O’Reilly Media’s annual Tools of Change for Publishing conference finished its seventh year doing what it does best—highlighting trends, identifying new businesses and startups looking to offer books and other content to a global market of readers in new ways, while also trying to offer a broad perspective on an industry in the midst of a “disruptive” transition from print to digital.

First, the new ventures. Introduced as part of its Publishing Startup Showcase, the new companies offered a glimpse into new platforms for delivering content—often dynamic content targeting specific users’ needs. Among this year’s winners were Paperight. Founded by Arthur Attwell, Paperight essentially turns copy shops into POD-driven bookstores, providing an online platform for the shops to print out legal copies of books. The copy shops can register at Paperight.com, establish an account that allows them to pay for rights and the books via Paperight. Paperight does the negotiating with publishers for the rights to the files. Attwell said the company has about 145 outlets in South Africa (he usually approaches copy shop chains to get the broadest reach), deals with about 40 publishers and intends to move into the global market. “We designed Paperight to be an international business,” he said.

Founded by Daniel Fountenberry, Borne Digital creates “adaptive e-books,” or educational e-books and software for kids “that have multiple levels” of difficulty. Winner of the Publishing Startup Showcase’s “People’s Choice” award, Borne Digital offers teachers and parents the ability to provide a single book to children of very different reading skills and to change those levels with a click. Fountenberry told PW that Borne Digital’s e-books eliminate the stigma of “leveled” titles that may embarrass children and their parents; and the interactive e-books also offer assessment, sending the children quizzes and new information to help build their reading skills and “show the child’s relationship to Common Core standards.”

Also among the Publishing Startup Showcase was Book Machine— a social media–driven professional skills exchange that mixes socializing with a database that can connect freelance professionals with publishers looking for their skills. Founded by Laura Austin and Gavin Summers in the U.K., the venture is branching out to New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, throwing cocktail parties that also serve as a magnet for professional meetups. The site is still in beta but attracted about 2,500 people to sign up and has several hundred in its database, BookMachine.Me, with more to come.

O’Reilly Steps Up

A commanding overview and industry perspective was provided by Tim O’Reilly, CEO of O’Reilly Media and founding father of ToC, who offered an aggressively optimistic response to the state of publishing over the last decade in a keynote speech that opened the conference. Titled “Some Reasons for Optimism,” O’Reilly’s presentation surveyed the book industry’s biggest fears about the ongoing transition to digital delivery—from the disintermediation of major publishers to digital piracy. O’Reilly concluded that the industry is getting over its “fear” of a digital future.

Citing his own landmark 2002 essay on digital piracy, “Piracy Is Progressive Taxation,” in which he outlined a central tenet of the new digital economy—“obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy”—O’Reilly delivered a well documented, “I told you so,” to the publishing industry. A decade after his essay, the state of publishing is strong, according to O’Reilly, and getting stronger. He cited the motion picture industry’s fears over the VCR: “It didn’t kill cinema; movie studio revenues are strong but they’re still complaining,” and he offered charts showing “print sales have stabilized.”

“People still love reading and they love to share,” he said, and while there remains fear about the potential loss of physical bookstores, O’Reilly said, “there are now new methods of book discovery, and authors and publishers know how to build communities online.” Certainly, part of the reason O’Reilly feels so optimistic is the ability nowadays to share content so easily in the digital environment. In a separate discussion between digital authors Cory Doctorow, Henry Jenkins, and Brian David Johnson focused on the impact of sharing on their work— pointing to the rise of the social media-driven YouTube star. O’Reilly pointed specifically to the success of John and Hank Green, the brother author-and-musician team that has taken its social media act on the road, selling huge numbers of books as well as selling out Carnegie Hall.

Economist Joshua Gans, author of Information Wants to Be Shared (Harvard Business Review), gave a presentation at TOC of the same name that provided one of the most elegant arguments in support both of O’Reilly’s optimism and the power of sharing. Gans made the point that books started out as shared goods that had to be accessed mostly though libraries. Information, he said, does not necessarily want to be free, it wants to be shared. Indeed, while free is a part of sharing, it’s not the only way to share. Gans argued that people buy books for two reasons: they want to read them and they want to put them on display for everyone to see. But as we all know, “most books,” he said, “are not being read”—they’re stacked in offices on desks and on shelves in our homes and offices. The rise of digital publishing creates a problem with display, eliminating it to some degree as a way to drive book sales. “Digitization has removed the element of display and made books purely just for reading,” he said. “Now, publishers must really compete for the attention of the reader.”

Gans believes this scenario—the need for public attention to drive demand for books—engenders new business models based on “access rather than ownership,” and that, going forward, the ability of a friend to freely alert other friends to content he or she thinks is important will become more important to selling books. Publishing, he suggested, has returned to its roots of shared content and shared funding via subscription models that also offer the ability to track how content is used and to charge accordingly.

In his keynote, O’Reilly urged publishers and authors to just “work on stuff that matters,” and said “fear of the future is fading.” He urged publishers to get back to the job of “figuring out how to gather the knowledge of the world and share it with other people.”