I’ve been told that you can’t get book publishers to an industry event at the Javits Center if it rains (an observation that I suspect might be a lot more amusing if you’re in the publishing industry and from New York). Regardless, the weather in New York City last week was atrocious (seven degrees and snow), yet O’Reilly Media’s TOC conference was sold out — packed to the rafters with publishing industry insiders. That’s an obvious sign that TOC is not your typical publishing industry event.
Book publishing may not be the world’s oldest profession, but it is the world’s oldest form of mass media. As a result, publishers tend to be a little set in their ways. That’s a nice way of saying that publishers have a lot of catching up to do. And that’s exactly the problem that TOC was designed to solve. This year’s conference dealt with a range of issues challenging traditional publishers, from backlist digitization to XML.
But TOC is about more than just technology. It’s also about the new mindset that publishers need to survive in a world where the traditional media landscape is being transformed by digital convergence and rapidly evolving consumer expectations. These days new technology isn’t enough. Publishers need a whole new way of thinking.
As author and marketing guru Seth Godin noted during his presentation, there’s almost nothing in a printed format that consumers can’t find faster and cheaper through Google. That’s a reality that has to scare the hell out of a lot of publishers. How do you compete with fast and free?
Godin explained that consumers still purchase printed editions, even when they’ve already read a book online. In many cases they want the book around to remind them of the ideas that it represents. The printed book becomes a sort of souvenir.
While I think Godin may have a point, the market for souvenirs has to be considerably smaller than the market for books that people actually want to read. I suspect more than a few publishers were surprised to find out they might soon be in the souvenir business.
Conference host, Tim O’Reilly provided some tangible insight into the challenges of free content during his presentation “Free Is More Complicated Than You Think”. While it’s easy to suggest that publishers could somehow give everything away for free and monetize content with advertising, O’Reilly dispelled that myth with some hard numbers demonstrating that web advertising won’t generate anywhere near the revenue that publishers have earned from selling physical books.
O’Reilly explained how his company has developed a number of innovative online business models that generate revenue through services, subscriptions, and sponsorships, while benefiting from the web traffic generated via free content. In the case of O’Reilly Media, free has become a strategic business choice that actually supports paid content.
In many ways, O’Reilly’s business model is a real world example of the principles outlined in Kevin Kelly’s recent treatise “Better Than Free“. Kelly enumerates eight basic principles that maintain some intrinsic value in a world where most intellectual property can be endlessly copied at no cost. While Kelly’s article stops short of writing a business plan for publishers, it’s a must read for anyone trying to make sense of a world where the price of content as we know it could conceivably drop to zero. (emphasis on “as we know it”).
There are signs that publishers are starting to get a clue. Last week HarperCollins launched a new program that allows readers to read entire books on the company’s website. It’s interesting that author Paulo Coelho’s latest title is one of the first books being offered through this new program. Coelho made headlines recently for pirating his own books — a move the author says significantly boosted the sales of his printed books.
The edition of Coelho’s new book that’s available on the HarperCollins website has quite a few more restrictions than the ebook editions the author has been making available on Bittorrent. Consumers who want unrestricted access to Coelho’s digital books will likely bypass the HarperCollins website and go straight to Bittorrent. Still, I have to admit that despite the limitations, I think the HarperCollins program is at least a small step in the right direction.
This year’s TOC undoubtedly left publishers with quite a bit to think about. In many ways a conference like this is bound to raise more questions than it can possibly answers. Partially because media as we know it is changing so rapidly, and partially because there are so many different types of publishing houses that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Publishers need to educate themselves about the digital world they’re living in, and develop their own plan of action. TOC has become a crucial first step in that process.