Over the last five years, Tools of Change Conference keynote talks have become known for their technology cheerleading. But at this year’s event, attendees also got a measured--and entertaining--perspective from award-winning Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood, who praised the enthusiasm of the conference, but confessed she had a somewhat different perspective on the state of writing and publishing in the digital age. “Technology is a tool,“ Atwood observed. “The tools are changing. But change is not always good. Sorry to tell you that.” As the audience chuckled, Atwood went on to explain that “tools have a sharp side, the upside, a dull side, the downside, and a stupid side, the side you didn’t anticipate and the consequence you didn’t intend." A hammer, she noted, is a tool. "You can use it to build a house, or murder your neighbor. Or you can hit your thumb."
Amid the usually tech-oriented publishing talks, the audience welcomed Atwood like a breath of literary fresh air. But, unlike another acclaimed literary giant, John Updike, who famously railed against technology, the end of authorship, and implored booksellers “to defend their lonely forts” at BEA in 2006, the bestselling Atwood was humorous and insightful, and did not take issue with the culture of technology, but with the economic uncertainty the digital transition is causing for authors and publishers. “If [the publishing] industry is dying, will authors die too?” she asked. “From the point of view of an author, if the future of the Internet is free, who is going to pay for the cheese sandwiches on which authors are known to subsist?“
Atwood then pushed for better digital royalty rates, citing an Authors Guild post on the matter. “The author’s slice of the publishing pie is becoming smaller. Authors make less per e-book than paper books. Here’s a helpful industry hint,” Atwood then offered. “Never eliminate your primary source.” She showed the audience a hand-drawn picture of a dead moose, noting that a dead moose feeds a broad ecosystem of life. Then, she showed a hand-drawn picture of a dead author, to audience laughter. “Although dead authors can be lucrative,” she said, “No authors, no books.”
Questioning how writers will be able to “buy the time” to write in the future, Atwood noted that only about 10% of writers now make a “cheese-sandwich” subsistence level living as full-time writers, and doing so with a smaller piece of the pie seemed untenable. In addition, writing was no longer a writer’s only job. “Authors must now Tweet, Blog, and Facebook,” she noted. “If we’re expected to do all this other work, we should the get more of the pie.”
Throughout her talk, Atwood charmed the crowd with her hand-drawn images, including her own first book of poetry, which she created when she was six years old. Emphasizing her thoughts on technology as a tool, she closed by noting that the drawings were made with a Sharpie, and the PowerPoint slides made with the help of a digital camera. But people, she insisted, still crave authenticity, and the “age of relics is not over.” While the drawings she showed were just PowerPoint slides, “what are the originals worth?” she asked. “And what if they are signed?” she added, ending her talk by signing her name to a slide, in a nod to her famous “virtual” book signing. Later, she tweeted: “Had way too much fun at #TOC this morning. Had to take nap afterwards. TX for the Tweetorama, #TOC T-Pals who were there!”
Atwood was the third morning keynote speaker, following Theodore Gray, who detailed the creation of The Elements book and a hugely popular iPad app, and Ingram's Skip Prichard. Gray worked with his partners at Wolfram Research (which his co-founded) to develop the app using database templates in 60 days, and has been a bestselling product. Gray told attendees that there are three essential components to producing e-book titles: An author who can tell a good story, which publishers understand; programmers, who can turn this story into something great, which tech companies get; and producers, who can produce compelling video.
Prichard followed Gray, and delivered the humorous and upbeat message conference-goers have come to expect from him. He began by offering a sampling of past predictions that have proven wrong over decades of innovation, suggesting publishers re-tool their organizations to adapt quickly to changing market demands. He later told an anecdote about Desert Storm general Norman Schwarzkopf, who one day watched three soldiers fire a Howitzer cannon, after which one of the soldiers would run back 30 feet. When he asked why the soldier did that, he was told "standard operating procedure." Pressing for an answer, the general discovered the practice of running back 30 feet began in the Civil War, when one soldier needed to run back to make sure the horses did not run away at the sound of the cannon fire. The practice had been built into the training models.
"Our industry is facing the most sweeping changes changes we have ever faced," he said "What are we doing today that doesn’t make sense any more? How many times a day to do you find yourself running back to grab horses?" Prichard urged publishers to boldly try new things, and to "fail quickly." He closed with another anecdote. "In Africa it is said a gazelle wakes up every day and knows it must run faster than the fastest lion if it is to survive. A lion wakes up knowing it needs to run faster that the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. Lion or gazelle," Prichard said, "When sun comes up, you better be running."