Takeaways from Tools Of Change
I spent the earlier part of last week at the Tools Of Change for Publishers conference in New York. I was a first-timer at the conference and was thrilled to be with other people who are at the intersection of publishing and tech, since I’m completely comfortable with the latter, but still feel like a bit of an outsider with the former. Here’s a few thoughts from the conference (with an aside disclaimer that these are my opinions entirely):
Don’t panic! Oh. Good. Well done, then
In contrast with the Book Expo America (BEA) conference in New York last year—where publishers were frantic to know what they could do to at least slow their impending doom—this conference was largely panic-free. There was a feeling that the changes upon us are exciting; to be embraced and not feared.
Now, the road ahead still seems far from clear. There are a lot of people with a lot of different ideas, and the future of publishing has just started forming, but there was still an excited curiosity of how we’ll get there.
ebooks in 2010=web pages in 2001
The first presentation that I saw at TOC was a workshop on the formatting of eBooks, and it hit me quickly and hard that I’ve gotten spoiled by the advances of the last few years with web pages. We’re much more used to being able to push a button and easily convert one format to another without really having to check it. But because the formatting of ebooks are still in their early stage, there is no magic conversion. It’s not just QA: it’s having to go through each book for both ePub and Kindle files and making tweaks so that they render properly.
This seems completely obvious, and I’m a little embarrassed as I type it out, but we tried converting books in batches and it was a mess. At least at the moment, ebooks need to be produced in the same way that print publications are produced: one at a time, with care and fine-toothed comb. As much as people tried to say that a good in-house CSS file will allow quicker converting in batches, it seems clear that the only way to get a quality ebook product is to produce them in the same way as you would a print book.
How much book should be in an ebook?
A popular topic was the enhancement of ebooks. Several of the speakers talked about hyperlinks and enhanced content (even video!) in ebooks, basically extending them beyond the words of printed books. There was the understandable concern that this would interrupt the immersion in a book. Maybe book immersion is an old-fashioned concept, but it does blur the line between book and application that I think made some people uncomfortable.
And speaking of apps, there was a lot of talk of iPhone apps, mostly as a marketing device, where an iPhone app could be a companion piece to a book. But it was clear that there are already people talking about the books as more web and app-like experiences, and from beyond just words on an electronic page. Already! And before we can even get the formatting of ebooks done right!
The early days of eBook stats
One of the my favorite presentations was on a survey done by BISG on ebook consumers in November of 2009 and this past January. It was made clear that these are very early stats and easy to argue with, but they were still fascinating. Some of the notable statistics (and I hope I have these right…they were from my notes, so give a 2-3 point margin of error on the numbers):
- 11% of the ebook readers said that they didn’t purchase ebooks, leading the survey collectors to gather that they were probably getting them illegally. I think that there’s more free content available that they may not be taking into consideration, but it’s still a pretty shocking number.
- Between 45 and 50% used a PC to read ebooks. One of those numbers that’s surprising at first and less so if you think about it, but it does show that ebook reader devices are still not good enough to be widely used.
- 24% of ebook users said that if no ebook was available for three months, that they would go ahead and buy the hardback. This seemed awfully high to me, and surely is a number that will lower pretty quickly. On the other hand, as could be said about so many of these stats, it probably depends a great deal on the book.
This is a subject I could talk a lot more about (and probably will). One of the sessions was called “DRM, Digital Content, and the Consumer Experience: Lessons Learned from the Music Industry”, and people were getting riled up. The Q&A wasn’t blemished with a single Q, and instead was a bunch of people animatedly dancing around this point: we want DRM. I know that there were plenty of folks in that room who agreed as I did with presenter’s point that DRM does more harm than good, but there were a lot of people who are just too bothered by the idea of people not paying for their content that they want something that will keep them from doing it. Of course, none of them actually said that, but it was clear that publishers are going to want some sort of DRM until the current model of publishing is completely gone.
It’s here until the end. I’m sorry to say, but I think that there’s a lot of publishers who just aren’t willing to give up the control that DRM provides, however false the sense of security it gives.
And a word for the publishers from The Publisher
Tim O’Reilly gave his traditional keynote, saving it for very last this year. It was a good speech, with some great quotes, and the main point was a message of reassurance: there will always be the need for publishers. No matter how much the business may change, there will still be a need for distributors and promoters. The publishing may change into something that, process-wise, is almost unrecognizable from what we had today, but there will always be the need for people between creator and consumer.