TOC: What Bubbles Underneath the Intersection of Publishing and Technology

I’m not sure if it’s ironic or fitting that Carolyn Kellogg, who is not attending the O’Reilly Tools of Change in Manhattan because she is based in Los Angeles, might have the best take so far:

The O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing conference is underway in New York City. Trying to follow the discussion via Twitter
proves, more than anything else, that everyone's favorite 140-character
social media destination has limits. It's easy enough to fit in
buzzwords, but the breadth and complexity of what, for example, Cory Doctorow said is lost between the tweets. So for many of us, the future of publishing remains a mystery.

That mystery remains in full force for those attending the conference, too, but it’s underscored in a number of different ways. With so many people tweeting what they hear, distilling what the keynote speakers and panelists had to say into pithy soundbites that sound suspiciously like buzzwords (even when the speakers themselves were nowhere near so pithy) – and I was certainly as guilty of this – what was lost was the art of listening to what was being said, really paying attention and making connections. So allow me, away from the Espresso Book Machines and the incessant email checking and the dint of chatter, to give it a college try.

What smacked me most in the face was the gender divide. I can’t call it sexism because I don’t think this is deliberate at all on TOC’s part, but let’s put it this way: the vast apparent majority of attendees are men, the vast majority of those at least with a public interest in ebooks and technology and DRM (or lack of DRM) and content delivery systems and Kindle 2 and the like are men, but the one and only panel talking about the ebook reading habits of readers was essentially by women for women (even if there were a number of guys in attendance – yay on you!) since, well, the vast majority of readers – at least of fiction and other narrative-heavy works, not to mention the great majority of those in trade book publishing, are women. It was also, far and away, the best panel I attended all day. Ebook sales are roughly 1% of the total market, and while they are certainly growing, in order to reach critical mass those who manufacture and publish them must take into account what women want and their on-demand reading needs. 

Which brings me to the notion of change in general. At a conference like this, of course there will be talk of the past (Jason Epstein evidently conducting a history lesson on Gutenberg to the bored crowds) and of the future (e-ink CEO Russ Wilcox made some pretty wild speculation about how fast the e-reader market will grow, causing some vocal surprise from moderator Mark Coker, not to mention much of the audience around me.) Combining those two produces a happy medium of prognostication and extemporaneous speech about what might be, even when I wondered to myself – spurred by Joe Wikert’s comments that current devices may look as silly five years from now as the iPhone ca. 2001 does – how these projections measured up to the projections produced during the first wave of ebook enthusiasm circa 1996.

But then there’s that pesky present to deal with, and the funny thing about now is that it smashes the happy bubble into tiny pieces. I’m referring to HarperCollins’ announcement that it is shutting down its Collins imprint, beneficiary of a very recent revamp under Steve Ross and now about to disappear (along with the jobs of Ross, Morrow president Lisa Gallagher, and countless more people whose names will be whispered in hushed tones off social media territory.) No matter how much the news was expected in light of all previous brutal publishing and economic news, the fact is, three months ago Collins’ rebirth was celebrated in style, portended the promise of something great…and now it is all gone, taking the name and its brand with it.

We can dream of the future all we want, one where the reading experience is a marvel of social interaction and multiple communities and fresh ideas, and dreaming is good. But change is also slower and much faster than we can possibly anticipate – and in the end, experts and enthusiasts alike only know as much as what’s right in front of them, nothing more.