The first annual O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing conference brought together a little more than 400 digital and book publishing professionals for three days of intensive and often entertaining projections about the future of publishing in the digital era—not to mention the future form of the book itself. By and large they left San Jose, Calif., thoroughly satisfied with the first TOC and looking forward to the next one, planned to take place next year in New York City.
After two days of tutorials and panels (day one and day two) on technology and information, the last day of the show managed to bring the focus back to the old-fashioned printed and bound book—but with a hip digital twist. Dale Dougherty, editor and publisher of O'Reilly's Make magazine—a delightfully useful (and graphically inventive) DIY guide to making all kinds of cool stuff— cited an unusual but pertinent fact during the final keynote presentations. "More horses were used in World War II than in any previous war," he said. His point is that old technology and new technology typically coexist where you least expect it. Make magazine, Dougherty said, is about how to make old things new again.
It was the perfect introduction to the next speaker, Manolis Kelaidis, a designer, engineer and lecturer at Britain's Royal College of Art, and his extraordinary project bLink, an idiosyncratic effort to create a book that combined the qualities of the physical book with the digital functionality of a computer—the next generation book. Constructed with embedded electronics and conductive inks, it's the prototype of a bound and printed book that, believe it or not, includes hyperlinks like a Web page. A reader can use a finger on the book's paper pages like a computer's cursor on the screen. Touch the paper hyperlink and a Bluetooth signal opens a Web page on a nearby screenthat serves up information, music, translations or video that correspond to that link, as if the book were a paper and ink computer.
Kelaidis has turned his love of the book into a book-device that thrilled an audience brought together to plan the end of the print book. The audience responded with a long and resoundingly enthusiastic standing ovation—the only one given these past three days. Yes, it's basically a quirky (though rigorously conceived) art project, but Kelaidis made the old-fashioned book new again, using digital know-how. His book clearly touched some kind of emotional hyperlink in an audience that wasn't as cynical about its attachment to the traditional book as the previous three days may have suggested.
The next speaker, John Ingram, chairman of the Ingram Book Group, had to hold off a bit and acknowledge his own admiration for Kelaidis ("what an act to have to follow"), before giving a brisk history of Ingram and the role of technological change (in addition to announcing a deal to provide support to Microsoft's Live Book Search) in its growth.
Kelaidis'swas a difficult act for the conference itself to follow, but the day wound down with a couple of practical presentations. A panel moderated by Holtzbrinck's director of marketing, Jeff Gomez, gave an upbeat assessment of the downloadable e-book market. There are more devices (like the Sony reader and Amazon's forthcoming reader), better screens, more titles, and, Random's Matt Shatz said, some reluctant big-time authors are finally getting in the game. Sales, according to everyone on the panel, continue to grow year to year, often by as much as 30%. And in a conference often focused on "free information culture," HarperCollins's Theresa Horner emphasized selling e-books, not giving them away or slashing the price. "If you want to give something away, go talk to marketing," she joked. Horner cited 30% sales growth, even more impressive, she said, because "there's no B&N for e-books, these sales are from indie e-retailers." The biggest selling genres? Not science fiction or business, the old conventional wisdom, but narrative fiction, romance and bestsellers like 1776. S&S's Claire Israel sounded an alarm to "get into the teen and YA market. We've got to get e-books on cellphones and all the other devices in the hands of teenagers."
The most entertaining panel of the day, hands down, was Derek Powazek's "Rise of Authentic Media," a very funny survey of Web sites that encourage user-generated content, an experience that can often lead to wildly hilarious results, whether intended or not. And Robert Martinengo's presentation on reading technologies for the disabled was particularly important. The blind and visually impaired are voracious readers, and e-books can easily be converted into Braille or spoken books. Martinengo also noted the work of Bookshare.org, a nonprofit online library for the blind and print disabled.
Although precise breakdowns were unavailable, TOC conference organizer Sarah Milstein said the attendees came from all over, including big groups from New York City, California, and the Midwest and southeast U.S. She expects an even bigger turnout next year in New York.