Tools of Change 2013 Wrap-Up

I spent last week at the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in New York, getting wise to what publishers, authors, and publishing service providers are thinking about when they look at the road ahead for the book industry. A theme that really stood out for me was one of sharing. What challenges do we face with different types of sharing, and what ideas do people have about them? I’d like to focus on a few talks that really did their bit in answering this question.

Sharing: From Reader to Reader

“People want to get the book on the damn reader”

Economist and Rotman academic Joshua Gans’ talk on how “Information Wants to be Shared” gave a very compelling view of the way forward. Joshua argued that publishing economies will inevitably move towards business models that perpetuate sharing. His idea that information doesn’t necessarily want to be free, it wants to be shared, really resonated with me. We often think of content as complete and sharing as what follows, but that’s not technically true. Joshua made a great point that information often gets its usefulness when it is being consumed by others. Digital content is made for reading, not showcasing, therefore it must be readable. But in order for content to be considered readable, it has to be talked about.

If sharing is the determining factor in driving demand, then what is the related business model? Joshua thinks that models based on “access rather than ownership” are key. He talked about a “digital libraries” model that aims to keep authors, publishers, and readers happy. Here’s how he thinks it could work:

  • Authors and publishers join forces to make books that people want to read
  • They provide books directly to readers
  • Readers pay subscription fees and record use in some fashion (reader data!)
  • Content fees will be based on units of use (no list price!)

Joshua elaborated on the last point by encouraging publishers to make access to their digital content dead simple. This means it’s easy to acquire and it’s easy to begin reading it. He ended with a really, really good question: Are there mechanisms for shared funding and shared use that you could be exploiting?

For more insight on monetization of digital content, pick up Joshua’s book Information Wants to be Shared.

Sharing: From Creator to Creator

“A publisher’s job is to provide a good API for their books”

Taking sharing to a fragmented level, Hugh McGuire and Allistair Croll’s “Book as API” talk focused on accessing the full potential of ebooks through APIs. An API is basically a set of specifications or usage rules that guides how one application can communicate with another. If I wanted to know how to add a Twitter timeline to my blog, I’d read the Twitter API. Hugh talked about indexing book content and making it available to use through an API. He explored some neat projects like Dracula Dissected and Small Demons that essentially break content into teeny bits and then spread them around as needed.

Hugh pointed to the humble book index as an ignition point to explode the information that rests in a book. Simply add HTML and share as you please. Open sharing of such content allows other creators to engage with it by building cool things out of it. He’s got a great post on the O’Reilly TOC blog that covers everything that was talked about. I’m listing his takeaways here to tantalize you: 

  1. Books are made of stuff that can be named.
  2. If you name stuff in your HTML then we can easily build.
  3. Use a good CMS.

Sharing: From Creator to Reader

“This is my love letter to comics”

Fantastical comic book writer Mark Waid delivered my favourite keynote of TOC 2013. He spoke about how digitization has actually challenged the sharing of graphic content from creator to reader. Graphic formats that lead the eye downwards in a portrait style page don’t work as well when they’re seen on a landscape page. Motion comics that try to take advantage of digital A/V tools are, well, not really comics.

Mark’s central point was that comics and graphic novels work as such when they give the reader complete control over pace of reading, and digital comics need to stay true to this experience. Mark is putting his ideas to work at his free comics site, Thrillbent. The site is experimenting with extending static comics in a way that enhances the reading experience rather than detracting from it – it’s quite gasp-worthy stuff. It’s tough to do their work justice in words so I encourage you to watch Mark’s keynote below. Get ready for some warm fuzzies:

Mark’s optimism and collaborative instinct provided a great way forward after an intense few days of soaking up ideas and information. All of this year’s keynotes are available in the O’Reilly TOC 2013 YouTube playlist.