O'Reilly Conference Plots Pathways through the Digital Frontier for Publishers and Authors

Jun 29, 2007

Recognizing the need of publishers and other purveyors of print including authors themselves to make the “transition” into digital media, O’Reilly Media convened the first ever Tools of Change for Publishing or TOC Conference in San Jose, California, June 18-20.

O'Reilly, who is a computer book publisher, a conference organizer and digital media leader, attracted an impressive list of presenters that included Brian Murray, President, HarperCollins Worldwide; Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine and author of The Long Tail; Jimmy Wales, a founder of Wikipedia; and Bruce Chizen, CEO of Adobe Systems. Not bad for a first-time conference of only about 400 people, and this is not to mention Tim O’Reilly himself, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media whose insights, impressive track record and walk-your-talk style of industry leadership was one of the main reasons I wanted to attend.

I was able to attend a full day of events on Tuesday, June 19th; and I offer a few highlights:

Free, Key
The kickoff keynote by HarperCollins' Murray nicely set the stage for an industry in transition as he generously shared the details of his company’s three-year process of developing a vast “digital warehouse” for its large library of book titles. He emphasized the choice of words “digital warehouse” rather than “repository” and the practical value of this distinction lived in the additional means of distribution and promotion that digitizing and warehousing now provides.

I think the most important take-away from his presentation may have been the vendor HarperCollins selected for its initiatives: LibreDigital, a division of NewsStand, Inc., which provides interactive publishing tools for the likes of the New York Times and USA Today. Murray explained that rather than developing a proprietary system, earlier this year HarperCollins Publishing chose LibreDigital not only to retain control of its own digital book masters but because of web-friendly features that were already built into the system.

I was also pleased to discover when talking directly to representatives of LibreDigital that they are working on a “self-serve” version of the system designed to help small publishers and authors take advantage of its feature set.

In his keynote on the economics of giving things away, Wired's Anderson not only covered “free” but revealed that he is now a co-founder of a new website for authors called BookTour.com. The new site, which is scheduled to go public in early July, will publish author book tour schedules along with other information. As Anderson pointed out, “all authors are under-served by publishers” and BookTour.com is only one step in a process that must also include more author education in order for the web to be better utilized as a way for authors to connect with audiences.

What's Next
Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, illuminated his latest venture, a site that is totally independent of Wikipedia called Wikia.com. Wikias, as these content-creating enthusiasts are known, are wiki software enabled online communities that are creating free content that Wales described as a large online “library” when compared to Wikipedia’s online “encyclopedia.” He boasts that Wikia is growing just as fast as Wikipedia did three years ago and showcased some StarTrek and Muppets-related pages—tens of thousands of articles in just these specific subject areas. In fact, these user-authored and edited pages may well represent a whole new dimension in user-generated content. His vision is that this content in some cases could provide more useful search results than Google’s and he is thus promoting Wikia as a search portal as well.

Adobe’s CEO Bruce Chizen seemed to be the only major presenter who thought books would become obsolete. Overall, the consensus was that physical books have good “battery life,” a nice interface, and inherently high resolution--all of which add up to portability and a user experience that will retain its value. However, Chizen also revealed his vision of future digital publishing platforms that are emerging. He and O’Reilly explored next generation ideas building on the current CS3 Adobe Digital Editions format into AIR (Adobe Integrated Realtime) which integrates HTML, Flash and PDF for stand-alone, web-based, interactive applications or presentations.

Chizen’s parting shot of advice, “experiment, be flexible with your business models... and get there quickly,” seemed to point the finger back to O’Reilly whose vision not only brought this conference together, but also inspired Safari Books Online, O’Reilly’s monthly subscription-based e-reference library for programmers and IT professionals. According to Jeff Patterson, CEO of Safari Books Online, this pioneering service began as an O’Reilly experiment and has grown to 37,000 consumer subscribers and 1,500 enterprise (multi-seat) subscribers.

Not only is this a digital publishing accomplishment that should make virtually any other publisher green with envy, but it reflects the real world, “rubber hitting the road” practice of a publisher who is willing to experiment, leverage the results when these experiments are successful, and then share what they have learned... thus demonstrating real leadership. In fact, Wired’s Anderson called O'Reilly a “best practices publisher” and pointed to their recent new practice of selling individual chapters of their computer books online.

For a first time conference, TOC was a major success; and I’d be very surprised if the others in attendance don’t agree that we are all looking forward to next year.