O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change conference returned to New York with a typically high profile slate of publishing innovation driven by technology and a new vision of just what publishing can mean. This year’s TOC kicked off with an inspirational keynote by actor, director and now digital entrepreneur, LeVar Burton, before turning quickly to the big issues surrounding libraries and e-book lending and a new and breathtaking vision of independent bookselling.
Burton, who is heading a startup multimedia children’s publishing venture called RRKidz that is based on his work hosting PBS’s Reading Rainbow program for many years, delivered an inspirational keynote speech focused on the role of reading—in particular science fiction—in his own life. Describing the impact of the science fiction—what he called the power of “what if” —Burton said the genre offered him “a process of imagining a world we’d like to see and explore," emphasizing that reading was an “elemental” force in his home growing up.
In the wake of Penguin withdrawing its e-books from library lending, Library Journal’s Barbara Genco wasted no time in getting right to the point during her presentation, “Public Library Power Patrons Are Your Best Customers,” pointing out to publishers that, “the library market is a large sleeping giant.” She said there are 9,000 public libraries across the nation with more than 16,600 locations and 169 million users. In 2011, public libraries spent $983 million on books and $72 million on e-books (82% of these libraries offer e-books). Her point was that libraries cultivate readers who are book buyers, focusing in particular on what she called the “power patron,” that visits the local library at least once a week. The data came from an ongoing quarterly study of library patrons (2,000 in this survey) conducted in collaboration with PubTrack Consumer panel.
While Genco’s presentation looked at the “voracious” media consumption of all library users, she singled out the power patrons for leading the way. “They buy print books and e-books and read across all platforms from print to audiobooks,” she said. She challenged the need for “friction” in library e-book lending—print publisher are wary of wireless e-book lending because it seems easier than going out to buy a book and may undermine sales—calling it a “misplaced concern.” Libraries, she admonished publishers, are "discovery zones for reading and proven marketing engines for content. Friction is fiction, libraries have money to spend and are ubiquitous.”
A little later in the day, the panel The Library Alternative, covered much the same ground with a panel that included moderator Peter Brantley, director of the BookServer Project at the Internet Archive and a PW blogger on libraries, and PW senior editor Andrew Albanese. Once again the panel was responding both to the specific instance of the Penguin/OverDrive situation as well as the larger issues of library e-book lending and the continuing clash between publishers and libraries over this. Brantley called Penguin’s halting of sales of e-books to libraries as a “move backwards,” and a “swift kick” to libraries and librarians, who are starting to see themselves as “collateral damage in a war between publishers and others,” referring to Amazon’s alleged role in the OverDrive/Penguin impasse. (Earlier at her presentation, Genco said one library lost 3,000 e-books when Penguin severed its ties with OverDrive.) He even suggested that there is some discussion going on among library figures about “class action lawsuits,” noting that “the American public doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for large foreign-owned media conglomerates.”
Still, the panel discussion really focused on the ways that both book publishing and libraries are changing and how to the two sides can help each other. While Albanese said that big publishers are “out to slow the popularity of e-books,” he also emphasized that “it’s a scary time for publishers,” noting that “the publishing business is in a state of flux,” driven by foces “from outside the traditional book industry.”
But the panel also noted that there are other important issues in the library marketplace, including the need for a “robust competitor to OverDrive,” according to Micah May of NYPL. Waterstone’s founder Tim Coates, who now runs Bilbary.com, a U.K.-based e-book retail and lending site that has aggregated more than 750,000 e-book titles and is set for launch in March, emphasized that “in the U.S. twice as many books are borrowed rather than bought,” and that “publishers need reader data and libraries have it.” Though he ended his presentation noting that “publishers need libraries a lot more than libraries need publishers.”
Probably the most startling presentation of the day was “Kepler 2020,” a look at the efforts to transform the iconic independent bookstores into a new wave community owned bookstore that will embrace technology and a fairly breathtaking slate of new initiatives. Among them: split the store into for-profit sales and non-profit cultural foundation entities; diversify beyond the sale of print books to include services, subscriptions, memberships and corporate sponsorships, and aggressively adopt technology, including digital e-readers and e-books, perhaps even giveaway Kindles and Nooks!
Of course these are plans and talking points and a long way from being implemented. Indeed while the presentation was fascinating, the session seemed to be an afterthought and was held in a tiny room that could barely hold the attendees. But Praveen Maden, owner of Ghe Booksmith and who is heading up the drive to remake Kepler's, was notable for an ability to embrace possibilities that are generally considered anathema to most indie booksellers. On showrooming—the practice of people going to stores to compare prices before buying online—he said, “no more price comparison guilt. We’re a showroom and it’s Ok. It’s more important to have a relationship with the customer rather than judge them. They may want to buy another book from you in the future.” He said the Google eBooks indie bookselling program, “is difficult to use. Maybe we should be partnering with Amazon,” which brought a small gasp from a few people in the audience. “Amazon, e-books and self-publishing are not going away,” he said.
Madan even cited the publicly owned Green Bay Packers and the cooperative retailer REI as models for community bookstores. He called for software developers to create new back office systems that better reflect how publishing and bookselling are managed today. “Publishers are not the innovators right now, they are being dragged into the new era,” Maden said. “The publisher/bookseller interface is broken. Back office operations suck time and life out of booksellers. We need a new open source technology platform for running the community bookstore of today.”