It’s no secret that the publishing industry is facing the same challenges that all of the other content industries are facing. On the one hand, new technology offers publishers the chance to fundamentally re-invent their business models, on the other hand new media is syphoning off the attention of a growing number of would-be book readers. For the most part, book publishers have responded to these new challenges in the same way their peers in other content industries have responded — s-l-o-w-l-y.
As a group, book publishers clearly need help coming to terms with their own future. Fortunately for them, O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change for Publishing (TOC) conference has come along not a moment too soon. The event, hosted earlier this week in San Jose, was designed to be a gentle introduction to all manner of technology issues facing the publishing industry. For three days TOC was a place where publishers could face their biggest fear — acronyms — and learn more about POD, XML, RSS, and DRM.
During his keynote address, Tim O’Reilly’s referenced a William Gibson quote that pretty much sums up the state of the book publishing industry:
“The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet”
While there are plenty of publishers doing innovative things with new technology, including O’Reilly, Oxford University Press, and Penguin UK, the innovators happen to be the exception rather than the rule. Many publishers remain hesitant, and in some cases openly hostile toward the very technology that could revolutionize their industry.
If there was an overriding theme for the inaugural TOC conference, it was that technology and change are not a threat to publishers, but rather a new opportunity. Before they can seize these new opportunities, though, publishers will first need to transform the way they think about the book business.
Earlier this month Tim O’Reilly described how his company came to transform their way of thinking. For O’Reilly the change involved realizing that they weren’t necessarily in business to print and sell books, but rather to spread knowledge. In the Web 2.0 era there are countless ways to achieve this mission.
One transformational moment came in the form of a keynote presentation from Manolis Kelaidis, a designer from the UK who demonstrated his prototype for hybrid analog-digital book device. Called “bLink”, Kelaidis’ project uses a printed book as a starting point to re-frame how we think about the relationship between books and digital media. bLink is part analog book, part digital media controller. Imagine reading a printed book where you can tap your finger on a word or phrase and have more detailed information pop up on your computer. Tap on the name “Mona Lisa” and a Google image search for the Mona Lisa opens in the browser on your computer. That’s bLink, and it’s quite remarkable.
The presentation earned Kelaidis something I’ve never seen at a conference of this sort — a standing ovation. As noted in the comments on Tim O’Reilly’s conference blog, the presentation connected with people on an emotional level. I suspect Kelaidis opened a few minds to the possibility that analog books will definitely have a place in the digital future.
If you have any interest at all in the future of books and/or the publishing industry and you didn’t make it to TOC, well, you’ll just have to try harder next year. In the meantime, most of the presentations are available on the conference website. Dig in, and make plans to be there next year.