For the first time in three years, Tim O’Reilly stood on stage and addressed Tools of Change, the conference he started seven years ago, kicking off the show with a keynote talk that offered attendees some perspective on how far digital publishing has come, along with a healthy dose of optimism for where it’s heading. “When I started my activism around publishing it was back in the days when peer-to-peer first appeared on the scene and everybody was terrified,” he told attendees. “We’ve come a long way since then.”

No publishing conference does futurism like Tools of Change, and throughout the morning keynote session, embracing the future was a constant theme. O’Reilly’s talk was followed by Brian David Johnson, a sci-fi author and “futurist” with Intel Corporation who predicted that the by 2020, with the way chips are increasing in power and decreasing in size, technologists we will be able to turn anything into a computer. But to change the future, he posited, you have to first change “the story people tell themselves about what the future will be.”

Johnson’s futurism was followed by two presentations about current technology now changing the market: Matt MacInnis, detailed the public launch of Inkling Habitat, a free multimedia authoring platform that allows publishers to create multimedia-enriched digital content and distribute it through major e-tailers. And John Wheeler, SPi Global discussed the transition to HTML5 (EPUB), and the current complications in the e-book world due to a range of proprietary platforms. The morning keynotes ended with a chat between Johnson, author Cory Doctorow, and media scholar Henry Jenkins.

But it was O’Reilly’s talk that set the tone for the conference, as he took stock of the industry’s current state, and reminded publishers not to forget why they do what they do. “Why are we here?” O’Reilly asked. “It’s not to make our fortune. There are certainly some people who have forgotten that. But I like to say that making money is like putting gas in the car. You know you need to do it, but life is not a tour of gas stations.”

There has been much concern about “business models,” he noted, and whether publishing would survive. But readers and writers are doing fine, and rather than focusing on how to keep a business model alive, what he hoped ToC attendees were looking for is “the truth about the future of publishing,” and “figuring out how to make the right futures happen."

“We have to remember what publishing is really about, what writing is really about,” he said. “I started writing books and then publishing them for other people because there were problems I wanted to solve. We still have a job to do. And that job to educate, and to entertain and to figure out how to gather the knowledge of the world and share it with other people.” O’Reilly’s message: work on stuff that matters.

Among his reasons for optimism: a measure of sense coming into the copyright debates; a fear of the future that seems to be abating; that e-book sales have now become meaningful, surpassing hardcover book sales, but that after years of decline print sales also appear to be stabilizing; and, then, there is the author John Green, who O’Reilly called a “cross-media” star.

Not every author can be a John Green of course, but Green’s mastery of many platforms, and his embrace of the Internet, live performance, as well as traditional books offers a critical lesson. “If you’re a publisher, and all you think about are books and e-books, you may be missing something,” O’Reilly said, “because, the footprint that you need to have online is bigger than just the book.”

The Tools of Change conference wraps up this afternoon. You can watch the keynotes on the web here.