Writing on the Ether: Tools of Change

Tools of Change, Tim O'Reilly, O'Reilly Media, publishing, books, conference, ebook, TOC, #toccon, Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Joe Wikert, Kat Meyer, New York Public Library, New York City, DBW, Digital Book World, LeVar Burton, Baratunde Thurston

ToC: Techno-calities
ToC: Where’s my unified ebook market, dude?
ToC: Shall we call this one ‘librasion’?
ToC: Credit where due
ToC: One programming malfunction
ToC: Three A’s to consider
(1) Authors
(2) Amazon
(3) One fine, Agile presence

Extra Ether: New writings on ToC 2012

Sign of a highly successful conference: new reflections on aspects of O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change Conference, covered extensively in last week’s Ether, continue to be published.

Many of the events of the conference have bearing on elements of our coverage in the new Ether upcoming. Meanwhile, some recent highlights you may want to review include:

ToC: Techno-calities

Locution, locution, locution.

In its sixth year, the Tools of Change Conference — just closed in New York City — easily held its own as one of publishing’s two great confabs of a stressful year, the other being last month’s Digital Book World Conference + Expo.

And when it comes to locution, ye shall know them by how they say “data.”

January’s DBW (#dbw12) used “following data” to tell us where things lie (not lay, damn it) amid the sinkholes of today’s treacherous, fast-digitizing landscape.

February’s ToC (#TOCcon) vowed to wield “Big Data” as a photon torpedo, LeVar Burton, in the battle for publishing’s cultural viability.

Burton gave a Treky’s keynote on Tuesday in which he revealed that spotting Nichelle Nichols on the original bridge of Gene Roddenberry’s USS Enterprise helped him find his race and place in an entertainment industry that would later cast him in Alex Haley’s pivotal “Roots” and now platforms his RRKidz mission to get digital reading to kidz (not kids, damn it).

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Speaking of race, another adherent of Lt. Uhura’s persuasion, author and Onionist Baratunde Thurston, gave another keynote that day, plugging his book.

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Author Baratunde Thurston’s keynote at ToC 2012: all about his book, “How To Be Black.”

Here is his keynote on video. Here he is with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, in Baratunde Thurston Explains “How To Be Black” And here is his book in an enhanced edition, “enhanced” being a term we include less and less frequently in our publishing patois.

More locution: ToC and DBW are perfectly aligned, like squirming twin Cupids, in their use of the term “keynote.” It once referred to an often long, always singular, rabble-rallying speech by a major figure of real heft. You remember Margaret Atwood at last year’s ToC? Well, of course you do. And you can refresh your memory when she does it again at AWP in early March.

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Today? Every girl can give a keynote. In fact, every girl and every boy targeted by arrows this Valentine’s Day seemed determined to do just that. A “keynote” now lasts 15 minutes, max. And it arrives in a candy box full of matching presentations, each of them crinkly-wrapped in the visuals that we Contemporary People must behold in order to focus, damn it, focus. The givers of today’s “keynotes” are frequently low-energy folks whose first calling in life clearly is not oration. They want to tell us that their software is better than your software.

They may be right. They may be wrong. They may be sponsors. And one of them at ToC hid envelopes under the audience’s seats. Ten of those envelopes, we were told, would provide the lucky derrieres above them with iPad 2’s. (I made my colleague Jeremy Greenfield check under our seats in the media room. Chewing gum. Not an Inkling of a win.)

Did I mention locution? It’s all in how we say it, you see.

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Let’s have one more.

“Scaling” could mean something less friendly to some soon.

A Wednesday session, Scaling Content Development Through Automation, gave us Kristian Hammond of Narrative Science and Robbie Allen of Automated Insights in their talks on those computer-generated sports and real-estate reports you may have heard about, ex machina.

These punchy accounts of youth hockey matches and other pivotal events are generated, Hammond told us, by “a simple set of derivations from the data.” Then “angles” are applied, he said. And he was at pains to tell us, “We’re not writing stories that just express the data…the system understands the trend.”

For the record: This report is written not by a machine but by a human being made productive by caffeine rather than electrical current. Parse me, bubba, I’ve got yer data right here.

But ’tis bootless to exclaim.

By the time the last flotilla of petit-four-sized keynotes eased us all to sleep in our seats on Wednesday afternoon — never let the elegant thinker Theo Gray onto a stage right after lunch to show you his Wolfram Mathematica CDFEd Nawotka managed to fire up his Publishing Perspectives account and tweet before passing out:

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ToC: Where’s my unified ebook market, dude?

One theme I’d like to have seen played up more aggressively and specifically is the superb signal sent out ahead of the conference by its co-chair and O’Reilly Media general manager Joe WikertA Call for a Unified eBook Market  While various sessions poked at the issue from one side or another, the ployglot nature of the conference’s too-busy schedule never formed a stop-everything coherent moment around the idea.

Tools of Change, Tim O'Reilly, O'Reilly Media, publishing, books, conference, ebook, TOC, #toccon, Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Digital Petting Zoo, Joe Wikert
In ToC 2012’s Digital Petting Zoo.

Wikert’s first-ever Digital Petting Zoo, in fact, made that problem more interesting than the devices lassoed to their pedestals. I’d like to have seen it turned into a repeated session in which, say, 30 attendees could enter at a time and be talked through the issue of proliferating ebook standards, illustrating the disparity with the devices at hand.

Instead, on my visit, some of the devices were accompanied by their sponsors’ reps.

For example, I found friendly Rafiq Ahmed of Richard Nash‘s session Baby and the Bathwater: New Publishing Models Incorporating the Best of Old Publishing Practices. Here are the PubSlush presentation slides from that session. Ahmed hoped to snag some interest in his Demibooks Composer code-free application for making interactive iPad books on the iPad itself.

ToC: Shall we call this one ‘librasion’?

There was, naturally, a “keynote” on the libraries’ crisis. Barbara A. Genco of the Library Journal didn’t throw any hymnals at our heads during her 10-minute preso, Public Library Power Patrons Are Your Best Customers (includes video and slides), but I wouldn’t have been surprised if “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” had been piped in under her.

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From Barbara Genco’s ToC presenation of Bowker and Library Journal info about library “power patrons.’

Genco’s mission was to use good numbers to tell publishers about what she calls the Power Library Patron who gets to the library at least weekly and is, according to Genco’s Bowker-fueled  presentation:

  • 61% female
  • Age 48
  • Making $61,000
  • 62% college- (or higher) educated
  • 39% with kids under 18

Dianna Dilworth at GalleyCat has more on Genco’s monologue in How Library Power Users Help Publishers.

A full session called The Library Alternative gave us a robust panel of strong personalities approaching the “mad as hell” stage. Here was Micah May of the New York Public Library talking almost from Tuesday to Wednesday about his concerns.

Panel moderator Peter Brantley, of the Internet Archive‘s BookServer project, ever eloquent in his defense of all things library, made it clear that librarians see themselves and their patrons as innocents caught in the crossfire between publishers such as Penguin and the digital distributor which has used Amazon to fulfill lending orders,  OverDrive.

Brantley went so far as to mention talk of class-action suits, ever so briefly and without assigning names or organizations to the idea.

He ushered in comments from Andrew Albanese, Julie Sandorf, and Tim Coates of the Bilbary international ebook venture.

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Calvin Reid at Publishers Weekly has more for you on this in TOC 2012: LeVar Burton, Libraries and The Bookstore of the Future.

And as soon as ToC had closed, here came 9 Rings, 8 Planets, 7 Dwarfs, 6 Publishers from Marlene Harris — an effort to help educate library patrons about why they may not know the name of the key publishers withholding ebooks from lending services, and introducing each house and its imprints. As she writes:

What we know are their books. When there is a title that patrons want, and we can’t buy it, that’s when we are reminded who the “Big 6″ are.

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ToC: Credit where due

Staged with the grace of a fresh reboot by O’Reilly Media’s Kat Meyer, this year’s trot of the digi-faithful around the lithium altar put some 1,500 attendees through more than 60 sessions. ToC 2012 was perched on several floors of the Marriott Marquis on Times Square.

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The interview cage at ToC this year was situated among exhibition booths. Photo: Porter Anderson

The conference’s “exhibition hall” of sponsored show-and-tells this year kept free brochures moving and nattering demo-ers busy. In down moments, company reps retreated to their own devices in booths clustered around the elevator core of the post-Jetsons hotel.

Many of us, of course, were also at the Digital Book World Conference + Expo last month at the Sheraton and creature-comfort confab-comparisons could be heard from start to finish at ToC.

While there’s no need to cloud the Ether with those considerations, one thing can certainly be said, I think, without fear of contradiction: When it comes to food service and refreshments, ToC simply eats DBW’s box lunch. At ToC, we sat at luncheon tables like ladies and gentlemen after serving ourselves from long buffets, and we were entrusted with genuine cutlery and cloth napkins, courtesy each day of another O’Reilly sponsor. No squatting in hallway corners with box lunches as at DBW. No drinking from soda cans like mall rats. No bartering for apples with brownies.

Lest our great, good friends at DBW feel bad, however, let’s hasten to say that at the Marriott, as at the Sheraton, the production staffers show a remarkable fondness for presenting speakers in the darkest parts of many ballrooms. It’s hard to fathom this zeal for dimming our wittiest icons. Everybody’s a critic.

As a professional critic, however, I can tell you that Meyers’ colleague Wikert was truly effective on his first outing as co-chair.

He had corraled with Meyer a consistently difficult choice among worthy breakout sessions. And he joined her in presiding over the software swirl apparently without fatigue. I want a list of Joe’s prescriptions, is that Big Data? Even better, he took an authoritative lead role in many sessions, either as a panelist or moderator and, late in the game, as an especially quick keynoter, to tell us the happy news that O’Reilly — which long has offered its authors their own portal for data about their sales — will begin paying royalties to its writers monthly rather than quarterly.

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ToC: One programming malfunction

There was a single moment in Tuesday afternoon’s keynotes in which oil followed water on stage in a highly entertaning way. Nobody’s fault, these things happen. We simply heard from both the light and the darkside (no, not you this time, Baratunde) in rapid succession.

First, we had O’Reilly author Clay Johnson, plugging his The Information Diet (can you believe it has no index at the back?). His book tells us that “today’s media — Big Info — give us exactly what we want: content that confirms our beliefs.” This is another formulation of the The Filter Bubble if you’re Eli Pariser, or Beyond the Echo Chamber if you’re Jessica Clark. Johnson is particularly entertaining in talking up this subject, and he’s O’Reilly’s boy and ToC is O’Reilly’s show, so there he was, speaking such truths as:

Media managements know that we’ll click on info-tainment. Pizza tastes better than broccoli.

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He was immediately followed by Steve Rubel of Edelman and the Clip Report. Rubel reminded us that Edelman is the world’s largest independent public relations firm. I don’t know why we didn’t all run screaming out into Shubert Alley right then. Probably we were too loaded down with yummy sponsored eats from lunchtime (not pizza) — not to mention Ms. Meyer’s clever Valentine desserts at coffee break.

But it’s fair to say that Rubel brought the #TOCcon Twitter stream to a near standstill, the only time that happened, with a whiplash of a message from the stage. The title of Johnson’s gracious eight minutes just finished had been Is SEO Killing America? Rubel’s advertised Insights on the Future of Media then insisted that it’s SEO that has helped “the media claw its way back to relevance.”

Not only is “media” still a plural word (damn it), but Rubel says the industry is at “a dynamic inflection point.” That’s one to save and use at parties, is it not? I say that every day of my life and I’m sure you do, too. He went on to assert that the media have discovered how to keep their output “relevant.” Through SEO. There was giggling in the house.

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ToC: Three A‘s to consider

In coming days, I’ll have more on ToC in the O’Reilly newsletter, and I’ll be adding to this edition of the Ether on a variety of topics.

But before leaving ToC now, I’d like to mention three elements. Two were missing, one was a great presence. Each starts with the letter A.

(1) Authors

They were largely missing. Take good note, this was the case at Digital Book World, as well, and I’ve written about that, too. I’m not holding ToC up for special censure on this. Nor was the Marriott fully void of authors, of course. Here were a number of speakers who have published, of course, plus our friend Tobias Buckell, who gave one of the five-minute Ignite ToC sessions on the first evening.

But with ticket prices that can approach $2,000, ToC is another conference simply not meant for authors. Most attendees are their on their companies’ dimes, and they are members of the production end — technologists, publishers, designers, innovators, inspi-vational speakers, some agents, some editors, the professional core.

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The most important display in the ToC exhibition area.

We must take into account that this is an industry strangely resting on its hope that an army of mostly amateur self-styled “creative” people flung to the ends of the National Kitchen Table, will somehow offer up the next masterpiece. Can you imagine Toyota depending on the kindness of amateur mechanics for its service bays?

And when it comes time to share the formidable realities of a business all but melting down under the “abundance” that Brian O’Leary tells us about so faithfully? — authors are left out. It can appear that they’re thought too, um, artistic for expert conference discussions they really should be hearing on such subjects as:

  • ePub
  • publishing sector investors
  • consumer attitudes about e-reading
  • an “insight-oriented publishing environment”
  • global market access
  • “monetizing meaningful engagement with content”
  • print-to-digital publishing models
  • “hybrid” publishing employees

I’m going to say the following extremely carefully, and I want you to read it that way. I do not want to be misunderstood or misinterpreted on this. Watch how I put it:

I believe (i.e., this is my opinion only, do I look like a committee to you?) that the publishing industry (in the abstract, no one stone is being thrown here) has created what appears to be (as in it may not be, but it sure looks like) an attitude of disdain for authors.

Authors certainly experience it this way. This is why we have such Kon-wrathful spasms of apocalyptic invective as Amazon Will Destroy You, which was posted on Monday by the self-publishing agitator Joe Konrath.

And I’d like to offer you this fine response to the sneering, graceless tone of Konrath from Felice Therese at TheFutureBook. In I am proof that publishers love authors, Therese (of Little, Brown UK) writes:

At every opportunity, Konrath will drive the knife in a little further – pointing out our past mistakes and revelling in our apparent foolishness. Ok, maybe our actual foolishness: Amazon did see the importance of digital before most publishers when they catapulted the eBook to stardom like some overzealous Simon Cowell. And people (not necessarily publishers themselves) do spend a lot of time bemoaning the state of the industry in the media – he’s also right on that. Still, these things are hard to stomach when they’re wedged between the vindictive implication that the Big 6 treat authors ‘like shit’, and churlish sentiments like ‘I’ve spent hours talking to Amazon. And Amazon listened.’

I really empathize with Therese. I cracked up, myself, when I read Konrath coming close to announcing that he has taught Amazon everything it knows. A total guess here? — I’ll bet there’s not much joy in Seattle when Konrath gets his sack cloth up over his head like this. Prime

Even Therese, however — obviously the one with whom you’d rather be stuck in the elevator — seems to understand that a perceived condescension among publishers to the creators of the stories is what can come across, if unintentionally, when our major conference organizers fail to find a way to offer the most promising, forward-leaning, Big-Data-ready, lucution-capable writers what they need to be good for the industry. This is a key to what I’d like to get across here. Any business needs quality creators. Publishing needs smart authors, not dumb ones. Our business can be severely hampered in producing what’s needed when those innovators, the generators of our stories, are held away from the real issues.

ToC, mind you, is the best in this regard. Notice how much of their programming they streamed, free on their site during the conference. This is such an asset and it’s up to the rest of us to be sure to get out the word of coming additions to the conference archive of tapes. Presentations and videos from the whole thing are being compiled and added daily, this is the page to watch, and I really appreciate the O’Reilly operation making so much of its material available. It’s writers’ turn to respond by stepping up and consuming as much of this as possible.

And, on the subject, DBW has mounted material from its conference as well as other good pieces at DBW Updates.

Tools of Change, Tim O'Reilly, O'Reilly Media, publishing, books, conference, ebook, TOC, #toccon, Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Joe Wikert, Kat Meyer, New York Public Library, New York City, DBW, Digital Book World, LeVar Burton, Baratunde Thurston
Qualcomm’s mirasol displays has created this heatmap of Twitter conversations about Tools of Change.

Yes, there are writing conferences. But they focus on craft courses. Writers also need outfits with the power and sophistication of O’Reilly and Digital Book World to help guide them into the industry, not relegate them to the hothouse of occasional accidental success. From rapid-fire keynote-reductions to tracked sessions on managing, making, and marketing, I believe that most authors are missing inclusion in their own industry’s central moments.

Granted, on a day-to-day basis, the burgeoning writing community is lucky to have key people working to stabilize best practices. There’s Jane Friedman, chief among them and my host here each week, the leading national analyst in the digital transition’s effects and demands on writers. There’s Dan Blank, who develops entrepreneurial pathways to digital platforming for authors at We Grow Media. There are several more who recently are putting together new models of demonstrable, workable patterns. They’re taking stances against the quickest routes of chance in order to produce ethical and sustainable ways forward — in writing, in author representation, in sales. One we’ll have more on soon promises symmetry between retail and online presence.

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In her three-part article, “Are We Ready for Change?” agent Rachelle Gardner looks at comparisons of the publishing industry to the decline of corporate giant Kodak.

During ToC, in fact, agent Rachelle Gardner — you may remember her forthright position on clearly labeling ideologically purposed books as such — has moved a well-observed three-part comparative piece on what publishing can learn from Kodak. It ran in parallel sequence to the three days of ToC’s sessions this week.

Based in Colorado, Gardner is another of our community working diligently to raise the creative community’s awareness and standards. Here series’ links:

When Berlin’s Fabienne Riener, who makes open-source software for news people, released her SourceFabric Booktype platform for digital books at ToC? — journalist-authors who might be starkly interested in it were not there to see.

When Kathy Meis took, Pappus, her social-media outreach program for books, into ToC’s Startup Showcase, authors weren’t there to see this program developed expressly for the execution of a writer’s promotion of his or her work.

This industry can succeed without virtually any traditional class of worker. Except the storyteller. How much longer can we afford to keep that one, imperative player down on the farm?

So I’d be glad for a day when ToC NYC and ToC Bologna and Mini ToC Austin and Mini ToC Chicago and Buenos Aires, could be joined by ToC Authors. Kat Meyer has every right to kill me for suggesting this. She has more to do than the rest of us can guess to try to create the events already in the system. But I’m offering to help. And I feel sure I could bring along some of our best-positioned figures to assist.

If you ever think it’s something you and the good offices of O’Reilly can consider, Kat and Joe, I’ll work with you on ToC Authors.

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(2) Amazon

Again, I’d like to be clear, careful, and as respectful as I can be in the light of how accomplished Wikert and Meyer and everyone behind ToC are. I have nothing but the highest regard for them all. For all I know, they, too, would like to have had some presence from Amazon at ToC this year. For all I know, they invited Amazon to be involved and got no uptake. For all I know, they may have made a careful and purposeful decision not to include an Amazon presence — in which case, I bow to their deeper understanding of their goals and needs, confident that they made the right decision for their shop.

What I do know, however, is that when DBW had Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti speak at the conference in January, it was a good move. It’s not a question of whether Grandinetti or another representative of the company stuns us with transparency (not bloody likely, Mr. Shaw), or lets down her or his hair with us at happy hour (I want pictures).

It’s the power of inclusion. We could sure use some.

Tools of Change, Tim O'Reilly, O'Reilly Media, publishing, books, conference, ebook, TOC, #toccon, Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether
The Broadway Ballroom gets a soundcheck before a plenary session at ToC 2012.

There are many ways to look at Amazon, and in publishing, not many of them are nice these days. But as Don Linn has reminded  us (not in relation to this conference, just as general policy), hating Amazon is not a strategy. And I’d prefer to know more about this entity, if it’s nothing more than how it shakes your hand. Cross-country sniping from New York at the Unmentionable Seattle Company has gotten us nowhere.

I learned a few things about Amazon when Grandinetti spoke. Of course he didn’t break down crying and spill all the numbers the Bezosians keep to themselves. But just watching how he described the Amazonian viewpoint without the pertinent numbers was an education.

So enough. My point’s clear. I think that in publishing we can ill afford a standoff with anybody. It’s bad enough between the militant wing of self-publishing and the Big Six. I hope that in the future, all our major conference organizers will at least consider whether there might be a place on an agenda for a little inclusion. Then ask. It’s the higher road to Seattle. And hell, when DBW asked, they said yes.

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(3) One fine, Agile presence

We all were pretty tired, I’m sure, by the time we reached late-morning Wednesday and the ToC session called Real World Agile Publishing. But what a hopeful, promising kick it turned out to be.

Brett Sandusky of Macmillan moderated, and he had both Wikert and Dominique Raccah, publisher of Sourcebooks, as his two panelists. And these are two folks genuinely interested in nurturing good work and in being enablers of it for their authors and their companies.

For her part, Raccah started with the disconnect so many writers feel when editors, cover designers, marketing people, all come into play with important roles of their own. As she put it:

When you’re an author, a frustration occurs the moment that author hands you the manuscript. I asked the question, “Could we create a better author experience?”

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A slide from Joe Wikert’s presentation at ToC about O’Reilly’s work in Agile Methodology.

Wikert likes to call the Agile methodology a matter of “paving the road under us while we’re changing a tire as we’re rolling down the road.” I get this all too well. At CNN, programming changes on the television networks and something as subtle as a new CMS version at CNN.com all must be executed on “while the plane is in the air,” as we used to say. Not easy.

But by iterating a project in smaller cycles of development — and then testing the effectiveness of those smaller cycles before moving on — “there’s going to be a whole lot of learning that occurs, and more opportunities,” Wikert said from experience.

An author needs a thick skin to handle the approach, Raccah cautioned. Both she and Wikert stressed that getting the right match of an author to the methodology is essential.

But as Sandusky added, once the iterative process of the Agile methodology is moving along, the author is creating a whole suite of material around the project, not simply writing “the book.”

Raccah mentioned that she’s uncertain how one finishes a project in this rolling format, an intriguing and valid concern. And she added that she has been surprised to find one of her writers of fiction hoping to apply Agile, a potentially happy development.

In offering such caveats, neither Raccah nor Wikert sugar-coated the realities of the concept, which made the session all the more valuable.

This was a conversation about an intriguing way of working that may have a lot of application to the current interest in shorter form work, the rise of “singles,” and in the search for meaningful, supportive collaboration in a publishing space that looks pretty rigid too frequently. It was a smart and thoughtful entry in a conference of many insights.

Watch for more of the session when it posts here . For now, Wikert has his slides on the page for you, and Raccah has posted her own slides and some commentary on the session for you in 2012 Tools of Change: Real World Agile Publishing. I commend this to you, particularly if you write — there’s hopeful, engaging potential here for many of us.

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