Nerd Alert: Tools of Change Confab Addresses a Publishing Industry in Flux

In Digital by Edward Nawotka

“Sometimes it’s okay to make headlines, and sometimes its important to stop reading them.” — Peter Hildick-Smith, President of Codex-Group, discussing book industry prognostication.

By Publishing Perspectives staff

NEW YORK: There’s a feeling of déjà vu at the Tools of Change conference here in New York City. Not only are we once again at Sheraton Hotel and Towers — site of Digital Book World less than a month ago — but several of the speakers and topics overlap. That said, there are differences between the two events. As one publishing technologist put it to me, “DBW is for publishers who need to figure out technology; TOC is for technologists who need to figure out publishing.”

That is only partially true — there are plenty of publishers here as well, though with a stronger focus on STM, education and academic publishing. Undeniably, there is a higher “geek factor.” People are much more likely to be more focused on the merits of Joomla and Drupal (content management systems) and other acronyms — UX (user experience) anyone? — than the latest bestseller, or even how the New York Times calculates its e-book bestseller list.

TOC CTO Panelists

Andrew Savikas (O

If there was a big “take away” from day one — you know, an easily digestible nugget of useful information — it is, in the word’s of Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media, it’s that “the container is an option.” Or, to put that in English, it’s that the form of the book is no longer bound by the traditional constraints of paper, ink and glue, or even electrically charged dots on a screen . . .

The book is perhaps now best defined as an idea. In the same way publishing itself no longer refers exclusively to print, but to apps, e-books, games, social media feeds, and all other manner of content delivery systems.

The proliferation of technology and book conferences is symptom of the ongoing flux of the industry. In a panel session with cumbersome title “eReading Survey Findings and Research: A Look Behind the Numbers,” Kelly Gallagher, VP of Publishing Services at RR Bowker, noted that things change so rapidly that predictions looking beyond a year are all-but futile.

This is perhaps the one reason that conferences are useful: they offer a way of taking the temperature of the industry. My diagnosis is that the business is a little bit clammy — but it’s no longer feverish, and far from the life threatening state it was in several years ago.

Yes, people here have been following the news about the  Borders bankruptcy — and there is a small degree of unsettling and inappropriate triumphalism amongst some of the technologists — but people are less concerned with the present than the future: they want to know what the next “container” for content might look like and how it will be sold. Will it be interactive, customizable, cost effective . . . profitable, even. And, above all, will readers want it?

There are no answers. So, in order to give you a sense of the goings on at this year’s TOC conference, we at Publishing Perspectives spread out across the show and here submit a few quick snapshots of panels and conversations.

PANEL: Data-Driven Marketing Helps Transition from B2B to B2C

One of the big buzz words in publishing right now is “consumer data”. As publishers continue the transition to a digitally-driven model, they can also begin to collect and track consumer data, and therefore to understand the needs and behavior of their customers.

At the session “Data-driven Marketing and Product Development, Emily Sawtell (McGraw-Hill) and Brett Sandusky (Kaplan) spoke about ways publishers can utilize digital data collection and analysis to improve marketing and sales campaigns.

One of the first steps, Sandusky said, was to build into your products ways to collect data. These options can include trackable links, email marketing tools and web analytics. This way publishers can begin collecting data about their customers that they can then use as a basis for designing and executing future marketing and sales campaigns. For example, Kaplan offered free e-book downloads for two weeks. In the first campaign, they received feedback about usability issues surrounding e-book formats. For the second campaign, Kaplan added format instructions and device-specific download links.

Sawtell said that one of the challenges in higher-ed publishing is to figure out exactly who the customer is. The “paying customer” is often the educational institution, but end users need to be considered customers as well. Depending on the product a publishers develops and where they sell that product, the customer changes. Perhaps the primary textbooks are paid for by institutions, but the study guides and supplementary content can be sold to students. Knowing the differences between customer groups and the platforms they use can also influence how publishers market and sell their products.

PANEL: Publisher CTOs: The Future of E-book Technology

If anyone should have a sense of what the future of reading might look like it was this panel. When the panel was asked what would be very high on their wish list for the industry if they could wish for anything. They all agreed that a powerful open industry standard which renders on all devices is needed for — EPUB 3 could be that standard. Amazon should adopt it as well. Panelists also agreed that publishers need to get closer to customers and increase the user experience across all channels and devices. Though coding, tagging and categorizing content is getting smarter, the enriched and more interactive content demands a much stronger emphasis on user centric design.

PANEL: Introducing nextPub, Bringing Complex Content to the eReader Channel:

One of the biggest problems with digitizing content when going from a print product to a digital version is that the format and layout isn’t the same for all channels and devices. EPUB 2 works well for books because they are able to design once and usually that format will work for all devices and tablets because it is predominantly text. For magazines and heavily designed books, they use InDesign to layout the print magazine and then have to design and layout for each subsequent format and device. NextPUB is a product of IDEAlliance, which is hoping to help reorganize workflow and provide an environment where technologists and publishers can come together to solve these problems for how to digitize this content in a way that is still delightful to the reader’s eye and less time-consuming to the publishers.

PANEL: Can You Afford Not to Consider Accessible Publishing Practices?

America alone has 54 million disabled people with a disposable spending power of $220 billion, and, up to now, that is a relatively untapped audience of readers. Dave Gunn and the Royal National Institute for Blind People have come up with a collection of e-book guidance items that will help publishers tap into this audience. From providing alternative text for illustrations to checking the reading order of your document to enabling text to speech, there are a number of simple fixes that publishers can do to help provide their content to people of all reading capabilities. I recently spoke with a friend of mine who is a big reader and her son, who is severely dyslexic, wants to read so badly but struggles tremendously. He is among the people that would be helped by publishers working with the new technological advances that digital publishing allows. Check out more information on (.doc download).

PANEL: Is There Such a Thing as a Good Business Model for Publishing These Days?

John Oakes of OR Books explained his company’s approach to publishing, which we’ve covered in the past and operates as a direct to consumer model — which you can read more about here on Publishing Perspectives. Oakes emphasized that he doesn’t make a distinction between print and digital and that he doesn’t understand why the Big Six publishers do. It’s something he views as a mistake and a hindrance. Oakes struck a curious note when he said that while most authors have to beg to get publishers even to pay “$200 for marketing,” he’s run into a case where agents have to limit the amount of money OR spends on marketing. The reason: because the publishing arrangement is a rev share, where authors are paid an advance against earnings, but they run into a situation where the expenses need to be covered and the more OR spends on marketing, the more money needs to be earned before all the expenses are covered — of course, naturally, the more money spent on marketing leads to more sales — so a balance must ultimately be struck.

— Ed Nawotka, Hannah Johnson, Erin Cox and Thomas Minkus

DISCUSS: What Would You Do to Save Borders?

CLARIFICATION: The final section of the article was amended clarify comments made by John Oakes.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.