REPORT FROM THE FIELD
O’Reilly Media Launches TOC Conference
By Donald T. Hawkins
O’Reilly Media—publishers of computer technology and programming books with pictures of animals on the covers, the Hacks and Missing Manual series of books, MAKE and CRAFT magazines, and similar publications—launched a Tools of Change (TOC) for Publishing conference from June 18 to 20 in San Jose, Calif. With about 400 attendees, a small but vibrant exhibit area, and a focus on major issues in today’s publishing environment, attendees deemed it a success.
Tim O’Reilly, in his opening summary of book publishing, said books go back to Sumerian clay tablets and characters burned into wooden blocks. Although many of us may credit Johann Gutenberg’s invention of movable type as the start of the publishing industry, O’Reilly pointed out that the invention of the printing press played only one part in the launching of publishing. Inks, paper, and binding technologies also had to come together before book publishing became widespread. And today, we are seeing many different technologies melding together to bring about rapid and revolutionary changes in the industry, especially in its book publishing segment. Now publishers are concerned about these issues:
- Building a digital infrastructure
- Developing new marketing programs to sell more books
- Building traffic to their Web sites
- Launching new publishing products
Brian Murray, CEO of HarperCollins, is asking questions that seem to affect many of us:
- Do we have the right digital strategy and capabilities?
- Does search present a new opportunity?
- How do we move from paper to digital?
- How do we make sure we add value?
A new buzzword heard often at TOC was “digital warehouse.” Many publishers are expending significant effort and resources in digitizing their offerings and in overhauling their production and delivery systems to take advantage of new technologies. In particular, ebooks are making a comeback, and even new and significantly improved ebook readers are starting to emerge.
New POD Systems
I was especially surprised to find three exhibitors—QOOP, Inc. (www.qoop.com); Blurb (www.blurb.com); and SharedBook (http://sharedbook.com)—displaying print on demand (POD) systems, some of which are aimed at the consumer market. For the past decade, the emphasis has been in developing and using electronic technologies to produce products for the Web-based world. Now we seem to have come full circle, with new systems being developed for the production of printed materials. The difference this time is that the powerful capabilities of electronic technology play an important part in the process.
Blurb’s system is a good example. After downloading free software, users can then customize and personalize the book and apply templates that control the layout. The book is then sent to Blurb’s printing system, produced, and delivered to the user. Both hardcover and softcover books are available in several different sizes and at reasonable prices. This system shows that printed books are not doomed to an early demise as some have predicted, but they may be radically transformed in the future.
Book Marketing Strategies
Is “free” a valid marketing strategy? For some products it is, especially free samples that are widely used in marketing to consumers. The Internet is also based on free services including Skype, YouTube, and search engines. Even in media, broadcasting is free to the consumer, and with current trends toward the removal of DRM blocking from music, it is becoming more freely available and is being used as a vehicle to promote concerts and other performances. Books are the last area of media where the cost to the consumer is not approaching free. A major reason is that publishers’ interests are misaligned with those of the author; publishers do not participate in speaker fees and other activities of authors, and because of channel conflicts, retailers are strongly opposed to free books.
Chris Anderson, promulgator of the Long Tail strategy, is working on his next book, which will be entitled Free and will incorporate a free audio version in MP3 format. Anderson wants to provide the book to readers in any possible format they may desire. He suggested other ways that books could be made free: with ads inserted, using a page view model accompanied by ads, by author sponsorship, and as a marketing campaign to reach influential consumers.
A unique feature of book publishing is returns (the ability of retailers to return unsold copies to the publisher for full credit). So publishers try to minimize the number of returns and estimate print runs carefully. Logos Bible Software has taken an innovative approach to the returns problem with its Pre-Pub program (see www.logos.com/features/prepub), which reverses the publication process by selling books before they are produced.
Potential readers receive a discount on the price of the book if they order it before it is produced. Only when orders are sufficient to cover production costs does the book go into production. Readers are kept informed of the orders received on a Web site. Logos CEO Bob Pritchett is enthusiastic about the Pre-Pub program and noted that readers have become strong advocates of it, even soliciting orders from friends and acquaintances when it appears that orders for a title will fall short of the number needed for production to commence. The advantages of the Pre-Pub program are that all production costs are paid the day the book is published, and any subsequent orders are all profit for the company.
The Ebook Comeback
Ebooks are coming back. They are beginning to re-emerge as viable products in the book market. Major publishers are beginning to play a significant role in ebooks by digitizing their backlists (the digital warehouse concept again) and by producing electronic versions of new books as they are published. They are all optimistic about ebooks now, in contrast to the situation about 8 years ago when it seemed as if ebooks could not find a foothold in the market. Even viable numbers of dedicated ebook readers are being sold. Reasons for the change include the following:
- New technology offers a better reading experience and new functionality.
- Many new vendors are entering the marketplace.
- The selection of titles is rapidly increasing because of lower conversion costs and author support. Many notable authors have decided that now is the time to make their works available electronically.
- Evidence of demand through more sales is growing. Reading on screens has become commonplace.
- Publisher support for ebooks is growing. Random House currently has 4,000 titles available, HarperCollins has 1,500, and Simon & Schuster has 3,500.
We often hear that ebooks are most suitable for reference works where specific facts and answers to questions can be found quickly, but publishers are also finding that readers of romance and science fiction, who tend to read voraciously, have also accepted ebooks. Simon & Schuster is planning to move into the young adult market, which has so far been largely ignored by ebook publishers, by developing titles for reading on cell phones or “whatever devices kids will be carrying in their hands.”
Advances in Dictionary Publishing
Where do dictionaries belong in the book publishing market? While dictionaries have existed for a long time, do new technologies today provide any opportunities for improving their production and publication? In her closing keynote address, Erin McKean, chief consulting editor of American Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, termed dictionaries as “book-shaped objects” and pointed out that many things shaped like books do not make good books. Dictionaries are not written; they are compiled and revised. They are not organized into chapters and generally do not fit well into a book publishing business.
McKean believes that search engine-based dictionaries have considerable merit and would be a major improvement over book-shaped dictionaries. A dictionary contains “ambient information”—information that needs to be available whenever the user wants it.
In the question period, Tim O’Reilly asked McKean what her favorite word Web sites are (besides her blog—www.dictionaryevangelist.com). They are Double-Tongued Dictionary (http://doubletongued.org), Wordlustitude (www.wordlust.blogspot.com), Language Log (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog), Word Spy (www.wordspy.com/index.asp), and Wordie (http://wordie.org).
While attendees participated in the TOC conference enthusiastically, Publishers Weekly called it “a festival of practical geekery” (www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6453321.html), and Marci Alboher, an online columnist for The New York Times, called it a techie-meets-publishing idea extravaganza (http://marcialboher.blogspot.com/2007/06/pondering-future-of-publishing-in-san.html). Speaker presentations are available on the conference Web site at http://conferences.oreillynet.com/toc. TOC 2008 will be held in the New York area.