Still buzzing from author Margaret Atwood’s keynote presentation, O’Reilly’s Tools of Change conference spent the rest of Tuesday doing what it does best: offering up a slate of presentations crowded with knowledgeable professionals. Tuesday’s panels featured a lineup of chief technology officers from O’Reilly, HarperCollins, and Reed-Elsevier discussing the future of e-books; a slate of booksellers offering the best ways to sell them; and a much anticipated evening keynote offering a “Unified Field Theory of Publishing,” from consultant Brian O’Leary.

Atwood’s presentation, “The Publishing Pie: An Author’s View,” was certainly the talk of the show. Atwood combined her own delightful cartoon illustrations with a wry analysis and humor—her comparison of the many life forms feeding off a dead moose in the forest with the publishing life forms that feed off dead writers has to be an instant comic classic—in a presentation that seemed to put the whole publishing life cycle, from writing the manuscript to social media, in thoughtful but humorous perspective.

Atwood took the time to look backwards as well as forward in time, using informal language and clever cartoons to offer her own theory of publishing and the proliferation of digital tools available for publishing today. Using an image of a sharp knife, Atwood said that publishing tools have three sides, the good-sharp side, the bad-dull side and “the stupid side: the side you didn’t anticipate and whose consequences you didn’t intend.” This is probably a good way to view not only the transformation of publishing in the digital era but TOC itself.

This is not to say that TOC has a stupid side, but that this gathering of digital professionals may be just as useful for serendipitous and ad hoc meetups and unanticipated professional encounters as it is for its formal presentations. Even in a field that’s changing as fast as publishing is these days, formal presentations can seem to be repeating material and exhortations we’ve heard over and over again. Conference co-chair Andrew Savikas alluded to this effect during our own informal encounter just outside the big ballrooms, an intersection of sorts that has become a kind of TOC public square, teeming with hyper-wired professional attendees networking, chatting, connecting in one way or another or taking a break from presentations. Asked if digital conferences—there seem to be at least one a month in New York nowadays—so close together have any new information to offer to their audiences, Savikas said, yes, of course, but also took note of the crush of people like ourselves, loitering outside the presentation halls and said that might be one of TOC's not-so-secret highlights.

Of course the presentations themselves can’t be ignored. I spent Monday afternoon listening to Angela James, editorial director of Carina Press, Harlequin’s e-book publishing imprint, and Harlequin manager of digital content Jenny Bullough give a blow-by-blow account of how to start a digital business within a traditional publishing house, in this case a romance publisher. James has given this presentation many times, which means she and Bullough can deliver a well-organized, detailed blueprint for how to launch an in-house digital startup. They covered everything from why to do so (good for responding quickly to trends in genre fiction, a fast-changing market), the need to fairly radically restructure royalty accounting, metadata, and revamp contracts. Carina Press (“digital-first, print-maybe,” in James’s description) does not offer advances, offers higher royalties (30% on books sold via the CP website; 15% on titles sold through third party retailers) and seven-year contracts with a longer copyright license and an out-of-print (yes, even for digital) reversion clause. Last year CP published 100 e-books in six months, and four of those titles will be released as print books through Harlequin in 2011. Other than James, the whole outfit is freelance (13 editors; nine copyeditors, and assorted freelance cover artists and production folk) along with a strategic input and support from Harlequin staff, which has enormous digital experience.

Tuesday’s lineup featured O’Reilly Media’s Savikas, Rich Rothstein of HarperCollins, and Reed Elsevier’s Bill Godfrey on a CTO panel (moderated by Google's Abe Murray) that offered an impressive array—these guys are the cleanup hitters of corporate technology policy—if not necessarily a lot of new information. The discussion ranged over familiar e-book and app territory—ambivalence about enhanced e-book content like video and audio; DRM or lack of it; the ability of apps to generate data on usage (for the first time I heard privacy concerns mentioned about this feature); and the longterm advantage book content may have over, say, magazine or newspaper content.

It was much the same at the Bookselling in the 21st Century, an all-star panel featuring Harlequin publisher/retailer Malle Vallik, Brooklyn booksellers Jessica Stockton-Bagnulo of Greenlight Books and Jenn Northington of Word, and e-book retailer Lori James of For the most part the panel featured familiar exhortations—build community, get complete metadata, use social media, hold events and offer giveaways, get names—coupled with a few useful insights. But you can’t put this many interesting and capable people together and not come away with something helpful. Greenlight and Word are both e-book sellers through ABA’s Indie-Bound e-commerce venture and now through Google eBooks. Word “sold more e-books the day Google eBooks went live than we sold all year. It’s a big shift for us,” said Northington. Indeed, it was beneficial to see how small retailers view today's competitive bookselling landscape. Northington and Stockton-Bagnulo said they didn’t see big online retailers like Amazon and B&N as competition. “We’re not in the same game,” said Northington; while Stockton-Bagnulo said, “we offer things Amazon cannot; like you can meet your friends at our store or get a book signed. People don’t come to us necessarily because they need a book, and it's not about being the cheapest place to buy a book,” she joked. “If it was just about the price, you’d never go to a bar to buy a drink.”

Tuesday’s TOC program closed with a keynote presentation by publishing consultant Brian O’Leary (probably best known for overseeing an ongoing study on digital piracy) called “Context First: A Unified Field Theory of Publishing,” that new media folk on my Twitter feed have been buzzing about since he first presented the paper at the Books In Browsers conference last fall. At the risk of oversimplifying a very thoughtful theoretical vision of what publishing will or should be, it seemed to me he tried to outline the need for a publisher shift from a “container-first model,” i.e., an industry geared to focus on physical books, to a “context-first” digitally-focused model, a model that by its very nature will produce content prominently tagged and coded for easy and immediate discovery online, unlike the physical book. It’s a model O’Leary expects to dominate the newly emerging era of the “born-digital”—both the new generation of digital consumers and the digital-first ventures launched to serve their needs.

In an interesting convergence, the day's events were bookended by O’Leary’s presentation and Atwood’s, both offering a broad overview of a publishing industry in transition. Each presentation was enhanced by clever illustrations (O’Leary’s were done by his son, Frank; Atwood did her own), and hard-won and practical knowledge of how to make publishing work, more or less. To quote O’Leary (and Atwood, a traditional author who seems quite at home with social media and the rest of the digital toolbox, might agree): “it’s a time of remarkable opportunity in publishing. It’s a challenge preparing for a new world and what we decide will determine what stories are told and who will tell them.“