The final day at Tools of Change made me wish that O'Reilly used some sort of dynamic scheduling, where attendees could vote for which sessions would fill which slots, and where my vote was the only one that counted. As it turned out, there were three presentations in each of the two morning slots that I wanted to attend. I also would have liked to shuffle around the afternoon presentations so I could have attended the ones that interested me and still caught the Amtrak at 3:30 PM.
The exhibit hall included the usual suspects in software and services, but the treat was seeing some publishing heavy metal at work. The first of these was On Demand Books Espresso 2.0 (video below), a self contained book making machine that handles up to 120 pages a minute, with a consumable cost of about a penny a page. The price for these puppies will be somewhere in the $75K and up range when they move out of Beta in a couple months, depends on the laser printer engine you go with. The magic of the Espresso machine is in the paper handling, binding and trimming, and the software that makes it all happen. On Demand Books has an agreement with Lightning Source that will allow publishers using Lightning to make their books available through any outlet with an Espresso, at the same terms those books are currently available into distribution. Whether or not the retailers or institutions who purchase Espresso machines will be in a hurry to print short discount books remains to be seen.
Another impressive chunk of iron is the Kirtas scanner (video below). Using two high resolution cameras and a robotic flipping arm with vacuum suction, the scanner does high resolution imaging of all sorts of physical books. The engineers put a lot of thought into this one, both in terms of getting a high quality scan and in terms of handling books gently. Their software can do OCR or prepare the books for POD, meaning that libraries could scan their out-of-copyright books, print them on an Espresso, and potentially earn a little money selling the copies to patrons who want their own copy.
The most interesting session for me was a CEO round table, moderated by Joe Wickert, including Eileen Gittens for Blurb, (sort of a book maker), Clint Greenleaf of Greenleaf Book Group (distribution), Michael Hyatt of Thomas Nelson (publisher), Bob Young of Lulu.com (author and self publisher services), and Tim O'Reilly. Out of hundreds of people, Bob Young and I were the only two people in the room wearing hats, so I took an instant liking to his point of view on everything. None of the panelists admitted to being hurt by the economy, Bob Young pointed out that lay-offs give more people time to actually write that book they never would have gotten to otherwise, and Clint Greenleaf claimed it's a great time to hire quality people. Michael Hyatt mentioned that Thomas Nelson had recently reduced from 20+ imprints to just one, as it makes no difference to customers who the imprint is, whatever the original logic behind their history may have been.
Discovery (ie, helping unknown authors find an audience) was a focal point for Eileen Gittens of Blurb, who also spoke about their strategic partnerships with Flickr. The discussion then moved to author platforms, which of course, everybody declared critical. The discussion focused on what the upsteam entities could do to help enable (and perhaps capture) their authors platform building activities, but nobody really spoke in specifics. Bob Young sounded very sincere about wanting to help those authors of theirs whose books were works of genius (he admits that not all are:-), and invited anybody in attendance who really understands building a platform for marketing books to contact him. Since it's a subject I've been preaching about for eight or nine years, and since he agreed to do an e-mail interview, I'll offer him free advice until he cries "No Mas".
In a session titled "Challenging Notions of Free" with Brian O'Lerary of Magellan Media, Mac Slocum of O'Reilly and Chelsea Vaughn of Random House, a statistical analysis of the impact of free ebooks on new print releases was presented. Unfortunately, the data was very, very limited, so the statistical correlation (which was near zero) doesn't mean much. The thought was the free ebook distribution might goose sales of the print books, but with the exception of one O'Reilly title which was a special case, they just didn't see any evidence that was happening. In terms of losing control of ebooks published without DRM, Mac Slocum pointed out that on average, it took a good four months before pirate sites picked up on many ebooks, at which point, who cares. For a frontlist publisher that gets most of their sales in year one (and most of their sell-in during the initial push from press), that may be true. For a publisher like myself who has seen sales for every one of my titles rise for at least three years after publication, four months and out is a problem.
I also attended a session by John Broughton who authored an O'Reilly book about editing Wikipedia which was recently released to the Wikipedia community, meaning that it can now be edited. John had some interesting insights as to what does and doesn't get heavily edited on Wikipedia, he didn't expect anybody to add new chapters to his book, for example, though part of the reason is that he has a high degree of confidence that he covered all the bases. Several question were then raised about whether or not changes done by Wikipedia editors would be included if there were a second edition from O'Reilly, whether and how those contributors would be paid, etc. I lost interest and left around this point as the discussion seemed to be sliding towards the "everything should be free and you should make a living selling T-shirts to people who love you" direction. I might have lasted it out but I was coming off a five minute discussion with another presenter from that camp who used the expression "copyright has been impressed on us." Since her discussion style was to question everything, ie, "Do you really know you are making money from royalties?", I gave up without figuring out whether she seriously believed her business model could work for more than a couple frontrunners.
The general theme of early adopters drinking all the punch came up multiple times in discussions over the conference. Many of the presenters were early adopters of this or that cause in the Blogosphere or Twitterverse, which they've been able to parlay into livings as speakers or consultants. The problem is that only a tiny number of authors or technologists can make a living that way, there just aren't enough eyeballs and checkbooks to pay the second tier. It never occurred to me to try to make a living based on my own frontrunner creds, like turning down three trade offers for my first complete book back in 1996 and publishing it online, which soon led to a better offer that I couldn't refuse. I can't imagine a life spent on the lecture circuit talking about a brief shining moment and selling T-shirts. Oddly, of all the techniques I hear discussed for building author platforms, the one I adopted when I first posted a book draft online in 1995 still makes the most sense to me. Experiment with your content the easiest way possible, but do it on your own dime on your own site or you're just working for somebody else.
Overall, while I was impressed with the intelligence and insight shown by the publishers who presented, but I think there's a bit of denial going on about Google and Amazon. Some publishers seem to be staking their futures on strategies that will bring them into direct conflict with the business models of Amazon or Google. My feeling is that nobody will out-Amazon Amazon or out-Google Google. They are both too firmly entrenched, too far out in front of the pack, and too good at what they do. If some publishers can see over the horizon to what comes after Amazon or Google and are working on those projects, they have as good a chance as anybody, but for the time being, the challenge is working with Amazon and Google, and not investing heavily in a new online bookstore or a site search tool nobody will use.