt Book Fair’s New York office, managing various business and marketing activities.